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Ecology - Science Policy

Striking a Balance: Socioeconomic Development and Conservation in Grassland through Community-Based Zoning
Published: Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Author: Craig Leisher et al.

by Craig Leisher, Roy Brouwer, Timothy M. Boucher, Rogier Vogelij, W. R. Bainbridge, M. Sanjayan

The goal of preserving nature is often in conflict with economic development and the aspirations of the rural poor. Nowhere is this more striking than in native grasslands, which have been extensively converted until a mere fraction of their original extent remains. This is not surprising; grasslands flourish in places coveted by humans, primed for agriculture, plantations, and settlements that nearly always trump conservation efforts. The Umgano grassland conservation and poverty reduction project in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa uses community-based spatial planning to balance the conversion of its lower-conservation value grasslands to a timber plantation, while conserving higher-value grasslands for heritage purposes and managed livestock grazing. Ten years after project launch, we measured the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the project using Normalized Differential Vegetation Index remote sensing data and over 500 household interviews, as compared with similar non-conserved areas. Zoned management of the Umgano area had resulted in between 9% and 17% greater average peak production in the grassland areas compared to control sites. There was also a 21% gain in incomes for the roughly one hundred people employed by the forestry efforts, when compared to others in their village. Community-based spatial zoning is an overlooked tool for balancing conservation and development but may require, as we found in Umgano, certain critical factors including strong local leadership, an accountable financial management mechanism to distribute income, outside technical expertise for the zoning design, and community support.