Bergwatch: Its activities and accomplishments

11 October 2005

By 1991 it was evident that an organisation committed to mountain wilderness needed to be formed to provide a handbrake to the sometimes injudicious development of the Drakensberg foothills.

A group of concerned individuals and organisations became moti vated to create a watchdog NGO that was christened Bergwatch. The passion and expertise within the group gave it the credibility to persuade the Provincial Development and Planning authorities to grant it the opportunity to comment on prospective developments in the Drakensberg.

Sustainable funding was secured when the Wildlife & Environment Society of South Africa's (WESSA) agreed to accept Bergwatch as a project, enabling us to employ a full time co-ordinator. Interim funding was also channelled through WESSA by WWF-SA (Maas Maassen Fund).

Bergwatch recognised that traditional authority areas adjacent to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park were in dire need of conservation, and that this could only be achieved with the support and involvement of the local communities. One of the traditional authorities invited Bergwatch to work with some of its most remote mountain communities in the spectacular Mnweni area of the northern Drakensberg.

Bergwatch members worked closely with a number of these communities for over two years to identify ways in which conservation activities could be implemented while improving the lives of community members. The Rand Water Mnweni Trust resulted from a WESSA approach, with a vision to develop a "blueprint" for community-based conservation projects. At this time Bergwatch also started working with mountain communities on the conservation and judicious use of nature-based, cultural and rock art resources. Interest earned from a two-million-rand capital injection into the Trust was initially invested in two projects:

Donga Reclamation: Community members were employed to rehabilitate the ever-widening dongas - training was provided by Dr T. Everson from the University of KZN. The project creates jobs for more than 100 people each year, and in so doing has contributed to improving the lives of close on 800 people in the Mnweni Valley area (one breadwinner employed supports six to eight family members).

The project received funding from the Poverty Relief Fund, Rand Water and the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project, and earlier this year it won a KZN Wildlife conservation award. Congratulations to the Mnweni communities on this achievement, and, in particular, to Nicholas Hlongwane, Agnes Zondo and Khulu Miangeni, who have supervised the project since inception.

Guide Training Programme: Thirteen mountain ward members were trained as mountain and cultural guides at the Mnweni Cultural and Hiking Centre. The Centre is managed by the Mnweni Triangle Development Committee, whose vision provides a constant source of inspiration to the wider Mnweni communities. Zacharia Diamini, Zefried Mchunu, Khumbulani Ndaba and Agrippa Zondo are all commended for their enthusiasm and hard work.

Today the Centre has become a sought-after destination for both South African and international visitors seeking a unique cultural and mountain wilderness experience. The Mnweni guides are building a name for themselves and offer a range of services from multi-day outings and hikes to rock art trips and cultural visits. In addition to those already named, they include Ephraim Diamini, a sangoma with an unparalleled knowledge of local flora, Miayo Miya, whose ability to guide in even the thickest mist is legendary, Caphais Mthabela, who smiles under even the heaviest pack, and Mkhonjiswa Mtolo, who loves to sing.

Expanding on this initiative, Bergwatch, the Farmers Support Group and Grassland Sciences at UKZN have now teamed up to extend conservation and tourism initiatives into the Okhombe, Busingatha and Obonjoneni Valleys bordering the Royal Natal area, and to continue with the same capacity building of local people as in the Mnweni Triangle area. The communities have their own name for this project - namely Amagugu Esizwe: "Wealth of the Nation".

This particular initiative is currently being sponsored by the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project.

While Bergwatch now plays an integral part in facilitating these community projects, it continues to provide constructive comment on proposed commercial and other developments within the Drakensberg. More importantly, it still pursues the preservation of mountain wilderness with the same passion and enthusiasm with which it was bom 15 years ago.

Thanks to Keith Cooper, who has chaired Bergwatch since its inception, to our co-ordinator Merridy Pfotenhauer, and to our members, who have remained committed to South Africa`s beautiful Drakensberg against all odds and through thick and thin!

E-mail: bergwatch@futiirenet.co.za

Tel. (033) 394-4064.

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