Imagine being so poor that every morsel of food that crosses your lips has been grown in laboriously hand-tilled fields laid out in the fertile soil close to a small watercourse, and that this land is slowly drying up and there is no more land left to plant crops in.
These are the circumstances that a quarter of the people, mostly women and children, find themselves in in the Craigieburn wetland in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, close to Bushbuckridge. The families occupying the Craigieburn wetland are perfect examples of the theme of this year's World Wetlands Day, "In the face of poverty, wetlands are lifelines."
Almost two-thirds of the families living in the area reported that in the last ten years, hunger has driven them to grow crops in their wetland fields, and 70 percent of the families use the wetlands to help sustain their livelihoods either through growing food in the wetland or harvesting reeds.
The Craigieburn wetland is not only important to the local people living in its immediate vicinity, but also plays a vital ecological role in feeding clean water into the Sand River, the main tributary of the Sabie River, the last remaining river in the Kruger National Park that flows throughout the year.
The wetland is characteristic of a string of wetlands in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, and is currently being rehabilitated by Working for Wetlands, due to its ecological importance.
A study of the Craigieburn wetland was presented at an international conference hosted by Wetlands International and supported by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, held in St Lucia at the beginning of February.
It highlighted the challenges of rehabilitating wetlands while incorporating the social needs of the people who rely on them. The study was carried out by a team of scientists in the Association for Water and Rural Development (Award) based at Wits Rural Facility, led by Dr Sharon Pollard.
The Craigieburn wetland study area is populated largely with families forced into the area in the 1960s and 70s by the apartheid government. However, more than half of the wetland fields were opened up since the democratic government came to power in 1994.
The fields are mostly used by whoever initially clears the bush, with some fields being given from one person to another. The wetland was identified as an area of concern a few years ago, as the farmers in the area were convinced that the wetlands were drying out.
This has been confirmed through research, and close attention was paid to how the poor farmers, mostly women, were either helping the wetland survive or speeding up the drying out process.
Study of historical data shows that the wetlands are naturally eroding, but that the human intervention is assisting this process. The very fact that the people are too poor to use machines to help them grow their food, cannot afford herbicides and pesticides and prevent cattle from eating their precious crops by building fences all helps prevent the wetland from being eroded and polluted.
However, the farmers also commonly build raised beds that follow the slope of the land, channelling water flows through the wetland. This increases soil erosion and decreases the amount of water and sediment the wetland traps.
The farmers also engage in several other farming practices, both in the wetland and in the wetland's catchment area, which may harm the wetland but could be modified to help make the wetlands produce better crops in the long term and at the same time help improve the health of the wetland.
Although Working for Wetlands has been rehabilitating areas of the Craigieburn wetland, the rehabilitation process cannot simply be a matter of building structures to stop erosion – it must incorporate the people who cannot survive without the wetland.
The people that live in the wetland have proved to be both willing and enthusiastic about learning more about how wetlands function and how best to conserve them, but there appears to be no effective governing structure that could exert some control over the future of the wetlands.
Traditional authorities are increasingly being ignored in the rural areas, local government has not yet caught up with all the new duties assigned to it, and many of the progressive laws that have been passed in recent years have no practical implementation procedures to back up the legal paperwork.
The authors of the paper conclude that until there is some form of effective community-based governance of communal property like the Craigieburn wetlands, the wetlands will not be effectively used and managed.