Biodiversity & Conservation
In 1992, one of the most important environmental summits ever held took place in Rio de Janeiro, where urgent and significant environmental issues were discussed. An important outcome of the conference was the adoption of an international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity. The convention recognised the importance of preserving biodiversity on earth with three main goals:
a. Conservation of biological diversity (biodiversity);
b. Sustainable use of its components; and
c. Fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources.
To this end a task group was set up to identify those areas on earth considered ‘biodiversity hotspots.’ A hotspot is an area rich in endemic species (meaning species that only occur within this specific region and nowhere else on earth!). It is also an area where at least 70% of the area has been changed by human activity. Amazingly, three biomes: Fynbos, succulent Karoo and sub-tropical thicket occur in South Africa; each one of which houses more than 1500 endemic species. Even more importantly, there is an area in South Africa where these three ‘biodiversity hotspots’ converge and overlap. This area is the Gouritz River catchment area in the Western Cape; this is the only such area in the world. Towerland is situated in this area of unprecedented biological diversity and importance, in the Outeniqua Mountains.
Recognising the importance of this geographical area in South Africa, The Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve has been set up (by CapeNature) as a conservation initiative: a partnership between the state and private landowners, to ensure that indigenous flora and fauna are protected; and that the animals are able to move freely in their natural habitats from coastal to mountain environments. In order to achieve this, conservation officials are attempting to enter into an agreed alliance with current land owners to ensure that their present and future land use practices will be compatible with the long-term objectives of environmental conservation. As large parts of this area are currently used for commercial agriculture, those areas that are still natural vegetation are extremely important – and vulnerable.
Towerland is dominated by mountainous terrain, making it unsuitable for many commercial agricultural products. The result is that large parts of the land have never been used for agriculture and are still covered in the area’s natural (fynbos) vegetation. Many alien invasive species were present on the property when it was acquired by Sue and Allan, including large stands of Silky Hakea in the mountains, and black wattle, rooikrans and lantana around the living areas. The majority of these aliens have been removed through the persistent efforts of family and friends. The result is that Towerland is now covered in pristine mountain fynbos, dotted with pockets of indigenous forest. The land is rich in the trademark families that make up the fynbos biome, namely Proteas, Ericas, Restios and Geophytes (bulbous plants), and within this, there is enormous diversity. The land is also home to a large range of wildlife including various antelope, porcupines, baboons, many varieties of birds, reptiles, otters, bush pigs, aardvark, many different kinds of wild cats, tortoises, foxes, hares, and so on.
Towerland and The Proteus Initiative strive to maintain the land as a true wilderness area, allowing the area’s indigenous plants and animals to thrive in their natural setting. This requires careful management of the area, with a fine balance in terms of intervention and allowing the wilderness to grow itself. Developments on the land have therefore been carefully planned so as to minimise the impact on the environment, both visually and ecologically. We have laid and cut paths into the mountains to provide easier access; however, we have not wanted to lay too many paths: part of being in the wilderness is to have the experience of walking on land that has not been walked on previously, of crossing boundaries, of discovering new places, new plants, that no one else has seen or been to. Over time we plan to establish a very simple network of paths which will provide walkers with access to the tops of the ridges, along the river and possibly onto neighbouring farms. We are also in the process of establishing fences to keep domestic animals off the land, and simultaneously taking down old boundary fences to allow the land to be restored to its original wholeness and to provide free movement for the indigenous wildlife.
In terms of conservation at Towerland, water is an important and precious resource. We have three earth dams, as well as a perennial river and several perennial streams. CapeNature officials have paid two visits to the river, to test the quality of the water and have indicated that the quality is “pristine”, alive with a diversity of organisms which reflect its living, unpolluted quality. Chemical tests have shown that the composition of minerals and other elements in the water are balanced. It is clear that there are very few examples of such pure, enlivened and uncontaminated water – at least in the Western Cape but most likely beyond this. The water we use at Towerland is drawn from these pristine sources by a gravity-fed water system.
Our choice not to install electric power along the national grid has been a decision informed by the greater picture of a true wilderness area – where living within the natural cycles of nature, of not introducing artificial lighting, of allowing the darkness of night and the night sky to be experienced, has been an important aspect of our approach to conservation. We want to intervene where necessary to make the place habitable and comfortable, but we do not want to intervene to domesticate it or remove its natural wildness.
Without consciously following the Convention on Biological Diversity, Towerland is playing a role in conserving the biological diversity of this special region and The Proteus Initiative, through its work, is promoting the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of a true wilderness area by developing it as a resource, a centre to be used by others. Yet at the same time, our primary concern is not around environmental conservation in the conventional sense of the word. We choose to focus on maintaining the wholeness of the land, as a way of supporting living process – rather than fragmenting or interrupting it through unnecessary interventions. This respect for wholeness as opposed to fragmentation; for living process as opposed to high level ‘management’ of the land reflects our recognition for the need for a home where through the living forces of nature, we might find corresponding processes in the social world.
We have recently entered into an agreement with Cape Nature to register Towerland Wilderness as a nature reserve and wilderness. This means that the land will be protected as a wilderness area into perpetuity, and built into the title deeds. We have always wanted to protect this land beyond our own time allotted on and with it; for Cape Nature this is an important piece of land in terms of its biodiversity, its location, the indigenous life that is supported on the land, and the fact that it is a catchment area for the Jakkals River, an important tributary to the Gouritz River. This agreement is the culmination of many years of dedication to creating a protected wilderness space.