CONSERVATION NGOS BRING IMMENSE VALUE TO SOCIETY, ECONOMY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Dr Andrew Taylor, Senior Trade Officer, EWT Wildlife in Trade Programme
AndrewT@ewt.org.za

What value does the conservation NGO sector really bring to our country? Even under normal circumstances, these are fair questions for donors wanting to know how their money contributes to the greater good.

In a lockdown, COVID-19 impacted world, where financial resources are becoming increasingly scarce, the desire for maximum impact of donor funding has become more important than ever. This does not only apply to the biodiversity conservation sector, but also to social welfare and humanitarian causes, where all NGOs should demonstrate the benefits they bring to society.

While most bona fide organisations provide a way to assess their impact through their annual reports, this does not allow for a consolidated assessment across all players within a sector and does not also facilitate a cumulative assessment of different organisations’ impact due to the nature of reports using different methodologies.

However, a recent report funded by the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust (managed by Nedbank Private Wealth) assessed the contributions of 13 prominent conservation NGOs (see text box for full list), which has now made this possible.

African Conservation Trust, Conservation South Africa, Delta Environmental Centre, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Institute of Natural Resources, Leadership for Conservation in Africa, National Association of Conservancies of South Africa, Peace Parks Foundation, South African Association for Marine Biological Research, Southern African Wildlife College, Wilderness Foundation, Wildlife ACT, and WILDTRUST

Although the primary role of the biodiversity NGO sector is to conserve indigenous species and their habitats, the report demonstrates that in the process of doing this, NGOs substantially support the economy through job creation, skills development, public education, and facilitation of small business development. In addition to this, NGOs act as watchdogs for environmentally damaging practices, support the development and enforcement of effective policy and regulations, undertake critical research, develop knowledge and data for improved decision-making, and encourage responsible consumption and business practices. And all this from a small subset of South African biodiversity organisations.

During the 2017/2018 financial year, the 13 participating NGOs, which are of varying size, spent approximately R500 million in South Africa. Of this, more than 79% was spent on direct programme costs (i.e. project expenses) and a considerable portion of all funding was spent on employing people, supporting 962 permanent jobs and 1,650 short-term contract positions. Many of the short-term jobs were created through habitat restoration type work that has direct benefits to the environment and which were supported by government through Public Works programmes.

NGOs also make big contributions to the development of an equitable and suitably skilled workforce to improve conservation and management of biodiversity through training. Between the participating NGOs, more than 3,000 people were trained in one year through SAQA accredited courses and approximately 5,200 through non-SAQA accredited courses, at different levels and in many different fields including conservation farming, rangeland restoration, community development, nature conservation, and game ranging.

Regarding expenditure on different types of conservation work, 35% went towards species conservation, 34% towards habitat conservation, and 31% towards people and conservation.

A key strategy in the conservation, management, and sustainable use of South Africa’s biodiversity is to set aside space for nature to exist under conditions with limited human influence. In addition to protecting wild plant and animal species, which can bring direct economic benefits through tourism, such actions also safeguard ecological infrastructure, which maintains ecosystems services. The latter provide substantial indirect economic benefits through the ‘free’ provision of resources critical to human needs such as clean water and food. If these processes are ignored now, there will be significant economic consequences in the future for the country.

While the expansion and maintenance of natural areas has traditionally been the responsibility of the government, it is increasingly being done by collaborations between state implementing agencies, the private sector and third parties, including NGOs. Biodiversity stewardship is one such mechanism for provincial conservation authorities to secure land of high biodiversity value through voluntary agreements with private, communal, or municipal landowners, and NGOs often make critical contributions to this process. Over the last decade, five of the 13 NGOs assisted in the declaration of 385,600 ha across South Africa, while a further 642,000 ha are under negotiation. It is important to note that this only includes the work of the 13 participating NGOs, and there are many others that have played important roles in the biodiversity stewardship process.

Preserving ecosystem services can also be achieved by investing in ecological infrastructure outside protected areas through maintaining agricultural land that is already in good condition and by restoring degraded land. Eight NGOs invested resources into the improvement of naturally functioning ecosystems and rehabilitated an overall area of approximately 12,000 ha in one year by clearing invasive alien plants, rehabilitating wetlands, and improving rangeland management practices.

Habitat protection is also not confined to terrestrial environments, and participating NGOs played pivotal roles in assisting the government declare 20 inshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in 2019, which increased the area under conservation in South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone by 4.5 million ha. These MPAs will contribute substantially towards the county’s economy through tourism, improved fisheries stocks and job creation.

The impact of participating NGOs on people and livelihoods was also found to be wide ranging and significant. In terms of the biodiversity economy, the work of the 13 NGOs has, amongst other things, and over the course of one year, supported 13 SMMEs and 15 cooperative businesses in ecotourism or associated services (such as gardens feeding into ecotourism lodges), been responsible for the development of 130 homestead and school gardens, supported seven farmers’ organisations and 600 farmers using sustainable livestock production, provided financial and operational support for the establishment of community game reserves, and has led research that contributes towards the oceans economy by providing critical data on sustainability of fisheries stocks. These outcomes have supported or created incomes and improved food security.

NGOs also engage widely with the public to raise awareness and understanding around environmental issues and to promote conservation friendly lifestyles. Hundreds of schools and well over 100,000 children were engaged through art projects, recycling projects, and general environmental education, while traditional authorities have also been supported through processes promoting conservation on community land, benefit sharing and the green economy.

Foundational knowledge acquisition on species ecology along with population monitoring was conducted on multiple threatened species that are important not only for maintaining functional ecosystems, but also for supporting tourism. Species included African Elephants, rhinos, Wild Dogs, Leopards, Cheetahs, Lions and Humpback Whales.

This assessment provides donors and the public with a simple and accessible way to recognise the contribution made by NGOs. It provides insights into the progress made by civil society towards protecting South Africa’s national heritage, the contributions made towards socio-economic development and the critical role that funders play in conserving wildlife and the environment in South Africa today. Now, more than ever, in this rapidly-changing and uncertain world, humanity will depend even more on these critical services

These organisations represent a subset of NGOs in South Africa working to conserve biodiversity. We hope to repeat this process using a refined format and wider diversity of local NGOs.