World recognition for a very special desert

Posted by Laura Grant on July 3, 2007
Posted in Conservation

halfmens.jpg South Africa got its eighth World Heritage Site last week, the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape in the Northern Cape province. The 160,000-hectares of mountainous desert in the far northwest of the country is part of the succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot. It also sustains the semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle of the Nama people.

It is the only area where the Nama still construct portable houses, haru oms (pictured below), a practice that was once much more widespread in Southern Africa and is thought to have persisted for at least two thousand years.

The Unesco World Heritage Committee described the Nama’s communally grazed lands as an example of “a harmonious interaction between people and nature”. It said they were “a testimony to land management processes which have ensured the protection of the succulent Karoo vegetation”.

The portable houses of the Nama people
The succulent Karoo ecosystem has 4,849 succulent plants, 40% of which are found nowhere else. One notable is the halfmens tree Pachypodium namaquanum (pictured above).

A few years ago, the Richtersveld site was returned to the ownership of the Nama people under South Africa’s land restitution programme and the community decided to set it aside for conservation.

The minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, said of the new World Heritage Site: “One of its unique features, both in South African and international terms is that a community has not only chosen to dedicate such a vast area of land to conservation, but it is … managed and run by a community that until a few years ago had little to call its own.”

South Africa’s other World Heritage Sites are the Greater St Luci Wetlands Park (Isimangaliso Wetlands Park), uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, Robben Island, the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, the Vredefort Dome and the Cradle of Humankind fossil sites.

Sources: Richtersveld Community Conservancy
Department of environmental affairs and tourism
Succulent Karoo Ecosystem Programme

Photo credits: Halfmens tree from Richtersveld Community Conservancy; Nama portable houses from Wikipedia

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