The Garden Route area, from George and extending to the Port Elizabeth municipal boundary, was granted formal recognition as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO last week on Wednesday 14th June in Paris. 

This decision is the result of many years of work by a group of dedicated people on the Garden Route, with the support of SANParks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Economic Development, Environmental Affairs & Tourism and Provincial and National Departments of Environmental Affairs.

The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr Edna Molewa, has welcomed the approval of the Garden Route as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.  Her Department stated in its acceptance speech, “It is indeed a great feeling for South Africa today, as we continue on a journey of strengthening our conservation efforts.”  Referring to the recent and tragic fires that have engulfed the Garden Route, the speaker continued, “What has been illuminated from these ashes, is the remarkable sense of community and compassion for fellow being in the Garden Route as a whole.”

Unesco members voted in favour of the inclusion of the Garden Route as a Biosphere reserve at a meeting in Paris, France, on 14 June 2017.

“The positive response to the application to declare the Garden Route a biosphere reserve is most encouraging, not just for us, as a country, but also for the people of the region,”  said Minister Molewa.

“The Garden Route, one of South Africa’s prime tourism regions, is an area rich in terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems where conservation of the rich biodiverse region is ably reconciled with sustainable use practices,”  the Minister added.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) states that biosphere reserves are nominated by national governments and remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located. Their status is internationally recognised.  The Garden Route Biosphere Reserve (GRBR) is the ninth such reserve to be declared in South Africa.

The Garden Route Biosphere Reserve is located within the Cape Floristic biodiversity hotspot region along the southern coast of part of the country. With a total area of 698,363ha (212,375 ha core, 288,032 ha buffer, 197,956 ha transition) and a population of 450,624 people. The area includes the Tsitsikamma, Goukamma and Robberg Marine protected areas, Wilderness Lake Ramsar site, Garden Route National Park and two components of the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas World Heritage site: the Nelson Bay Cave and the Langkloof Valley.

The municipalities included in the Biosphere Reserve are Eden and Sarah Baartman District municipalities as well as George, Knysna, Bitou, Kouga, and Koukamma local municipalities. All of these municipalities have been consulted in the establishment process.

Linked to the conservation related activities, the development objectives of the GRBR are to promote growth in employment, training and entrepreneurial endeavours, contribute to poverty alleviation and the development of sustainable livelihood options for disadvantaged communities, and to encourage sustainable biodiversity-based businesses and their contribution to the green economy on the Garden Route.

Several development opportunities have arisen from the desire to conserve the natural environment within the GRBR.  Innovative solutions that support the environment are encouraged by UNESCO MAB and various eco-tourism, green economy, educational and exciting  research programmes are planned.

The clearing of alien vegetation has substantial socio-economic benefits for the region in the form of several government-sponsored and endorsed initiatives such as Working for Water, Working for Wetlands, and Working on Fire.  These initiatives provide employment and facilitate skills development and the exchange of ideas between the different stakeholder groups and a key objective linked to community development is to develop small business opportunities linked to the use of by-product from alien plant management initiatives. For example, the vegetation cleared can be made available for making furniture, crafting, making charcoal, sold as fire wood.

The official launch of the Garden Route Biosphere Reserve will take place later in the year.