Tug of war over Letšeng-la-Letsie

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By Tsitsi Matope

QUTHING — The green mountains momentarily block the sun as it descends to retire for the night just beyond the Letšeng-la-Letsie wetland in Quthing district.

The almost hypnotic descent is reflected in the sparkling streams flowing into this mythical lake situated in Mphaki, creating a scenery whose beauty is troubling as it is breath-taking.

The giant mountain range surrounding the wetland does not only dare the sun — it is also notorious for its impassability.

Since time immemorial, herders have grazed their livestock at the foot of the mountains, with the wetland providing both healthy vegetation and abundant water for the animals.

But after realising Letšeng-la-Letsie is unlike any wetland anywhere in Africa, government decided to protect it by outlawing the grazing of livestock in its vicinity much to the chagrin of locals who have since been resisting the ban.

However, the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture has been engaging surrounding communities in an effort to make them understand why they should not graze their livestock around the wetland, which government has since declared a conservation area.

Government fears continued grazing in this unique habitat would not only destroy the aquatic wildlife in the wetland, but also the expanse of water itself.

Already, there are signs that all is not well in the ecosystems as seen by the poor quality of the water in the lake which, according to the Director of National Parks, Bokang Theko, could also mean the disappearance of some water and plant species.

“It has been difficult to convince all the villagers to cooperate with us in the protection of the wetland. We keep holding meetings with them and hoping they will cooperate and take ownership but we are not getting the result we would have liked to see,” Theko said.

Letšeng-la-Letsie is of global importance due to its role in regulating water regimes and habitat supporting special wildlife, especially water-birds which provide a reliable indicator of the health of wetlands.

Because wetland-birds migrate across borders, and even between continents, the conservation and protection of their habitat is of international consequence, hence government’s determination to ensure the survival of Letšeng-la-Letsie.

“It would be tragic if we lose the lake,” Theko says, almost as if he is thinking aloud.

Letšeng-la-Letsie, meaning the Lake of Letsie, is the source of Quthing River — one of the streams which feed into the great Senqu River, which courses through three countries — Lesotho, South Africa and Namibia. The lake is also Lesotho’s only Ramsar site since 2004 and sits on a 434-hectare catchment area.
The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

The treaty seeks to stem the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands, as well as recognise their fundamental ecological functions and economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value.
The Ramsar Convention is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where it was signed in 1971.

When the Lesotho Times visited the lake during a recent media-familiarisation tour organised by the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC), cattle and horses could be seen grazing near the lake while others drank from the dirty lake.

Herders interviewed said their animals are sometimes impounded by the Mphaki Community Council and only released after the payment of a fine.
“We don’t understand how the government expects us to sustain ourselves if we don’t graze our animals here. We also don’t see how the penalty fees we are being made to pay are being utilised,”
“It seems nobody cares about this lake; just look at how bad the gravel road to this wetland is. If it’s that important, why is government not investing in the development of this area?” Thabang Tšolo, who owns five cattle and 50 sheep, asked.

He explained that villagers continued to wait for the development of the catchment area and jobs promised over a decade ago.
“Since we are not seeing anything, not even people guarding the area, we feel our animals should be allowed to graze on the wetland.

“This place is good for grazing compared to others like Likhaebaneng, which is already crowded,”
We have no jobs and our livestock is our only source of livelihood,” Tšolo said.

Another farmer, Makokoja Mokhojane, said if government was serious about protecting the wetland, the area should have been fenced off and an information centre constructed to ensure the collection of fees from visitors, for its further development.
“But nothing is happening here. What we have learnt over the years is that nothing materialises as far as some of these government promises are concerned. It’s just one meeting after the other and no action,”
“What we don’t understand is why government should expect us to fulfil our side of the bargain by not grazing our livestock here, while they ignore theirs, which is developing this area for the benefit of locals.”

However, it emerged during the tour that government made efforts to fence the wetland but the project was destroyed before it could be completed.

National Parks Director, Theko, said fencing was not an effective solution to resolving the encroachment problem.
“What we need is for the local communities to take ownership of the lake and understand that this is a resource that benefits Lesotho as a whole and other countries too. Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which will see the construction of Polihali Dam, among other developments, also depends on the viability of Senqu River and others,”
“Local communities are also directly benefitting from the water and with some earmarked developments they would benefit even more in future,” Theko said.

She further noted that government was serious about strengthening conservation, hence the initiation of the Conservation Bill.
“This is an important process because at the moment, we do not have legislation that helps us effectively tackle the conservation challenges we are facing. We would like to be able to fully enforce the law where dialogue would have failed,” Theko said.

However, other environmentalists believe while conservation must be recognised as the foundation for the well-being of ecosystems, this can only become a reality if local communities are made to understand and appreciate the benefits drawn from sustainable interaction with their natural and social environment.

What underpins how they treat or value the environment, including their natural resources, the conservationists said, is understanding how their lives are dependent on the same habitat.

In the case of Quthing, it is not just grazing on Letšeng-la-Letsie which is disturbing but also other practices such as farming on the banks of the Senqu River.

“This dangerously disregards how such a practice can negatively and directly impact on livelihoods in the near future,” Theko said.

The media familiarisation tour that took journalists to tourist-attractions such as the Dinosaur Footprints and Masitise Cave House Museum in Quthing and Sehlabathebe National Park, which is also a World Heritage site, showed how most local communities are reluctant to participate in the protection of tourist-sites, mainly because they are not aware of any benefits.

Unlike in some countries where important tourist-sites equivalent to Sehlabathebe ensure the development of good roads, travelling to the park from Qacha’s Nek town is an agony on the poor thoroughfare.
Many tourists visiting the area sleep over in town before proceeding to the park the following day.

It is the absence of developments such as lodges in the mountains and also the unkempt nature of places like the Quthing Dinosaur Footprints that looks abandoned, that can make local communities see no value in becoming involved in efforts to conserve such sites.

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