South Africa's landscapes and seascapes have changed dramatically over the past few centuries, largely through human settlement and associated activities. Often these activities have resulted in the degradation or loss of ecosystems, and in some instances in the extinction of species. Previous policies also encouraged unsustainable land-use practices by providing subsidies to farmers occupying marginal lands.
The transformation of South Africa's terrestrial areas is perhaps the most visibly dramatic evidence of the loss of biological diversity in the country. At least 25 percent of the land has been transformed for the purposes of cultivation or afforestation, for urban or industrial development, or for the construction of roads, railways and dams. South African Natural Heritage Programme (SANHP) registered sites represent all biomes and most vegetation types, and registration with SANHP often constitutes the only form of protection received by a specific vegetation type.
SANHP, introduced in 1984, combines an institutional incentive measure (maintenance of full property rights), social incentive measures (public awareness and technical assistance) and economic incentive measures (financial assistance, certification and promotion of alternative use).
The programme aims to encourage the protection of important natural sites, large or small, both in private and public ownership. Only the most significant natural areas of the country qualify for registration with the programme and one or more pre-set criteria must be met: plant communities of special conservation significance; good examples of aquatic habitats; sensitive catchment areas; habitats of threatened or endangered species; as well as outstanding natural landscape features.
Many of the activities and land-use options recommended to site owners as income generating activities require development funds. A further incentive is provided in the form of a grant-in-aid that is made available to site owners on an annual basis.
SANHP was launched in 1984 as a cooperative venture between the government sector, private sector, including landowners, and sponsorship by industry and environmental non-governmental organizations.
The success of the programme is based on three factors: benefit to landowners; political support at all levels; and broad participation by all stakeholders. First, landowners are accorded full ownership of, and responsibility for, the biological diversity occurring on their land and are
encouraged to benefit from the sustainable use of that biological diversity. Second, the programme has political support at all levels of government, with the President of South Africa as patron. Third, the programme requires active participation and is actively promoted by all stakeholders in the private, public and business sectors.