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The population of one-and-a-half million people living in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere area is predominantly black (97%), unskilled, and rurally based. Huge social and economic differences and inequalities exist.

The majority of the population lives under poor-rural conditions: a low percentage of functional literacy (around 50%), high levels of male absenteeism, low direct incomes and a high percentage of youths.

Ninety percent live outside urban areas compared with a national average of 35%. Twenty percent of the population is under the age of four, and half are under fifteen years old.

Population growth is significantly above that of South Africa as a whole with annual increases of 3.5% in total size (nationally the rate is 2.4% p.a.).

A high proportion of the population is not economically active, with households relying on subsistence farming, old age pensions and remittances from relatives working outside the area to survive.

Limpopo Province has the lowest per capita income of the provinces in South Africa and also the highest unemployment rate: almost 51% of the rural population is jobless.

Additionally, there is a steady leaching of people who do develop skills and qualifications to urban areas.

Finally, the province also shows a great deficiency in the distribution of necessities such as water and electricity.

Changing populations

Like the rest of the sub-continent, the Central Lowveld and Escarpment has been shaped to a great extent by the 19th Century. The rise of military chiefdoms and the establishment of the Zulu Kingdom in particular, led to waves of migration throughout the region.

This combined with the advance of European colonists and their systematic dispossession of locals of their land and undermining of chiefly authority, led to irrevocable changes in the cultural landscape.

Present land use utilisation in the Central Lowveld and Escarpment region is dominated by the historical allocation of titled land to settler communities; the allocation of state land to trustimonial communities; and the removal and relocation of communities to expand and consolidate protected areas and “white” agricultural zones in the apartheid era.

Although diverse land claims have been registered in the region,they will not necessarily, even if successful, impact on the established protected nature areas. Precedents are emerging of the negotiation of partnerships between dispossessed communities and current land users, particularly in the ecotourism arena, where empowerment is directly involving the communities in the commercial and economic benefits accruing from existing operations in reserves.

In some cases the ownership of protected areas is being returned in full to the descendants of its original inhabitants, albeit with restrictions on the use of protected areas.

However, until these restitution processes are complete and uncertainties removed, the ability of these communities to engage in a meaningful and sequential manner in the tourism benefits derived from these Protected Areas will continue to be limited.

Resources to begin to address social and economic needs already exist in the sub-region. Small business can rapidly catalyse further economic development in the area, particularly in the realms of nature- and culture-based tourism.

Community participation in decision-making processes are leading to increased social responsibility. Greater availability of, and access to, information will enhance the opportunities available to local communities to participate in the profits of the land.

The UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme is one mechanism designed to aid this process.