Image of a lake sitting in the middle of tall grass.

More Water, More Jobs in Southern Africa .

In Southern Africa’s Limpopo River Basin, a community organization is finding a way to reconcile economic development with the need to conserve resources for the future.

In the South African town of Groot Marico, where nearly half of the 5,000 residents are unemployed, a community group is bringing jobs to the area through ecotourism.

The Marico River Conservation Association (MRCA) employs 350 people in a variety of jobs focused on conserving the local environment. Employees have constructed walking trails and cleared invasive vegetation, much of which is meant to prepare for ecotourism. One of the employees, Abel Mogapi, is also studying local trees, bird species, and game so that he can serve as a tourism guide.

Finding an environmentally sustainable way to stimulate the town’s economy is crucial. Groot Marico is part of the Limpopo River Basin, a transnational watershed in Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Water scarcity is increasingly becoming a threat in the basin, and the region is struggling to reconcile current economic growth with the need to conserve clean water sources and other resources for the future.

As a result of this tension, many rural communities in Southern Africa are feeling pressure to relax regulations around water pollution to expand economic opportunities and jobs in sectors like mining. Although these jobs might bring short-term relief, they also deplete natural resources and damage long-term water security. Groot Marico is no stranger to this dilemma. But the community understands the importance of maintaining the Marico River as a source of clean water — not only for Groot Marico, but also for the long-term security of other towns in neighboring countries that flank the river.

Groups like MRCA see ecotourism as a solution that would protect the river by providing environmentally sustainable employment opportunities. However, to make it a viable alternative to mining, local communities have to be assured that the ecotourism industry is financially lucrative.

There is already a small but growing tourism industry in the area, and with increased protection for conservation through efforts like those of MRCA, land owners will be more likely to invest in ecotourism facilities and activities — which will in turn create more job opportunities.

"People here have very few opportunities to earn a living. If we do not find ways for them to benefit financially from conservation, we will have no success protecting the river."

Daan van der Merwe, Managing Director of MRCA

In the words of MRCA’s managing director, Daan van der Merwe, “People here have very few opportunities to earn a living. If we do not find ways for them to benefit financially from conservation, we will have no success protecting the river.”

But operating and managing a truly sustainable ecotourism industry is no easy task. To prepare Groot Marico, MRCA is leading efforts to create a United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and Biosphere Reserve and construct a framework to govern the area’s use of natural resources. The proposed biosphere would cover 232 square miles of land, and MRCA is spearheading its creation with support from the USAID-funded, Chemonics-implemented Resilience in the Limpopo River Basin (RESILIM) program. This is being done with the full support of national and provincial environment departments.

MRCA took the first step toward creating the UNESCO biosphere in 2015 by applying to the South African government to protect 18,000 hectares of land under a biodiversity stewardship program, which leaves the land in private hands but zones it as environmentally protected. Once official, a UNESCO biosphere designation would provide an internationally recognized framework for resource management that accounts for different stakeholders’ goals. Each biosphere has three zones that accomplish separate functions: the core zone is a strictly protected ecosystem, while a surrounding buffer zone is used for limited activities like education and research. Finally, the outer transition area provides a space for communities to live and work.


hectares of environmentally protected land under a biodiversity stewardship program


MRCA employees leading ecotourism

This framework would prepare Groot Marico to manage an influx of tourists sustainably. Biospheres are designed so that local communities, conservation agencies, scientists, businesses, and other stakeholders can work together to determine how natural resources are used, providing oversight for ecotourism ventures. Additionally, ecotourism is one of the few permitted activities within the protected buffer zone, where operations would adhere to collectively identified standards for environmental sustainability.

In the meantime, MRCA’s 350 employees are preparing to provide tourists will the full eco-experience. In the words of Abel Mogapi, who has been studying local biodiversity, “When the tourists come, I will be ready to guide them and show them everything.”