Dwesa-Cwebe is a coastal nature reserve and marine protected area in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, about half way between East London and Port St. Johns.  The Reserve is divided by the Mbashe River.  Cwebe lies to the east of the Mbashe, with its north-eastern boundary marked by the Ntlonyane River.  Dwesa extends south-west from the Mbashe to the Nqabara River.  Together, the two reserves stretch along approximately 14 km of coast line on South Africa’s Wild Coast, and extend from three to five km inland.  Adjacent to the Nature reserve is a Marine Reserve that extends six nautical miles off-shore.

Dwesa-Cwebe sits in the transition zone between temperate and sub-tropical ecosystems and, together, the reserves hold one of the largest tracts of indigenous coastal forest remaining in the Eastern Cape.  There is a similar strong ecological gradient off-shore with the Mbashe marking the transition from cold water systems to the south-west and more tropical systems to the north-east.  The annual temperature and rainfall cycles are presented later (where we talk about what clothes to bring!). Summer (December, January, February) is the rainy season and temperature and humidity inland can be quite high.  Dwesa-Cwebe’s coastal location, however, tends to ameliorate conditions to some degree.

The region is characterized by a mix of coastal and dune forests, shrub and grasslands.  There are debates over whether the grassland is natural or a result of forest clearance, and how much of the current mosaic of land use and vegetation cover is maintained by fire.  The Dwesa forest contains 170 woody species.  Cwebe hasn’t been surveyed, but is assumed to be the same.  Over 290 species of birds are thought to be in the Reserve.  The mix of vegetation types, the extent of the indigenous coastal forest, and the high species diversity make the Reserve a high priority for conservation.  The forest, in fact, has been protected to some degree since the 1890s.

The earliest archeological evidence for human occupation in the region dates back to the presence of Khoisan people about 4,000 years ago.  In the Cape region, the original San (traditionally hunter-gatherers) were replaced by Khoikhoi pastoralists by about 2,000 years ago.  Over time, these were then displaced by Bantu speaking groups (most notably Xhosa and Zulu) moving down the east coast of Southern Africa.  The Xhosa reached the Cape in the third century AD and fully established themselves in what is now the Eastern Cape between 1600 and 1800, during which time the Bomvana also moved south from what is now KwaZulu Natal and purchased land on the Cwebe side of the Mbashe River.

First the Boers and then the British fought a series of frontier wars with the Xhosa over the span of about 100 years between the late 1700s and the late 1800s.  The first three, with Boer settlers and farmers, were more minor border skirmishes over land.  Once the British army became involved, the conflicts became larger and more serious.  The Xhosa won some major victories, but ultimately, each of the ten frontier wars ended in the Xhosa losing territory and sovereignty with the eastward spread of the British controlled Cape Colony.  In 1856 a young Xhosa woman claimed to have received a message from her ancestors that the Xhosa should sacrifice their cattle and, in return, they would have victory over their enemies; they would have land and plentiful food.  Few believed the prophecy originally, but over the period of a year or so, more and more chiefs ordered their cattle slaughtered.  The combination of the 8th Frontier War with the British (1850-1853) and the loss of their cattle was catastrophic for the Xhosa.

The area to the east of the Mbashe was populated by the Gcalecka Xhosa, but the Gcalecka were dispersed following the wars and the Cattle Killing and the region was occupied by the Mfengu.  The Mfengu had originally fled west from Natal and at one point were granted land in the Cape Colony.  The Mfengu converted to Christianity and became farmers.  The British then moved them into the former Gcalecka lands both to relieve population pressures in the Colony, but also to act as a buffer between the Colony and the tribes to the east of the Mbashe.  Some of the Gcalecka were absorbed by the Bomvana; others returned to the region over time, but occupied land further to the west of the Mfengu lands.  By the late 19th Century, following more fighting and peace settlements, the boundaries of the Cape Colony had spread further east to encompass everything that is now the Eastern Cape Province.  In the Dwesa-Cwebe region, the Bomvana (traditional pastoralists who did not join in the Cattle Killing) continued to occupy the land to the east of the Mbashe, while the lands to the west were occupied by the Mfengu (oriented more toward western education, Christianity, and agriculture).  These cultural differences and the impact they have on local society and land use are still very apparent in the region today.  (For additional information, read: Fay, D. (2009).  Land tenure, land Use, and Land Reform at Dwesa-Cwebe, South Africa: Local Transformations and the Limits of the State.  World Development, Vol 37, No. 8, pp. 1424-1433.)

The residents of the Dwesa-Cwebe forest were forcibly removed from their land during colonial times, and the forest has been managed by the State since the late 1800s. Until recently, residents of the nearby communities still had access to the forest and coastal resources (wood for house and fence construction, medicinal plants, grasses for thatching and basket weaving, some grazing on the grasslands, and shell fish consumption). Access ended, however, when the forest was fenced off in the early 1980s, following the designation of the forest as the Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Reserve by the Transkei government in 1978.  The communities campaigned unsuccessfully for the return of the land and in late 1994; people from the surrounding communities invaded the Reserve, removing large quantities of shellfish and other resources.  The army was called in to regain control of the Reserve, and the events made both the national and international news.  The immediate result was that the communities were granted access to the forest resources.  Later, in 2001, the community succeeded in regaining the land under South Africa’s land restitution policy.  The settlement included an agreement that the land would be managed for conservation and tourism purposes—the result of which is that access is again restricted and local communities are again prohibited from consumptive use of forest and marine resources. The nature reserve is now owned by the Dwesa-Cwebe Land Trust, which also represents seven Communal Property Associations (CPAs) that adjoin the reserves: Ntubeni, Mpume, Ngoma, Lurwayizo, Mendwane, Hobeni, and Cwebe.  These CPAs represent eight communal villages that reorganized themselves as CPAs to obtain common ownership of the Reserves.  These seven CPAs represent a population of about 14,720, distributed amongst 2,382 households.

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