Sibonisiwe Hlanze lives just a few metres from Lawuba Wetland, which covers 21 hectares in Eswatini’s Shiselweni Region.
She’s proud to show off her sleeping mat, which she made from what she calls “the highest quality indigenous fibre.” Mrs. Hlanze boasts that she did not pay a cent for the likhwane she uses to make the mats that she sells to vendors from Eswatini’s commercial capital of Manzini. Instead, she simply walks a few metres to the nearby wetland and harvests the reeds.
About 600 women harvest fibre from the wetland in June between 7 a.m. and noon.
Mrs. Hlanze charges E100 ($5.93 US) per sleeping mat. On a good season, she makes between 15 to 20 mats and generates between E1,500 ($89 US) and E2,000 ($119 US).
But she prefers to harvest and sell the raw fibres. Last season, she harvested 10 bundles, and made E200 ($11.86 US) per bundle. The bundles of fibre are used to make handicraft items such as mats and baskets.
Mrs. Hlanze says, “Some women prefer to buy the fibre instead of going to the wetland to harvest for themselves because they find it tedious.”
She explains that the wetland is an important source of income for her and other women because they are unemployed, although she also works on her farm. Mrs. Hlanze says she uses the extra income from selling fibres to buy farming inputs.
Nkhositsini Dlamini is the secretary for Lawuba Wetland, and makes extra income by selling sleeping mats. In one season, she generated E23,000 ($1,363 US) by selling sleeping mats made from fibre she harvested from the wetland. She sells her handicrafts in Johannesburg at a higher price than she can get in Eswatini. Sleeping mats go for E300 ($17.78 US) in South Africa. She used the extra money to send her child to university.
From the wetland, the women can harvest fibre plants such as likhwane, inchoboza, and umtsala, which are used for handicraft products. Mrs. Dlamini says they also harvest indigenous medicinal plants, which help to heal ailments such as scabies. The community has also established a drinking trough for livestock and a vegetable garden that draws water from the wetland.
The wetland benefits the community in many ways, which means that it requires careful management.
Mrs. Dlamini says the community was on the verge of losing the wetland because it had been degraded over the years. For many years, livestock used to graze from the wetland while local women over-harvested the reeds. As a result, the wetland was losing its capacity to act as a sponge and store water.
She explains, “The amount of fibre available at the wetland was significantly reduced, not to mention the number of cattle that used to die after getting stuck in the mud.”
The state of the wetland concerned Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku, who approached the Eswatini Environment Authority to support the community to protect it. Mr. Masuku is a resident of the area. He says he decided to act after noticing that the wetland had lost some indigenous plants as well as animal species such as birds and snakes. It was also drying up.
He adds, “This wetland feeds the Mhlathuze River … It is also a source for a downstream dipping tank.”
Through the National Environment Fund, the Eswatini Environment Authority educated the community on the benefits of the wetland, both economically and ecologically. EEA ecologist Nana Matsebula says, “Once people know and see the benefits of conserving the environment, their attitudes and their behaviour change.”
The wetland contributes to flood control by absorbing water during rain. It also replenishes the water table and acts as a reservoir for a diverse biodiversity.
Mr. Matsebula says that wetlands are also important for mitigating climate change because they trap up to 50 times more carbon than forests.
The Eswatini Environment Authority provided fencing material to prevent livestock from grazing and drinking from the wetland. Nearby residents constructed the fence themselves in 2010-11.
But the wetland is still at risk due to poor regulation. Criminals have stolen parts of the fence. Mr. Masuku said that for this wetland and others to be adequately protected, the government needs to administer it so that it is declared a national asset. While the community will continue to have the primary responsibility to protect it, he says government should provide support by monitoring and regulation. But for now, there are no permits and users of natural resources from the wetland regulate themselves.
This story is adapted from an article written by Mantoe Phakathi for Interpress News Service, titled “Understanding the Benefits of local Wetland Encourages Eswatini Community to Save it.” To read the full story, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/08/understanding-the-benefits-of-wetland-encourages-eswatini-community-to-save-it/ 
Photo: Sibonisiwe Hlanze collecting reeds from the Lawuba Wetland in Lawuba, Eswatini. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS