Located approximately 40 kilometres east of Cape Town in South Africa, the Cape Winelands region encompasses a mountain chain, nearly 7,000 species of endemic plant life, hundreds of wine vineyards and over a quarter of a million people.
While each of these elements is an important trait of the region’s larger personality, no single feature of the Cape Winelands stands on its own. Rather, they form a complex web of connections: the gorgeous nature is related to the local agriculture, which is in turn connected to a history of colonisation and cultural development that continues to affect social and environmental issues today. The Cape Fold Mountains, for example, provide a scenic and geologically rich border to the region, and the vineyards are the basis of South Africa’s wine industry, but those vineyards are deeply dependent on the environment and climates created in part by their mountainous shelters, not to mention the people who devote attention to them.
Nature, Ecology and Culture Noted by UNESCO
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) took into account all of these overlapping spheres of the Winelands when it recognised the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve as a special Man and Biosphere (MAB) reserve. The aim of the MAB program is to strengthen the relationship between society and the environment through sustainability and conservation, all by considering the unique ecological, environmental, social and economic components of a place.
Parts of the region have also been recognised for their intangible cultural heritage; the Cape Winelands Cultural Landscape has been on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2009. From diverse styles of architecture to a four-centuries-deep tradition of winemaking, the cultural heritage of the Winelands is an inseparable part of the larger ecological and social spheres of the region.
Of course, the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve is particularly famous for its biodiversity. In fact, cutting through the heart of the Reserve is the Cape Floral Region, another UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site. One of the world’s richest plant areas, it is home to nearly 20 percent of Africa’s endemic plant life – on only 0.5 percent of its land.
Nearly 80 percent of the flora in the Cape Floral Region is shrub-like Fynbos vegetation (fynbos means ‘fine bush’ in Afrikaans) that thrives in rocky and nutrient-poor soil found in coastal and mountainous regions with a Mediterranean climate.
Agricultural, Historical, Colonial and Cultural Connections
As at home as fynbos in the region’s rocky soil are the local grape vines. This agricultural twist was first exploited by 17th-century Dutch colonists, who imported the European tradition of winemaking to the region. The first bottle of South African wine was produced in 1659; within 30 years, over 100,000 vines had been planted in the Constantia Valley. Over time, colonial agricultural practices were superimposed onto this land of already abundant biodiversity.
Today the Cape Winelands region is divided into subregions, each notable for the variety of soil types that support different kinds of grapes and thus lend themselves to different winemaking practices. This ecological diversity, further influenced by nuanced climatic distinctions, gives the Cape Winelands an upper hand in the cultivation of grapes and production of wines that have met with great success in global markets.
Stellenbosch, for example, is widely acknowledged as the Winelands’ foremost wine-producing region. It has both limestone- and granite-laced soils that sustain white and red grapes. The Paarl region, with a slightly hotter climate and higher elevation, focuses on other varieties of red.
Intertwined with the history of agriculture and winemaking is the rich mix of cultural traditions just as diverse as the land and the grapes. Towns like Paarl have been shaped by Khoisan and East-African slave traditions, Dutch and French Huguenot customs and architecture, immigrant traditions from Eastern European Jewish communities and Italian migrant groups, and the practices and habits of Xhosa migrant labourers.
Environmental and Social Connections
UNESCO designation doesn’t stop at simple recognition for the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve and Cape Floral Region. A number of environmental and social challenges are being addressed with the help of UNESCO funding and international awareness.
For example, even though large tracts of the Winelands Reserve are doubly protected by the Cape Floral Protection Zone, much of the land is still privately owned and over-farming threatens some of the endemic plant life with extinction. The region’s agricultural history also has a darker past of ecologically unsound practices, and the use of pesticides has harmed local birds and animals, including the blue crane, raptors and owls.
It goes without saying that the country’s tumultuous political history has had an impact on the region’s current state of affairs. A number of communities within the Reserve, many of which are rural, struggles against the effects of poverty, unemployment and urban migration.
When asked to comment on UNESCO’s involvement in the Cape Winelands region, a spokesperson for Winelands Experience, the whl.travel local partner in the Cape Winelands, was optimistic, especially given the company’s active participation in the community as local business owners:
“[UNESCO status] creates local and international interest and awareness of the region as a biosphere reserve and fulfills a marketing and educational function on both the national and international levels. It also empowers local communities and economies by bringing more visitors to the area, which results in the inflow of capital and investment to these regions. A UNESCO designation also focuses on local, provincial, regional and national government attention, and ensures that social, economic, environmental and biodiversity conservation issues are placed on the national and international agendas of the relevant agencies… Education of local communities [will] result in positive and workable solutions to complex regional issues.”
UNESCO’s attention is an important step for the Cape Winelands, as its communities move toward reconciling a turbulent past with progress toward a future in which the diverse and overlapping spheres of ecological, agricultural and cultural heritage are appreciated and fully utilised for the larger wellbeing of the Western Cape of South Africa.