A slimy tangle of seaweed floats on ocean waves. A face-painted soccer fan blasts a horn to cheer on his team at an important match. A young woman leaves home in the morning for her first day at a new job.
At first glance, these events have nothing in common. Yet their connections are seen on the beaches of South Africa, where a small project is revealing the ability of eco-conscious businesses to transform lives.
A Fragile Bounty
On South Africa’s northwestern coast, the Namaqualand region includes the Succulent Karoo hotspot, one of the Earth’s most biologically rich places. Coastal areas are home to 432 plant species, as well as unusual animals such as Gronovi’s dwarf burrowing skink (Scelotes gronovii), a snake-like lizard with tiny limbs.
These coasts have also long supported human communities. The discovery of diamonds in coastal waters in the early 1900s led to an explosion of the diamond industry, attracting many prospectors with its lure of riches.
EXPLORE: Africa's Biodiversity Hotspots
The industry has experienced a major downturn in the last few years due to over-mining and the global economic recession. About two-thirds of the South African coastline has been mined for diamonds, taking its toll in the pollution and degradation of surrounding ecosystems. Today, many diamond boats sit empty on the shore. The decline of mining has left thousands of coastal people unemployed and with few prospects.
Something from Nothing
In order to stimulate sustainable jobs in the region, the Fishing and Mariculture Development Agency (FAMDA) started the Kelpcor project in 2005.As part of its capacity building plan, FAMDA handed over management of the project to local community residents in 2009.
Based in the coastal town of Port Nolloth, Kelpcor employees collect brown and black kelp (Laminaria pallida and Ecklonia maxima, respectively) from nearby beaches, dry it in the sun and sell the dried chips to FAMDA for use in organic fertilizer and other products. There is also a small market for black kelp in the making of vuvuzela horns—stadium horns whose loud blasts are unavoidable at South African soccer matches. The vuvuzela market is expected to expand with the approach of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
IN DEPTH: Skeppies Community Conservation and Development Small Grants Program, South Africa
Kelpcor is monitored and supported by Ronnie Newman, Project Developer for Conservation International (CI)’s South Africa office. Funding is provided by the SKEPPIES Fund—a partnership between CI, the Development Bank of South Africa, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (also a CI partnership). SKEPPIES provides small grants for regional projects which, in the words of Ronnie Newman, “provide jobs and develop entrepreneurs in the area while protecting the environment.”
Eyes on the Shore
Working at Kelpcor provides employees with much-needed income. One young worker supports her mother and five sisters; another, her three children. Both women lost their jobs in the mining industry and are the only wage earners in their families. Both are adamant that without Kelpcor, they would currently be out of work.
Kelpcor currently employs nine full-time and five part-time workers, mostly men and women who lost jobs in the mining downturn. Nearby communities and ecosystems also benefit from Kelpcor’s services. Garbage dumped from ships often washes ashore on Port Nolloth’s beaches. Kelpcor workers remove the trash from the beaches as they work, leaving cleaner landscapes behind them.
LEARN MORE: Find out how CI works with local communities and partners to provide alternate livelihoods that benefit both people and nature.
Another goal of the project is to serve as a “watchdog” group that will, purely by its presence, deter people from destructive activities such as driving recreational vehicles on the beach and poaching Cape rock lobsters (Jasus lalandii) and abalones (genus Haliotis).
Kelpcor poses little threat to kelp stock depletion as it is constantly washing up onshore, particularly after storms. If not collected, mounds of kelp build up and rot in the sun. As long as kelp remains plentiful, Kelpcor intends to expand its business, hiring more people and purchasing equipment to quicken the drying process.
From the Ground Up
Compared to larger development initiatives, this very small-scale project may seem insignificant. However, it is an important opportunity for the people involved.
Local diamond industry jobs eventually ground to a halt because of natural resource overexploitation. In contrast, Kelpcor respects and thrives off of a healthy environment, and with proper management it will give workers the opportunity to provide for their families far into the future.
CI organizes and funds small projects like Kelpcor all over the world; if these projects can expand sustainably, their best successes are yet to come.
READ MORE: South Africa Organic