The winter rainfall desert of South Africa’s Namaqualand region is both strikingly beautiful and harsh. Its arid, rocky hills and sandy plains combine with a mild climate to create a home for a wealth of rare plant life including wildflowers renowned for spectacular spring displays.
Its plants have supported the livestock farming that has long been one means for the people of the region to eke out a living in this rich but challenging environment. Growth in herds, however, is taking a toll on the limited resources of the landscape that are expected to be further taxed by climate change. This, in turn, is threatening the future of people and wildlife in the area.
“Wetlands get trampled through grazing and ploughed up to plant additional fodder,” said Malinda Gardiner, Conservation International-South Africa’s conservation stewardship coordinator, describing the impact of over-grazing. “The grazing areas themselves lose ground cover through overstocking and then you start seeing erosion happening, as well as species loss.”
Some farmers in the region have decided to take steps that may help restore balance in the ecosystem. With the help of the Conservation Stewards Program and Conservation International-South Africa, 18 farmers in the Leliefontein Commonage near the town of Garies have entered into conservation agreements through the Biodiversity and Red Meat Initiative (BRMI) that offer them incentives for gradually downsizing their herds and improving the management of the land used for grazing. More farmers are expected to sign up before the end of the year, according to Gardiner.
The farmers currently participating use about 8,300 hectares for their sheep and goats, and the impact they have on the environment is significant, Gardiner said. Through the agreements, they are reducing excess livestock by 10 percent in the first year, and in return they receive a premium price for the livestock through a partnership between BRMI and Nammeat, a company owned by Namaqualand stock farmers through shareholding. BRMI also is making personal finance management training available to the farmers through a local bank.
Other elements of the agreements include:
- Giving a basic ecology course to the farmers.
- Providing each member of the initiative with a schematic map of the area, indicating the different vegetation types and wetlands, and providing guidelines on grazing regimes desirable for each vegetation type. The materials also highlight the need to treat wetlands with special care.
- Assisting farmers in designing a fire management plan and providing training through a partnership with government initiative Working for Fire. The area is fire prone and some endemic species have already gone locally extinct because of indiscriminate burning.
- Bringing in Animal Damage Control, an NGO managed by predator expert Thys de Wet, to evaluate with each farmer their specific needs and design a suite of alternative predator control methods, such as Anatolian shepherd dogs and protective collars. Inappropriate predator control has led to leopards being killed as well as non-target species, like black eagles and tortoises.
Initiative partners Nurture, Restore, Innovate (NRI), a local company that specialises in environmental restoration, will monitor the ecosystem and will employ two participants in the initiative as monitoring officers.
BRMI and its partner Greenchoice are also developing stock farming guidelines that will be made available to each participant.
“We realize that successfully implementing adapted management requires a combination of providing guidelines and conservation actions underpinned by lots of information and some training,” said Gardiner.
Participants also will provide continuous feedback on their farming practices and what impact they are seeing of the adapted management practices. “This is important for us so that we can, together with the farmers, write up the lessons learned at the end of the one year agreement and use that information to improve the conditions of the agreement for the next round,” said Gardiner.
It hasn’t been easy getting the initiative off the ground, Gardiner said, with community members concerned about their rights as land users and owners. “It took about 14 months of explaining the stewardship concept, imparting information on why the area is special and needs conservation measures, showing the ecosystem services they get out of the environment, like grazing, water, building materials for huts, etc., and how sustainable farming will ensure that those services continue,” she said.
“Most of all it took taking the time to get to know the farmers and to assure them that we will not be here today and gone tomorrow,” Gardiner said, “and that we are dedicated to be there to support and guide them.”