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Can an ancient tradition save an African grassland?

MATATIELE, South Africa — On a bright morning in early February, Paul Mfazwe drove down a bumpy road, cratered with dips and divots. It was a familiar route, one he made nearly every day.

“I was born here, I grew up here, and I'm going to die here,” he remarked as the village of Mataleng came into view.

A smattering of iron-corrugated shacks were tucked into the hollows and swallowed by the vastness of the Drakensburg Mountains. In the winter, the peaks would be capped with snow, but today, near the height of the South African summer, they were awash in the kind of green that follows heavy rainfall.

These highland grasslands, which border the landlocked nation of Lesotho, are among Africa’s most biodiverse. They are also in serious jeopardy. Aggressive invasive species are crowding out native plants, while overgrazing leaves scars across an increasingly barren land. Together, they threaten the livelihoods of the community, who rely on these grasslands for herding, and represent a significant loss for the global climate: Globally, grasslands can absorb and store gobs of climate-warming carbon — as much as seven billion tons per year, the equivalent of taking 1.5 million gas-powered cars off the road for a year.

As Mfazwe reached the village, people waved, and children bantered from the roadside. He offered a practiced, nearly indiscernible tap of his horn to riders passing on horseback.

“Everyone here knows Paul,” said Lekhola Tsele, a local herder. “We love to see him arrive.”  

Paul Mfazwe guides local communities on how to participate in practices that keep grasslands healthy. © Emily Nyrop

But Mfazwe was more than just a familiar face from the nearby town of Mpharane. As a community engagement lead for Conservation South Africa (the local affiliate of Conservation International), he carried with him a conservation agreement — a pact outlining communities’ commitments and actions to revive the grasslands. So far 551 local farmers had signed the agreements, which protect grasslands while providing new jobs and opportunities for some of the poorest pastoral communities in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.

Working shoulder-to-shoulder with pastoral communities, Conservation South Africa is restoring these vital grasslands before they are degraded beyond recognition. It’s a collaborative effort with the potential to protect more than 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of land, while establishing a replicable model to conserve grasslands throughout Africa.

But the success of this new approach rests on something quite ancient: a herding approach that has been practiced in this region for thousands of years.

“I am here to open the way,” Mfazwe said. “I ask people to look at the past — to try to understand the importance of their forefathers. There’s a secret hidden there, one that can protect this place.”

Conservation agreement holders gather around Paul Mfazwe at a local cattle auction as he explains plans for the day © Will McCarry


The whole system

In the shadow of the Drakensburg Ridge, a grassland blooms with life. Amur falcons patrol the skies above, while larks and weavers flit in a sea of grass. And beneath the waves is a world of unseen complexity — hundreds of nesting birds, endangered reptiles and amphibians, and an astonishing 1,900 types of plants found nowhere else on Earth. This is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot. But because of overgrazing, healthy grasslands like these are becoming increasingly uncommon.

In the Eastern Cape, like most of Africa, cattle herding is more than a livelihood — it is an essence of existence. Livestock serve as both income and status symbol, akin to a bank account, and represent a cultural legacy that spans thousands of years. But when poorly managed, cattle can wear grasses down to their roots, triggering topsoil erosion and the loss of nutrients, microbes and biodiversity vital for soil health.

Conservation South Africa is helping the community build a future where livestock farming and conservation could work hand-in-hand.

“Paul was the first one who told me about the conservation agreements,” said Maliemiso Susan Bolofo, a single mother and cattle herder from Thaba Chicha. “I was really struggling at the time because I am herding all on my own without a husband. But Paul told me there was a better way to take care of my livestock, while making our rangelands healthier. I’ve been a participant ever since.”

Maliemiso Susan Bolofo has seen her livestock's health improve greatly since partnering with Conservation International © Will McCarry

Under the agreements, communal herders took part in a highly coordinated, community-wide effort to move livestock periodically between different pastures — allowing grazed lands to recover. In exchange, farmers received incentives such as vaccinations for their cattle and opportunities to sell their cattle to prime buyers.

“This is a way of doing things that honors the whole system — people, livestock, wildlife and plants all thriving together,” said Julia Levin, who leads Conservation South Africa. “But it’s important to remember that no one invented this model — this is simply what African pastoralism looks like in its most innate form.

By following a grazing plan that allows the land to rest and recover, cows and sheep have more to eat and arrive at market healthier, fatter and much more likely to command a premium price. But in these communal lands without fences or private ownership, even one herder could disrupt the entire system by ignoring the rules. That's why Conservation South Africa focused so heavily on supporting good governance in the community — assisting the farmers in establishing grazing associations to facilitate the conservation agreements and offer a forum for discussion and problem-solving. The village chief was directly involved, helping ensure that everyone remained aligned with the overarching goals of grassland restoration.

Though rooted in local practices, the effort stood to have a significant global impact.

Native grassland species have extensive root systems, some growing up to 15 feet deep and are critical for locking away carbon deep in the ground. Today, grasslands account for 30 percent of all the carbon stashed away on land.

"Grasslands, shrublands and savannas often go unnoticed,” said Perushan Rajah, a spatial planning scientist at Conservation South Africa. “But they make up around half of the Earth’s land surface, which makes them critically important for our climate.”

Conservation International scientists test the soil to measure the carbon stored by native grasses © Emily Nyrop

"When you walk through a forest, it's clear where the carbon is stored. Grasslands may seem less impressive in comparison. However, delve a little deeper, and you’ll find that more carbon is stored underground, in the soil, than in any other place. And that's where grasslands excel."

But as the community worked to restore the grassland, and its role as a carbon sponge, a significant obstacle remained: an invasive and opportunistic intruder that could upend the entire effort.


Slaying the hydra

As Mfazwe drove to the next village of Mvenyane, the grassland gradually transformed into thickets of trees. Initially, small patches dotted the roadside, but soon they multiplied, forming a dense tunnel of evergreens. Conical crowns stretched in all directions, enveloping hillsides, encroaching upon rivers and spreading across the fields. What was once a diverse grassland had become a forest of one — a single species called black wattle.

Invasive black wattle trees are overtaking the vital grasslands that people and wildlife depend on © Will McCarry

This invasive Australian evergreen was introduced to South Africa by the British in the mid 1800’s for its tannin-rich bark used in the process of leather tanning. In its native habitat, wattle grew amid the understory of towering eucalyptus forests. But here, in a naturally treeless but overgrazed grassland, it spread like wildfire. Beneath the canopy of the wattle, the grass withered and died, while the deep, thirsty roots of the trees cleaved the soil apart — shearing riverbanks into steep cliffs and threading hillsides with deep gullies that drained the freshwater springs people rely on for drinking water.

Mfazwe parked his truck at the edge of a field where two dozen men and women, clad in olive-green fatigues, were wielding axes and machetes against a phalanx of invading black wattle trees. They hacked at the trunks, reducing this relentless intruder to a scattered array of sap-covered stumps.

The team is employed through a partnership between Conservation South Africa and Youth Employment Services, a nonprofit working to provide job opportunities to young people in South Africa — a country that has the highest unemployment rate in the entire world, at 29 percent. In the Eastern Cape province that number is even higher — 40 percent of the population, and at least half of all youth, are unemployed. The program provides a full year of career-readiness training and conservation-related work experience, focused on restoring grasslands, clearing black wattle and building new infrastructure to channel natural springs.

Since 2013, Conservation South Africa has trained almost a thousand people on the removal of invasive species, clearing 2,300 hectares (5,683 acres) of black wattle, restoring it to natural grassland.

The local community gathers brushwood from a cleared grove of invasive black wattle trees © Will McCarry

“We're the only people at Conservation International who cut down trees for a living,” Levin joked. “But removing this invasive tree is the only way this grassland will ever be whole again. It’s a reminder that grasslands really don't fit into the traditional way of thinking about conservation, or even climate.”


The land of milk and honey

Over millions of years, Africa’s grasslands evolved with the animals that graze them. As wildebeest, zebra, antelope and other herbivores move across the landscape, they feed together in tightly bunched herds, following seasonal rains in pursuit of fresh forage.  

This ancient relationship is critical to the health of grasslands, shrublands and savannas. Grazers’ hooves break up hardened soil, allowing water and air to percolate through. Their urine and dung cycle nutrients back into the earth. And each bite helps deep-rooted perennial grasses grow back, maintaining a balance with faster-growing annual species. 

Africa’s pastoralists have long raised their livestock in a way that mimicked these rhythms of nature — chasing rainfall and grazing cattle alongside wildlife.

“The story of South Africa — and most of Africa as a whole — is a story of wildlife, people and livestock moving throughout the land,” Levin said.

In the Eastern Cape, livestock are both a source of income and a symbol of status, embodying a cultural legacy that spans thousands of years © Will McCarry

The people of the Eastern Cape, who identify culturally as Xhosa, first migrated into southern Africa from Central Africa over 3,000 years ago alongside other Bantu-speaking groups like the Zulu. They arrived in the region with their cattle in tow, likely in search of new grazing lands and new sources of water.

Even as many groups settled more permanently, the Xhosa kept hold of the traditional knowledge about herding — implementing season-long rest with precision and purpose, with the village chief often deciding which pastures would be set aside for rest.

“South Africa thrived through this approach to pastoralism. To early sailors, it was known as the land of milk and honey,” Levin said. “Like the promised land, it was seen by many as a place overflowing with abundance and wealth.”  

But that would all change.


The colonialism of conservation

As Apartheid policies were put in place across South Africa, centuries of traditional herding were disrupted by forcibly displacing many Xhosa communities from their ancestral territories and reshaping their cultural identity and way of life.

“When the fences came up and the movement of livestock stopped, the traditional pastoralist way of life started to fall away,” Levin said.

Herding was the traditional way of life, but outside pressures forced pastoralists to abandon the ways they had practiced it over centuries. And as Indigenous knowledge was lost, nature suffered.

“Slowly but surely, people forgot how we got here, and a narrative started to take shape: Pastoralists and their cattle were to blame for destroying nature,” Levin said.

“The really uncomfortable truth is that many conservationists across Africa, even today, see pastoralists as the enemy of conservation,” she added. “It fits a simplistic, but convenient way of looking at things: Cattle are climate villains, the enemy of the planet and the destroyer of wildlife habitats.”

A herd of sheep scatter across a hilltop outside of the village of Matalen © Will McCarry

But as Levin points out, Africa demands a more nuanced perspective.

This is not just any savanna; it is the cradle of humankind. An invisible thread ties our prehistoric ancestors to the pastoralists that have lived and thrived in these ecosystems since time immemorial — their way of life long a part of nature itself.

“Traditional pastoralism is part of the solution, not the problem,” Levin said. “The fight for rural livelihoods is, inherently, a fight to conserve nature. In that way, our partnership here is a rejection of conservation in its most colonial form — a blueprint for how conservation can be done in collaboration with the people who live closest to it.”


Meat, naturally

Mpolokeng Ngubo left for the auction before sunrise, leading a single cow along a dusty village road. The walk was long, over five kilometers, and the stakes were high — the outcome of the auction could shape the course of her family's future for months to come.

With grazing pressure eased, the fields of the Eastern Cape hum with insects and the chattering of birds © Will McCarry

When she arrived, the gathering was lively with anticipation, chatter mingling with the bellowing of cattle. Earlier that morning, the site had just been an empty field. But now, by midday, it had become a maze of metal chutes and gates, with buyers stacked up to bid on cattle that over a hundred local people had brought to market.

The mobile auction was offered by Conservation South Africa partner, Meat Naturally Africa, a startup that brings auctions to the doorsteps of communal farmers — as one of the primary benefits for herders like Ngubo who signed conservation agreements.

Many pastoralists in South Africa have extremely limited options to sell their cattle. Outside of selling to each other or trading informally, Meat Naturally Africa was one of the only avenues to reach formal markets — a gateway to more buyers and higher prices.  

“South Africa has strict regulations regarding food safety and animal welfare — which is a good thing — but it does present a barrier for small-scale farmers,” said Sarah Frazee, the CEO of Meat Naturally Africa, formerly with Conservation South Africa. “In fact, even though smallholder farmers own around half of the country’s livestock, only 5 percent of the meat you find on supermarket shelves comes from them.” 

After a long day of waiting, Ngubo’s cow stepped up on the scale, and her hard work was rewarded. She received the highest bid of the day — 18,000 ZAR, around US$ 958.

Mpolokeng Ngubo grins widely as her cow fetches the highest bid at an auction for conservation agreement holders © Will McCarry

“I got more than I ever expected,” Ngubo said. “It is such a huge difference compared to a few years before I was participating in this program. I never could have dreamed of getting this much for my cow back then.”

As Ngubo’s face split into a wide grin, Mfazwe’s did too. This was the kind of moment he worked for — when spreading the gospel of good grazing resulted in something deeper: an improved quality of life for the members of his community.

“This is how we get more people involved,” he said. “The community can clearly see the benefit of being a member of the conservation agreements. Ultimately this is about trust. And when people like Mpolokeng have a good day at the market, we know we’ve earned that trust.”