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In parched South Africa, herders find ally in nature

© Stevie Mann/ILRI/Flickr Creative Commons

South Africa recently suffered its worst drought in recorded history, with devastating consequences for communities and wildlife in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, which borders the famed Kruger National Park. The biosphere, designated by UNESCO in 2001, covers more than 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) and includes forests, grasslands and savanna.

The diverse landscape hosts 75 percent of South Africa’s terrestrial bird species and more than 100 threatened animal species, according to the IUCN Red List. Many of the region’s 1.5 million inhabitants rely directly on the area’s natural capital — the stock of natural resources that combine to provide benefits to people — for survival.

For those of us living in developed areas where we can reliably purchase things for our daily needs, it’s easy to take predictable rainfall and a healthy ecosystem for granted. But for people surviving off nature, drought directly affects their ability to access fresh water, grass for livestock and firewood for cooking.

The Shangaan Tsonga people, one of the groups that call the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere home, depend on small-scale livestock production on communal rangelands for their livelihoods. Here, as in other places in sub-Saharan Africa, cattle play an integral role in culture: The whole of a family’s wealth can be measured by the size of their herd. Drought, like the one experienced here in 2016, sets other challenges in motion. For families struggling to afford basic provisions like food and school fees, the loss of even a single cow can mean economic ruin.

If current patterns persist, drought may become a more common occurrence in this region. At present, communal rangelands are degraded. Overgrazing and the establishment of non-native plant species have reduced the ability of these lands to support livestock. They struggle to retain moisture and nutrients and lack resilience under stress. This leaves people and livestock all the more vulnerable to climate variability.

After the 2016 drought, communities in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere decided to take action. Under Conservation South Africa’s Meat Naturally initiative, small-scale farmers have begun to improve the sustainability of their livestock production and restore their rangelands. By coming together to manage their cattle under coordinated grazing plans and to remove invasive plant species, these communities are helping to heal the grasslands and savannas on which they so closely depend.

In turn, Conservation South Africa — with the support of SWITCH Africa Green, a project developed and funded by the European Union to support Africa’s transition to an inclusive green economy — is helping these small-scale farmers form cooperatives to obtain market access. Sustaining long-term landscape conservation requires creating durable incentives for local communities to value their common natural capital. Cooperative structures help to ensure this incentive is maintained.

After the rains returned, community members gathered for a three-day training led by Wageningen University on cooperative development and farmer organizations. Lessons on collective action, farmer entrepreneurship and governance enabled the community to see a bright future for their budding small businesses. Eager attendees shared their hopes for fair market access and healthy communal rangeland for their cattle. The excitement was palpable.

One farmer remarked, “I now see the benefits of working together. If we want something, we need to start working as a group — start ourselves, not wait for others to come and help us.” The sentiment reflects success on the ground: As farmers fetch higher prices for cattle on healthier rangeland, they will become better prepared for the next drought.

Tori Linder is the sustainable livestock coordinator in Conservation International’s Africa field division.

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