South Africa Organic
© CI/Photo by Michael Matarasso
Alex MacLennan

Healthy carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, pumpkin, sweet potato, onions and cabbage … not quite the crops you would expect to find in a harsh, rain-starved desert landscape.

Yet, unlikely as it seems, that is just what community gardeners are achieving in Carolusberg, a small town in South Africa’s economically depressed Namaqualand region.

"The wonderful people working on this project are an inspiration to me," says Tessa Mildenhall of Conservation International’s Southern Africa Hotspots Programme. "They work in difficult conditions yet they continue to persevere in their attempts to nurture this garden in the same way that they nurture the youth, the old, the sick and nature."

EXPLORE: Check out CI's African Hotspots

More than a Garden

It doesn’t end there. Apart from the fresh produce it provides, the "Garden of Hope" provides food parcels for the town’s ill and old, and sustains a weekly soup day for the local school children. Supermarkets such as Spar in nearby Springbok, the "capital" of Namaqualand, are also partnering with the project, providing supplementary soup bones and bread.

The garden, supported in part by the Skeppies partnership, was founded in 1999 by the women of Carolusberg shortly after the local copper mines closed. In its first decade, the garden has expanded into a sustainable business providing a stable income to permanent employees and food relief to the entire community.

It is also an important partner in CI’s effort to preserve a sustainably healthy landscape in Namaqualand.

Big Sky Country

Namaqualand is a wide, open landscape of ochre-brown plains, bare hills and valleys in South Africa. Summer daytime temperatures can soar to 37 degrees Celsius (approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and more, while biting winter nights plummet well below freezing.

For the generations of people who have lived here, life in the unforgiving semi-desert has never been easy. Rain falls erratically in winter, and eking out a livelihood is hard. Every spring, however, a kaleidoscope of relief accompanies the vibrant carpet of wildflowers that bring a sense of hope to the severe land.

CI and the Garden project address environmental concerns to ensure that the produce they are supplying is healthy for people and healthy for nature.

But the Garden of Hope is adjacent to the Goegap Nature Reserve, and many animals in the reserve were dying as a result of the poisons the community farmers were using. This bothered them – after seeing the direct effects of the poisons on the animals they realized how bad it must be for human consumption.

IN DEPTH: Discover the unique partnership between CI and the Skeppies community.

Says gardener Patricia Cloete, “We could see how poisons were killing the birds and animals in Goegap – we don’t want to use these chemicals to grow our food.” Mathilda Carolus chips in: “Ja, we use chilies, garlic and pepper-tree water to keep the goggas [bugs] away.”

Garden of Hope

The Carolusberg vegetable project has truly become a "Garden of Hope" for a marginalized community. “Success, even modest success, is enormously important for any community’s self esteem” says CI project leader Ronnie Newman.

“Now the project staff shares a common view on the importance of conservation and the development of people. This project is a definite success story and we hope that it will prove an inspiration to other nearby communities."