Over 9000 tonnes of rooibos is produced per annum in South Africa, approximately 40 percent of which is exported to key markets, including Germany, Holland, Japan, China, the UK, the USA and Eastern Europe. The industry has seen an exponential increase in demand over the years and the cultivation of Rooibos is now posing a threat not only to Fynbos vegetation in general, but also to wild rooibos in the area.
The cultivation of Rooibos is mostly limited to its natural geographical range within the Cape Floristic Region, with most production existing within the Cederberg and Sandveld areas of the Western Cape and the Bokkeveld area of the Northern Cape.
The region’s most threatened vegetation type is Swartland Shale Renosterveld (over 90% transformed), followed by Leipoldtville, Hopefield and Graafwater Sand Fynbos. The region is home to 58 rare and threatened plant species, 30 of which are endemic and 6 endemic vegetation types.
The total South African rooibos industry crop footprint is currently ca. 79,000 ha (GreenChoice Biodiversity Baseline Study 2010), approximately half of which is in the Sandveld región, the second most highly threatened ecosystem in the country and in the heart of Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor. Under 50 percent of the Sandveld remains untransformed and rapid rooibos industry expansion is constantly increasing pressure on critical biodiversity. An average of 2.7 ha of Northern Sandveld natural vegetation is cleared daily, much of this illegally.
In 2007, in response to the threat to biodiversity in this region, a partnership was formed between CapeNature, The Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor, and the South African Rooibos Council (SARC), namely the Rooibos Biodiversity Initiative. The initiative was renamed Right Rooibos in 2010 and to date comprises of 36 member farmers. These farmers contribute 94,148 ha of land that is considered now to be under better management, 22,810 ha of which overlaps with critical biodiversity and 3 405 ha of which is conserved in land stewardship agreements. This has resulted in 31 percent of the rooibos crop footprint now belonging to the Right Rooibos Initiative.
A farmer-friendly guideline focusing on environmental and social aspects of Rooibos farming has recently been produced in English and Afrikaans for all members. The Handbook for Implementing Rooibos Sustainability Standards was based on detailed studies into the social and environmental conditions in the Rooibos-growing areas.
Right Rooibos farmers are monitoring the efficacy of following this guideline by using an online farm management system called Simpatica and regular Farmer Study Groups where results are aggregated, compared and discussed in a process of peer-to-peer learning. With input from Kuit Consultancy and the GreenChoice Alliance, Rooibos farmers in South Africa are the first to test the latest version of Simpatica, which includes biodiversity aspects such as alien invasive clearing, land stewardship and restoration, as well as social aspects such as worker well-being.
One of the projects great successes stories is that the Right Rooibos guidelines have directly influenced the code of conduct for two eco-labels: Utz and Rainforest Alliance. It is not often that a biodiversity initiative determines the details of its own market mechanisms instead of vice versa.