Noel Isaacs stand in the wild Fig Tree forest he has helped to save on the community farm Zevenfontien.
One of the seven fountains on the farm comes from this rare dark woodland.
To protect the river catchment system in the mountains the government started buying farms and created the Bavianskloof Mega Reserve, a World Heritage Site with hundreds of indigenous plant species still clinging to the degraded slopes of these magnificent valleys. Ten years ago, the government embarked on an ambitious plan to reforest the mountains called the Working For Water Program. Turning the dire state of local employment into an asset, they trained unemployed people to plant spekboom, the dominant plant of the subtropical thicket. Some teams planted while others uprooted water hungry trees like eucalyptus from Australia, that did not belong here.
A few years later a small South African Non-Government Organization (NGO) called Living Lands started to work with the program and local famers, eventually creating a network called Presence. Presence consists of all of the stakeholders who have some sort of connection to the Bavianskloof. They have facilitated a working relationship between local farmers, poor communities, the local irrigation board, local and regional government, and all the people who live in the kloof.
This relationship has changed how people in the area think about water and conservation of resources. I am sitting in the early morning mist on the farm of Piet Kruger, in the western Bavianskloof mountains. He has been farming here for thirty five years, and admits he was an active participant in degrading the land. “We had no idea what we were doing, but the government of the day made policies that were clearly not sustainable”, he explains over a traditional dinner as dogs curl up by the fire. “This area is not for farming, but we were told to farm it in this way, and we got some good years out of it, but at what cost? I don’t think I will ever farm again here, unless I am farming the thicket itself.”
Kruger sold his sheep in May this year. He still runs cattle on some of the larger parts of the farm, but they are much less damaging to the thicket which he is replanting everywhere.
Spekboom does not only secure hillside and trap moisture in the soil. It is an excellent source of food for most of Africa’s large herbivores which do not damage the plant, since they don’t eat away the underpart or “skirt” of the plant. Kruger says, “I will run cattle until the government offers me some buffalo, then I will get rid of them. Maybe we will even see elephants here some day”. His stands above the valley of his farm, looking across through the approaching rain. Kruger is one of the first of the wild-land farmers in the area, and his enthusiasm for it is obvious.
Many of his neighbors, who even two years ago turned up their noses at the thought of conservation agriculture and “farming” wilderness, have started planting spekboom. Many feel that without the tree cover their lans are destined to become wasteland, and this change of attitude has come through the work of the Living Lands’ Presence network. They meet regularly with farmers, talk about options, and try to get these hard-scrabble and independent people to start to change their thinking.
The Fig Tree forest in the farm of seven fountains. This community run farm is hoping to expand into tourism
to help the residents with an alternative income. Previously they relied only on sheep and goat grazing.
Marijn Zwinkels is an environmental scientist who works with Living Lands. “This has been an uphill battle, getting people to change their minds about farming and old agricultural practices”. He explains, sitting next to a small damn that is meant to restore the alluvial fan of a canyon outflow. He explains that people are changing, farmers have bought-in to the idea of conservation agriculture. He went away with the farmers and and the other stakeholders to another valley much like this one, and they took on a leadership role with the famers of that valley, proud of their own place now as land restorers. “They have ownership and pride over this new knowledge, and that seems to make a huge difference”.
But how does a farmer make money when his sheep and cattle are gone? Farmers have been encouraged take advantage of is the carbon market. Both the large scale and small scale planting of spekboom should be eligible for Carbon Credits. However this is a difficult and expensive system to implement, the paperwork is a nightmare and the reporting is extremely time consuming. It works ok for large-scale projects worth millions of dollars like the Working For Water Campaign, but for a small farmer planting a few hundred hectares of spekboom, the current system is difficult to benefit from. However, there is a new system that may become law at the COP17 meeting in Durban.
Zandvlakte, Piet and Magriet Kruger's farm in the western Bavianskloof Mounatins.
Lightning from a passing storm illuminates the eastern horizon.
Called the REDD+ system, it would pay developing countries to restore and maintain the large carbon sinks like the spekboom biome of South Africa. This system is one of the big hopes for the stakeholders here and elsewhere. If the REDD+ system is agreed to by the world’s polluting countries, it will give farmers here some financial breathing space and allow conservation farming to go forward more aggressively. But carbon trading is not the only financial hope for this area.
Port Elizabeth and hundreds of farmers benefit from the water flowing out of this area. Why should they not pay for that benefit? A system of natural capital attempts to put a monetary figure on this water delivery system for what is essentially an ecosystem service. What would the price of the water be if is flowed out of a desalination plant? What are the costs of not implementing a program to restore this watershed? By putting a monetary value on the services that Pieter Kruger and other farmers are offering downstream, namely clean water, they argue that they should be getting some financial remuneration.
Piet Kruger talks about a new language of conservation. This mountain of a farmer uses terms like ecosystem services, climate change, and natural capital in his clipped Afrikaans accent with ease. He foresees a time when the damage inflected on his farm by decades of ecologically unsustainable farming is returned to the way it used to be. As he drives up the hill before a thunderstorm he points out the newly planted spekboom bushes like a they were his prize bulls. “I get pleasure out of farming, but being given the chance to restore this place to how it used to be, that makes me very proud”.
Farmer Piet Kruger speaks in a new language of conservation from his farm in the western Bavianskloof of South Africa.
A big thanks to Eezi-Awn for their great help installing a styling awning
they made for the truck.