Local Efforts, Global Change: Sustainable Agriculture in South Africa

A flower field in Succulent Karoo. (© John Martin)

A flower field in Succulent Karoo. (© John Martin)

Stretching from Namibia down the west coast of South Africa, the Succulent Karoo is a vast, semi-arid desert with sweeping vistas, mountain ranges, ancient rock formations, wild coastlines and clouds of stars arching overhead at night.

This is big sky country. At the time of my visit in May, it was difficult to imagine how this dry, rocky landscape transforms after the winter rainfall, when many of its 6,300 plant species blossom in a colorful explosion of wildflowers.

In the heart of this area is Namaqualand, where people depend on the landscape for their livelihoods. They graze their goats and sheep in areas historically grazed by herds of wildlife like antelope. The landscape is accustomed to grazing, and people have shaped their way of life around it.

Over time, however, overgrazing has put unsustainable levels of pressure on the land, threatening Namaqualand’s unique biodiversity and vital water supply. Predators such as caracals and jackals have become a problem as they prey upon livestock and threaten farmers’ herds.

A sheep herder in Namaqualand. (© Tessa Mildenhall)

A sheep herder in Namaqualand. (© Tessa Mildenhall)

The purpose of my visit — part of an initiative to promote learning among people leading conservation efforts — was to understand the role of agriculture, particularly sustainable agriculture, in the pursuit of sustainable development. In a world of growing populations and dwindling natural resources, the quest for sustainability is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges of our time.

We operate in a global economy where goods, services, people and information move across borders easily and quickly. That means the shift in production needs to happen everywhere, not just in one place.

It’s clear that economic development, human well-being and environmental health must be addressed together. Achieving this vision is not easy, however, as it requires analysis, discussion, trial and error, adaptation and perseverance.

Conservation South Africa and our partners are doing the hard work of discovering and defining what this means in Namaqualand. The complexity of all this makes it hard to know what an abstract concept like “sustainability” actually looks like on the ground.

Sharing experiences from across the globe is immensely helpful, as it allows us to skip the trial and error that is often associated with doing new things. We can see what has worked and what has failed, understand why and make adaptations to get results more quickly.

Along with colleagues from the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia and Liberia, I met with local government officials, farmers, entrepreneurs and others working toward sustainability. For instance, in the small town of Leliefontein, we learned from Katrina Schwartz, who chairs an association of goat and sheep farmers, about using more sustainable herding methods — such as using grazing rotations to let the land rest and recover and restore wetlands.

These efforts are starting to bear fruit as these farmers connect with markets that will pay a premium for sustainably produced meat.

Conservation International global staff, Conservation South Africa and Namaqualand farmers meet to learn about sustainable agriculture. (© Bailey Evans)

Conservation International global staff, Conservation South Africa and Namaqualand farmers meet to share information about sustainable agriculture. (© Bailey Evans)

Although Katrina’s focus is local, her effort is part of a global movement toward sustainable agriculture. Throughout the visit, my colleagues and I witnessed how individuals with different backgrounds and experiences can come together in a complex situation to pursue the common goal of a truly sustainable society. I was also heartened to observe that the realities of Namaqualand resonate with those of places in faraway continents with very different cultures, histories and traditions.

A colleague from Mexico confirmed this as he made comparisons and identified lessons he can apply in the Chihuahuan Desert half a world away — specifically how improved grazing practices can help maintain the integrity of the land, which helps farmers bounce back from stresses and maintain a steady production level.

As I left South Africa and reflected on all I had seen and learned, I concluded that sustainable development is achievable. Globally, societies have made tremendous progress over the last 50 years in identifying areas of ecological importance and protecting them.

Now a growing movement to transform economic activity, including agricultural practices, can help ensure viability over the long term. This requires vision, dedication and creativity from all involved. Katrina is one of countless people around the world who embody these qualities. Progress is being made.

Daniela Raik is vice president of CI’s field programs.

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