Organic wild rooibos in South Africa’s dryland

“South Africa is the home of rooibos, an ancient, health giving herbal infusion, discovered thousands of years ago by the KhoiSan, indigenous peoples of the Southern part of Africa. During the last century, rooibos has been increasingly commercialised, mainly by white South African farmers who produce it on a very large scale, causing environmental damage, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. Fortunately, small-scale, environmentally sound and community-led rooibos cultivation initiatives also exist. Our long-standing South African partner Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) has, for more than two decades, been involved in this type of rooibos cultivation with the communities in the Suid Bokkeveld, in the western part of South Africa. Although it was not always easy, Noel Oettle, senior advisor at EMG, thinks this way of producing is the future.

Tell me something about this area and the people who live there

“The Suid Bokkeveld is a harsh area, where in summer the sun burns and dries up the land and in winter frost and cold rains are predominant. Not an easy place to survive, but at the same time an area of gentle springs and amazing biodiversity. The periodic drought, winter cold and spring rains combined with acidic soils provide an ideal habitat for drought-resistant plant species such as rooibos.”

“The area is home to a community of small-scale rooibos farmers who have been living there since ancient times. Unfortunately, due to climate change, predictions for the area on both the short and the long term are not very promising: higher temperatures, more extreme weather events, more and longer drought periods, later start and earlier close of the rainy season and an overall reduction of winter rains. The communities in the Suid Bokkeveld have been experiencing these negative effects of climate change for decades already. It has become increasingly difficult to cultivate crops and make a living, because of the droughts and unpredictable weather conditions.”

So, when did EMG come into the picture?

“In 1998, the Suid Bokkeveld communities asked EMG for support. We facilitated a process with members of the community to assess what the problems were and what would be the process to find solutions. We jointly decided that so-called ‘participatory action research’ would best serve the purpose. This approach has many more benefits, but in short it is a cooperation between communities and academics to jointly implement a circle of planning a change, acting and observing the process and consequences of the change, reflecting on them, and then replanning, acting and observing, reflecting, and so on….”

“Our main goal was to find ways to adapt to the new reality of changing climatic conditions, while making use of the natural elements that were already there. Farmers exchanged their traditional knowledge and incorporated new findings form science to improve the ways that they produce rooibos and conserve soils and biodiversity. Together, we improved and optimised these methods to get the best results.”

EMG also supported the communities to found a cooperative, right?

“Yes, in 2001 the communities founded Heiveld Cooperative and started producing organic certified rooibos. At the time 14 farmers were member of the cooperative, now it has 74 members. In 2004, Heiveld obtained its own organic and Fairtrade certification. By 2014, Heiveld exported rooibos worth 4,5 million Rand (around 400,000 USD at the time) and in 2015 it exported R5 million worth of rooibos to countries in the global North! Unfortunately, from 2015 until 2018 the region has been hit by severe drought. Yields failed and production decreased enormously.”

“As a reaction to these droughts, the Heiveld Cooperative has been hosting a project, funded through the small grants facility of the Adaptation Fund. The project enabled farmers to further increase their knowledge and capacities, and to test ways to “climate proof” their rooibos production such as mulching and applying minimum tillage approaches. The whole planning and production process is participatory, and farming families share 25% of the costs.”

Why is this project special, what are its merits?

“It’s a participatory, community-led adaptation project. It is low-cost and builds upon the knowledge and practices that are already there. It is very accessible for farmers and – although it’s a bumpy road – it is very effective. This had inspired other farming communities to replicate it.”

“In 2017, the co-operative’s fair trade trading partners in the global north supported a campaign that enabled the Cooperative to purchase a 2,500 property to improve access to land for some of the members. This is “walking the talk! By paying premium prices during the drought, they enabled the Cooperative to support its members to re-establish their rooibos plantations by providing seed and seedlings. As a result, by 2021 production had risen to 84 tons.”

What is your hope for this initiative in the near future?

“My hope is that the members of the Cooperative can continue to innovate and also expand their access to land so that they can all produce sufficient rooibos on an ecological basis to meet the needs of their families. I also hope that they will continue to inspire others, and that the government will recognise that agroecological approaches are the most sustainable for the planet and the most beneficial for farming communities. Then, government policy could support such initiatives, and the impacts could be shared more widely.”

How do EMG, Drynet and Both ENDS work together?

With Both ENDS we work together in Drynet to bring local realities from drylands to international policy arenas and funding organisations, such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, UN Climate Change Convention, GCF, GEF and the Adaptation Fund. Apart from this, Both ENDS and EMG support each other in our advocacy for recognition of community-based initiatives. We have been learning from each other almost since the foundation of both EMG and Both ENDS in 1991. I think EMG was one of the first 10 organisations that Both ENDS ever worked with! “

More information:

Untold stories by EMG about this case

This article was first published by BothEnds.

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