Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

Biodiversity and Rooibos

Author: Noel Oettlé
Phone: 027 218 1117

Tea and tradition
The Suid Bokkeveld, lying at the far north-western end of the Cape Floristic Region, is not an environment for the faint-hearted. Particularly in the southern parts, the landscape is arid, the temperatures extreme and droughts frequent. For most people of the region, small stock farming, rooibos tea production and social grants are the main sources of income. In this marginal farming area, overgrazing and inappropriate cultivation can easily degrade the land, making livelihoods even more precarious.

Most of the small-scale rooibos tea farmers in this region are members of the Heiveld Co-operative, a registered co-operative established in 2001. Koos Koopman, a founder member and Secretary of the co-op, explains how it started:

“Local people have harvested rooibos tea from the veld for hundreds of years. When it became a popular drink, we started cultivating the tea and selling it. But it was hard to get a good price working alone. We needed to bring our small amounts of tea together and share the costs of production. So we started the co-op and got a chopping machine that all the members can use. Working together has created work for young and old, men and women. We harvest the tea, chop it and dry it in the sun on our tea-court using traditional methods. Some of the women in our community sew the cotton bags the tea is packaged in. Now they have work even after the harvest time is over. When chances come, you must grab them with both hands and then you will have a bright future!”

Rooibos Tea, Biodiversity & Climate Change
Rooibos tea is a traditional, health-giving South African tea produced from the shrub Aspalathus linearis, which grows naturally in the Cederberg and Bokkeveld regions of the Western and Northern Cape. Used for its refreshing and health giving properties since time immemorial, rooibos is produced from a number of sub-species of Aspalathus linearis, all of which are adapted to specific ecological niches in a very climatically and physically diverse environment.

Most commercially harvested rooibos is cultivated. It is grown from a fast growing, pioneer type plant that thrives in a disturbed environment and is not very long lived. Most commercial plantations are only productive for 4 or 5 years. Clearing of land for production of cultivated rooibos has resulted in the destruction of biodiversity, including threatened plant species.

Most wild-harvested varieties of rooibos are longer-lived and more resistant to drought and fire than the cultivated variety. With concerns mounting about the impact of global climate change on biodiversity and agriculture in the arid western areas of the country, researchers have collaborated with members of the Heiveld Co-operative and the Wupperthal Rooibos Tea Association to learn more about the endemic sub-species of rooibos and the plant communities that they associate with, and to investigate how to adapt to these threats. Working with the harvesters, scientists have drawn on both local knowledge and scientific methods to develop guidelines for the sustainable harvesting of wild rooibos. This research aims to help secure the livelihoods of rooibos tea farmers in the region.

The Heiveld Co-operative
The Heiveld Co-operative was formed by “Coloured” small-scale farmers in the Nieuwoudtville district of the Northern Cape Province, South Africa. Their aim was to address the impact of decades of exclusion and neglect that they had suffered during the Apartheid years.

The lack of agricultural extension services in the past meant that members of the Heiveld Co-operative either harvested wild rooibos tea from the veld or cultivated it without pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Ironically, this meant that the product was in effect “organic”. This, coupled with the fact that sales of the tea would benefit marginalised farmers, attracted the interest of fair traders in the north. Since its formation in 2001 the Heiveld and its members have been certified organic, and since 2003 they have also been certified “fair trade” by the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO).

Membership of the Heiveld Co-operative has grown from 14 to 49 small-scale farmers in just five years. The co-op has enabled rooibos tea farmers in this sparsely populated district to organise themselves within a democratic structure, to share the cost of equipment and infrastructure, and to supply a high-end overseas market that would have been extremely difficult to access individually. As a collective, members are now able to compete in the market place with the large rooibos tea producers.

Through the co-op, members have been able to share knowledge and skills of sustainable production, and this is helping the group to address problems like soil erosion and crop losses due to drought. In the absence of agricultural extension officers, two members of the co-op have been given additional training and appointed as “mentor farmers” to advise fellow farmers. Furthermore, the co-op participates in forums and broader sustainable development debates with representatives from government, researchers, other farmer groups and NGOs.

Sustainability – beyond the rhetoric
Noel Oettlé from EMG explains that they are partners with the Heiveld Co-operative in an action research project that aims to inform national legislation and policy by presenting “best practice” experience in the field of sustainable rural development. Through involvement in cycles of planning, acting and reflecting, project partners have been developing a deeper and more practical understanding of what sustainability means to them.

The research has also shown that there is no place for “quick-fix” solutions when trying to integrate marginalised communities into the mainstream of a globalising economy. Developing socially and economically sustainable communities requires people to be conscious of the global context, and confident and competent to solve their own problems in locally appropriate ways. Agencies involved in sustainable development projects have a responsibility to act ethically and not to subject communities to projects with unrealistic outcomes, budgets or time frames. Noel reflects: “We believe that every person or community has a potential for development that can be enhanced by positive experiences, or eroded by negative experiences. Conservation is inextricably linked to developing and expressing one’s self-worth, and love for others and the environment.”

Heiveld members actively conserve the biodiversity in their production areas. In the wild harvested areas the biodiversity is kept pristine, and in the cultivated areas broad strips and buffer zones of natural vegetation are left intact, or re-established.

Involvement in the Heiveld Co-operative has been an opportunity for members of the Suid Bokkeveld community to develop knowledge, skills, confidence and a sense of self-worth. Through harvesting and selling their tea to an overseas niche market, co-op members are contributing economically and socially to their families and community. By farming more sustainably they are caring for the local and global environment. And what they are learning and sharing about sustainable farming methods is making a contribution in intellectual and policy circles. Locally and globally, the members of the Heiveld Co-operative are making a difference. Knowing this makes them very proud.

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Local Organising Committee