Future-proofing South Africa for food and environmental security

Dr James Pryke, Dr René Gaigher and Professor Michael Samways of Mondi Ecological Networks Programme, based at Stellenbosch University

Dr James Pryke, Dr René Gaigher and Professor Michael Samways of Mondi Ecological Networks Programme, based at Stellenbosch University

“Humans versus nature” is an oft-reported struggle, but Mondi Ecological Networks Programme (MENP) tells another story. MENP follows the principle of optimal agricultural production while maintaining biodiversity and ecosystems. It’s about harmonising production and nature.

The harmonisation is addressed through large-scale ecological networks (ENs). This is where natural areas are left undeveloped between forestry plantations or agricultural land. ENs are wide strips of grassland and natural forests, corridors with all the features of a nature reserve.

Importantly, these corridors are connected across the landscape to ensure that plants and animals behave naturally.

“Roughly a third of the landscape is left in its natural state,” says Distinguished Professor Michael J Samways, team leader of MENP, the programme that designs these landscapes. The professor, an A-rated scientist, and his team are based at the department of conservation ecology and entomology, Stellenbosch University. Other key team members are Dr James Pryke, senior lecturer, and Dr René Gaigher, research associate.

Explaining the EN concept further, Samways says that natural landscapes provide ecosystem services. Examples include pollination and grass seeding and growing. It’s another name for the interactions that take place in nature.

“The services also benefit humans. People want to conserve the soil, water, land, fauna and flora —the processes that rejuvenate the system,” says Samways. Rejuvenation is essential for sustainable agriculture, also known as eco-agriculture.

MENP has designed numerous ENs, primarily around agro-forestry. They mainly focus on KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the high regions of the Eastern Cape. Large areas are set aside for forestry, around 1.5 million hectares, and about half a million hectares of this land have been put aside for ENs.

From agriculture to agro-ecology

So how did this all begin? “Years ago, foresters in SA were given incentives to plant as many trees as possible, known as wall-to-wall forestry. It affected the water supply, soil quality, fauna and flora,” explains Samways. A different approach was needed because the landscape was becoming severely impoverished.

In the late 1970s, there was a radical change in thinking. It involved collaboration across government, academia, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector. This led to agro-ecology: sustainable production where agriculture and forestry work with nature. However, implementation takes time.

“It’s a cyclical process. First research, then the various organisations and companies (such as Mondi) implement. It is an ongoing cycle of improvement, with more research and further implementation,” says Samways.

Mondi is a primary funder of MENP. Samways says that this collaboration works because the funding is given without vetting the results.

MENP also works with many other organisations. These include the WWF, GreenMatter, Sanbi, SANParks, CapeNature, EKZN Wildlife, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Beyond landscape redesign

MENP began in the 1980s. The focus is on future-proofing SA’s eco-agriculture, including water systems.

Samways has been involved in agro-ecology for 25 years, since the beginning of the paradigm shift. “It’s not just about redesigning but re-managing the landscape, which includes a social component,” he says. The wall-to-wall forestry plan excluded the community, whereas with ENs local people can graze livestock and gather medicinal plants.

Foreign markets have production regulations regarding biodiversity conservation and fair trade, but South Africa also has National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans. The work at MENP feeds directly into this, as well as the global Aichi Biodiversity Targets. (In 2010, the international parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a revised Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2011-2020).

Research for evidence

Considered a world leader in forestry, MENP’s research has global impact and has been published in 140 accredited journals. Their methodology includes supervising and training a significant number of post-doctoral, doctoral and master’s students.

Previously there was some scepticism about ENs due to the lack of scientific proof. “However, MENP has done an immense amount of research and proved that it works,” says Samways. “Primarily we have shown that the biodiversity in ENs is equivalent to a similar size protected area.”

Samways says that ENs have really caught on in the last 20 years and are being implemented globally, and research from MENP has shown that ENs also work for other types of agriculture.

Using retrospective analysis

MENPs research uses retrospective analysis. “This is a strategic approach where we look at fast ways to mitigate pressures yet [simultaneously] seek opportunities for positive ways forward — around the development of ENs and improved organic farming, among others,” says Samways.

He sums up the approach with: “Don’t count the books while the library burns”. Intensive cataloguing takes too long as there is an urgent need for conservation in transformed areas (where there is agriculture and forestry).

“Instead we take valuable indicators — such as representatives for biodiversity —to get important and rapid answers [so] that [solutions] can be implemented,” says Samways. MENP also focuses on threatened species.

To assess freshwater systems MENP uses ecologically significant species that represent the rest of the biodiversity. For example, they have developed the Dragonfly Biotic Index. Samways says that finding the strategies to conserve dragonflies works to conserve other elements within the ecosystem.

The research includes novel approaches. An example is acoustically profiling the landscape as a non-invasive way of assessing the quality of biodiversity. This looks at creating a sound profile where the sounds of species are recorded.

“We continuously develop new, workable and testable principles for the improvement to South African agricultural systems overall,” says Samways. He says this approach works if there is stakeholder collaboration and good communication with the strategy implementers.