/ 11 July 2021

Project to heal the land a success

Healthy outlook: The grasslands, soils and wetlands in the Matatiele area are being restored, helping to protect the Maloti-Drakensberg watershed, essential to South Africa’s water supply and with profitable spinoffs for communal livestock farmers. (Willeen Olivier)

Streams that were dry are flowing again, grazing lands have improved and cattle are healthier in the Eastern Cape communal areas near Matatiele.

These results are the offshoots of five years of six chieftainships working with a local nonprofit, in partnership with WWF South Africa.

The uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership is a programme of landscape, water and grazing management and restoration that started in 2013. This partnership has many lessons for the health and economic well-being of vulnerable rural households.

According to soil scientist Sissie Matela of the nonprofit Environmental and Rural Solutions, established in Matatiele 18 years ago, the key to good water management is good livestock grazing management.

“They go hand in hand. Well-managed grazing keeps the grasslands and wetlands healthy, and the soil mantle intact,” Matela says. 

To achieve this, Environmental and Rural Solutions in collaboration with the six chieftainships and a number of partners, including the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, funded by Nedbank, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment introduced an adaptive livestock grazing and land management programme eight years ago, which has evolved into conservation grazing associations.

Matela says they have seen improvement in the grasslands and wetlands in the upper catchment. Streams that had been dry for many years are flowing again as a result of improved land management practices and alien plant control.

Healthy grasslands, soils and wetlands are integral to catchment management. They slow down the rush of water from the top of the catchment that recharges the rivers and streams, and form a sponge system that absorbs water and slowly releases it during the course of the year.

Matela says they are working in the upper Mzimvubu River catchment, which is part of the southern Maloti-Drakensberg watershed, one of the key water source areas for South Africa. “Water source areas cover 10% of the country’s land surface but provide more than 50% of our water,” she says.

As the grasslands and wetlands improve, so too does the quality of the grazing and the condition of the cattle, a key source of income. 

Zuko Fekisi, a member of Environmental and Rural Solutions, is responsible for the livestock management programme. He is from a village in the Matatiele area and works with the livestock farmers to manage grazing on communal land. 

“Our work requires reintroducing some of the traditional methods of rotational grazing and rest in combination with high-density, fast-rotation grazing to improve the health of the rangelands,” Fekisi says. “We work in partnership with the traditional leaders, who are the custodians of the land, and with the communal livestock farmers who are part of the cattle grazing groups in this programme. It includes 55 rural villages, 1 338 members and 190 households with an average income of R43 000 a year derived from livestock sales.” 

Of concern, he says, is that of the 1 338 members, only 53 are young people and only 392 are women. 

“Many young people today believe that livestock management should be done by older people. We have education programmes to address this because livestock is the currency here and a strong form of local self-employment and income generation for everyone.”

Part of the communal grazing initiative is working with a mobile cattle auction company, Meat Naturally Africa. Instead of the livestock farmers having to walk their cattle over long distances to auctions, Meat Naturally brings the auction to them. 

The farmers who participate in the grazing improvement project pay a lower commission to the auctioneer — 3% instead of 6% — and they are helped to vaccinate their cattle and buy vaccines at a lower price.

“This is 100% grass-fed beef and it has a far lower water and carbon footprint than feedlot beef,” says Matela. “It should fetch a top-grade price, but the beef classification system in South Africa favours grain-fed or feedlot beef. 

“Meat Naturally also assists sheep and goat farmers, most of whom are women, with collective sheep shearing and marketing the wool.”

Protected springs to supply clean water

The next goal of the uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership is to establish the Maloti Thaba Tsa Metsi Protected Environment, a 48 500 hectare area that includes all six chieftainships along the uMzimvubu watershed.

Sissie Matela, of the NGO Environmental and Rural Solutions, says: “We finally had the national department of land affairs saying we can go ahead, and all participating communities have signed resolutions for their land to be declared a protected environment. 

“Well-managed livestock farming can continue in a protected area based on clear planning and implementation guidelines, which are being done through a protected area management plan.”

Part of the partnership is a World Wildlife Fund Nedbank Green Trust project that recently started the construction of 18 spring capture systems. These will provide clean water to 600 households in 12 villages. 

This initiative is managed by Christopher Jackson, of the Lima Rural Development Foundation, in collaboration with Environmental and Rural Solutions and Conservation SA.

Jackson says the project started with young people from the area gathering information about the springs from which people collected water for drinking and household use. This included the amount of water coming from the springs and the level of contaminants such as E coli and dung.“Together with engineer Mahabe Mojela from Environmental and Rural Solutions, the project adopted a smartphone app to capture relevant data.

This data was taken to the chiefs and through discussions the best sites to build the spring capture systems were chosen.

Jackson says they build a brick or stone structure around the spring to protect the clean water from contaminants introduced by livestock and people.
He says the goal is to ensure the springs continue to supply at least 20 litres per person a day with potable water.