/ 17 October 2021

Conservation boosts cattle farmers

Lion Thethe 11e
Beneficial partnership: Lion Thethe, a livestock farmer on communal land in Welverdiend, a village in Mpumalanga near the Kruger National Park, owns 60 cows. (Andy Mkosi)

Seated underneath a tree on a stack of bricks, Lion Thete, the chairperson of the Mokgapeng cattle cooperative in Welverdiend A, a village in Bushbuckridge, is chairing a gathering of cattle farmers who are in a partnership with Conservation South Africa (CSA).

Being a livestock farmer had been Thete’s plan from a young age. After seven years of working as a herdsman, his employer gave him his first heifer. Thete now owns 60 cattle and 10 goats.

“After getting the first heifer, it had a calf a year later. I bought three more cattle soon after that, two heifers and a bull. Having cattle for me was a symbol that I was a man, it was for pride and I never planned to make money from them,” he said. 

Thete, like a lot of men, went to look for work in Gauteng. He found a job at a plate manufacturing company in Boksburg, and he worked there until 1992.

“I had 24 cattle at the time and decided to quit my job to look after my cattle. It was a risk, but I was hopeful that it would rain, and I used the payout from my job to feed my cattle. The drought ended and my cattle survived. The risk paid off in the end,” he said. 

The ability to make a living from the sale of cattle is important for Thete and his fellow cooperative members. But living in a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) zone given their proximity to the Kruger National Park, access to the market has been one of the biggest difficulties for this group of farmers. Overgrazing and drought are some of the problems they face. 

The conservation stewardship programme is centred on protecting the rights of farmers and conserving the natural vegetation and so has developed ways to get farmers involved in conservation while improving their access markets.

Lerato Mogane, the conservation stewardship coordinator at CSA, said: “We recognise that this is communal land, meaning that the communities are the owners of the land. People with goats, people who do subsistence hunting, who harvest medicine, who harvest firewood, so whatever conservation strategies we propose, must not alienate those who also have a right to use that area, since we only work with cattle farmers.

“It is important to focus on human rights because, with conservation, we have to acknowledge that it needs people and people need nature, so we cannot come with a lens of we have to save the rhino, save the elephant — people also need to benefit from that.” 

Mogane is responsible for negotiating and implementing conservation agreements with the farmers and  Ato train them, as well as people who are hired through, for example, the Yes4Youth programme.

The conservation agreement model has been recognised by the government. It started as part of the Conservation Agreement Private Partnership Platform under the United Nations Environment Programme and is now continued under the Pro-Nature Enterprises project, funded by the French Development Agency.

The aim is to build links between the private sector, local residents and landowners who commit to reduce land degradation, achieve biodiversity conservation, support climate regulation efforts, and practice sustainable natural resource management. 

Welverdiend A’s 20 000 hectares of degraded communal land under the Mnisi tribal authority is to be restored through the project. Seven of the 13 villages in the area are working with CSA.

After agreeing to use sound grazing practices, the farmers receive negotiated benefits such as access to a market, fodder, livestock branding, and training.

Moses Mathabela, the liaison officer at CSA, first introduces the programme to the traditional leaders. With their approval he then meets the farmers. “Once the farmers have agreed to work with us, I explain the steps that will follow,” he said.

These steps include the introduction of the enterprise development manager, who will assist the committee to form a cooperative. A skills audit and mapping exercise is then done. This is followed by the introduction of the stewardship coordinator, who negotiates the conservation agreements with the farmers.

The Mokgapeng cooperative became part of the pilot project in 2018 and, although the committee existed, it was not functional, which meant it could not benefit from government programmes. 

Lerato Mogane (right) is the coordinator for Conservation South Africa’s stewardship programme. (Andy Mkosi)

A butcher used to buy their cattle at an auction held about once a year at prices the cooperative learnt were not competitive after Meat Naturally, which provides a link between Africa’s small-scale farmers and commercial meat buyers, began participating in the auctions.

“We have had at least five sales since we joined the programme. It was exciting to finally participate in a sale after so many years of having it once a year. The one butcher that was allowed to buy from us because of the foot-and-mouth disease was too slow to organise sales because they did not have competition, but that changed when Meat Naturally joined through CSA,” said Thete.

Other neighbouring villages saw how the programme was working for the likes of the Mokgapeng cooperative. 

But before they can be a part of the programme, a learning exchange process needs to take place where the farmers who are already in the programme share their experiences. 

Rickson Ncube, from the neighbouring Share village, is the chairperson of the farmers’ committee, which is currently in the negotiation phase of the conservation agreement. 

“I think it would be a good idea for us to enter into an agreement with CSA. We have seen how the likes of Welverdiend and Dixie villages are benefiting and how their cattle are thriving, and we want the same for our cattle. 

“The herders who are also employed to assist farmers have been helpful, especially for the older farmers who sometimes cannot take their cattle out to the field,” said Ncube.