In the picturesque region of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, an organisation called Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS) has been quietly making a profound impact for the past 21 years.
ERS is dedicated to addressing a range of critical issues in the local rural community, with a strong focus on environmental conservation, sustainable agriculture, community development and environmental protection.
The organisation has many projects aimed at helping and empowering communities, such as cutting down invasive, alien wattle trees and placing the wood into kilns for the production of charcoal.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) explains the work in the following way: “Charcoal entrepreneurs are helping to restore grazing areas by removing the wattle, after which it returns to indigenous grass species, increasing the land available for livestock grazing and restoring ecosystem function.
“Springs in the area that have been dormant for years are reappearing, there is a noticeable recovery of the wetlands and grasslands and a reduction in soil erosion.”
ERS is also a long-time partner of the WWF and the Nedbank Green Trust, which support their ambitious projects.
One of the project’s most notable initiatives is the Ecochamps programme, which identifies and empowers community members, especially the youth, who are actively engaged in research efforts.
ERS and the Ecochamps programme are shining examples of how investing in human capital and engaging with local communities can have a lasting and positive impact on both the environment and the people it serves. Through combining local and scientific knowledge, these initiatives are making a major contribution to conservation and empowering people.
The young Ecochamps venture into local communities to collect valuable data, which is used to develop programmes and solutions that can benefit the communities.
The essence of the programme lies in the belief that investing in people is far more effective and sustainable than merely constructing infrastructure.
Nicky McLeod, who is a co-founder and the director of operations and finance, and a driving force behind ERS, articulates their philosophy, “People often ask us why we don’t have nice infrastructure. We would rather train people and invest in human resources and skills rather than provide fancy infrastructure that will go to waste.”
What makes ERS stand out is its commitment to putting the youth at the forefront of conservation within the community. It’s a remarkable example of intergenerational co-operation, with the elders granting young people the platform and respect they deserve in the realm of conservation.
A good example of this collaboration was when community members gathered to deworm their cattle. Among them was Nomzamo Phakamisa, a young woman leading a team of Ecochamps.
In this cultural context, it is considered taboo for women to enter the kraal, a livestock enclosure. However, Phakamisa’s confidence shone brightly in a space predominantly occupied by men. What made this encounter even more exceptional was that she was allowed into the kraal because the community recognised the benefit of her presence.
Phakamisa, who began her journey with the programme at the end of 2020, candidly admitted that she initially had little to no knowledge of conservation when she started.
Her motive was to secure a job but her association with the ERS has changed her perspective.
“I started gaining an understanding of, and respect for, the environment,” she said.
Like many young people, Phakamisa initially felt out of place in this unfamiliar space, doubting her abilities because she lacked a background in environmental studies.
But the unwavering support the ERS team gave her, and the belief they had in her and her fellow Ecochamps, empowered them to overcome their self-doubt.
McLeod emphasises the invaluable role that these young Ecochamps play, as they possess an intimate knowledge of the local environment, having been brought up in the community.
“They are doing human-wildlife conflict awareness, engaging their communities and taking messages out — but bringing back even more. We are learning more than we are sending out,” McLeod explains.
The Ecochamps’ ability to engage with their communities and provide insight not only helps in data collection but also strengthens the bond between ERS and the local population.
Phakamisa, reflecting on her experience, shared how being part of the Ecochamps programme equipped her with the skills and, most importantly, the drive to make a living and a difference in her community.
“I was quite despondent and scared of what the future looked like for me but now I am so hopeful. As we speak, I have started my own little poultry farm and I have a small home garden.
“I have a piece of land that I want to use to expand my operations. Hopefully, I can employ people in my community and teach them all that I learned from ERS,” she said.
Amanda Kalaku, who is the project support officer at ERS and an alumni of Ecochamps, says that, as an Ecochamp, you are given the skills to go back into the community and teach others.
“Being an Ecochamp is about merging the indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. Also we give people the skills they need to make their communities better instead of migrating to the city, and not contributing to the rural economy, which has so much potential,” she says.
The story of Phakamisa and the Ecochamps is a testimony to the transformative power of education, support and belief in the potential of individuals to bring about positive change in their communities.
ERS continues to inspire hope and drive progress, not only in Matatiele, but in the hearts and minds of all those who believe in the power of dedicated individuals to make a difference in the world.