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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 16, 2004

Air Date: July 16, 2004



A Changing South Africa – Part One

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The Wild Coast of South Africa boasts beautiful beaches, sandstone gorges, and a diversity of plants, some found nowhere else in the world. During apartheid, the black homeland of the Transkei in the Wild Coast was passed over by developers and the region stayed relatively isolated. The region stayed pristine but the people living there remained poor. Now, a proposed toll road promises to bring development to the region, but at what cost? (12:45)

A Changing South Africa – Part Two

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We meet Tony Abbott, a world-renowned, self-taught botanist. He takes host Steve Curwood to a sandstone gorge in the heart of the Wild Coast and introduces him to newly discovered species that have yet to be named. (07:30)

A Changing South Africa – Part Three

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On horseback and on foot, Living on Earth travels through spectacular Wild Coast beaches, red sand dunes and the grassy hills that are home to the Xhosa people. Our host is Amadiba Adventures, South Africa’s only community-owned and operated eco-tourism business. (10:00)

A Changing South Africa – Part Four

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Rooibos, or red bush, tea is grown only in the western part of South Africa. The area has a unique climate and ecosystem. Climate scientists are working with farmers in a small town in the region to help them adapt their farming practices to predicted climate change. (16:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. South Africa is one of the three richest countries in biodiversity, but many of its people are poor. And now plans to create jobs by putting a highway through critically endangered habitat has environmental activists speaking out.

KAY: You certain have flora that is found nowhere else in the world. We have brand new species of plants that haven’t even been given names yet.

CURWOOD: But others say the region has been too poor for too long.

QUNYA: We are saying now to the people, even the environmentalists, they must compare and balance the issue of social needs and the issue of animals and trees, because we like trees and animals to be there, but you need to balance with the poverty along the coast.

CURWOOD: Also in South Africa, the emerging science of helping farmers adapt to global warming, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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A Changing South Africa – Part One

Thatched houses called rondavels are scattered throughout Amadiba land. (Photo: Hazel Lum)


CURWOOD: From the wild coast of South Africa, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: As the sun starts to set a young boy of the Amadiba Tribe calls in the cows.


CURWOOD: Nobody here in this community along the Wild Coast of South Africa is in a hurry, least of all the cattle that plod home along paths that have been worn for centuries. This is a place that time has mostly forgotten. The treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean off shore kept European explorers and settlers away, and during the years of racial apartheid, the Wild Coast was isolated in the so-called black homeland of the Transkei. Economic development mostly bypassed this region, and that’s led to some overgrazing of cattle; but, on the whole, there is little environmental degradation.

The Wild Coast still has stunning undisturbed beaches and hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world. But with the arrival of democracy in South Africa, there are new pressures on the fragile balance between humans and nature. The impoverished people here aspire to do more than scratch out a subsistence life based on a porridge made from corn called mealies, and they are making their voices heard.

Zamile Qunya is the chairman of, the Amadiba Coastal Community Trust.

QUNYA: The people are cultivating and find mealies, which is the only food that they have, and also they do fishing. And they were working cutting sugar cane. And we have a very problem of people that are illiterate in our area. So our people are very starving. It’s the poorest of the poor. There are people that live with no food in my area.

CURWOOD: South Africa is the richest country in Africa, with an economy that is two thirds of the entire continent. Cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban have glittering malls, plenty of fast cars and luxurious homes.

The people here on the Wild Coast would like to share in the bounty, but they have some choices to make. One path would take them in the direction of development that would sustain their rich traditional Xhosa culture and unique ecology. Another would simply trade their economic hardships for the impoverishment of their environment and culture.

Already the natural geology and beauty of the Wild Coast is attracting developers who see the potential of profits in bringing highways, mines, hotels and casinos. As an alternative, the Coastal Trust began an experiment with eco-tourism in 1997.


(Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: Around the fire at the Kwanyana campground, workers for the community eco-tourism project called Amadiba Adventures are sharing dances, songs and stories with their tourist visitors. This song is about learning not to fear the baboons, which can be ferociously pesky in their quest for food. The singers stomp in place around a circle, gyrating their arms and torsos in a monkey-like motion.


Kwanyana camp crew (Photo: Karen Wildfoerster)

CURWOOD: The idea behind the Amadiba Adventures tours is simple: Get folks who like the outdoors to come and camp, hike, canoe and horseback ride in this unique ecosystem and it will generate jobs. Getting started wasn’t easy.


CURWOOD: When a white man named Simon Speering, who enjoyed hiking in the area, brought the idea of eco-tourism to the tribe 1997, he was met with a lot of suspicion. But once the Amadiba tribe set up a trust with local ownership and control, Lindele Mxhuma, a guide for Amadiba Adventures says, local people became enthusiastic.

MXHUMA: Because they see that it gave them some money in the beginning. So they were happy to see it happening here. And they have seen that no one took their land away as they thought. People come and see our rivers and bays and they pay for just seeing all those things and then they go back home, not damaging anything.

CURWOOD: Lindele’s work is to shepherd visitors along the Wild Coast on horseback and on foot. Part of his job is sharing his culture, like telling stories about playing games and tending cattle as a Xhosa boy.

MXHUMA: There are so many things that you did as boys, you know. When you are looking after the cows the other boys that were older than us, they used to come to us and make us fight each other, you know. What they did, they used to put a stick between you and the other boy. If that boy jumps the stick, then you have to fight because they will say he has defeated you, so you have to fight. If he comes across the stick you have to fight until he goes back. But not big fights, no. Just fights for boys, you know. We didn’t have grudges for that.


Lindele's family (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: Lindele’s father’s home is sometimes a part of the Amadiba Adventure experience. Visitors sleep at the compound, which has several round huts with thatched roofs, whitewashed walls and dirt floors, and a small square house for dining. There’s no sanitation beyond an outhouse, no easy access to fresh water or medical care or schools, and no lights beyond candles that they are lucky enough to afford, thanks to their modest income from the tourism project.


CURWOOD: But Lindele’s family is among only a fortunate few, observes Amadiba Trust chairman Zamile Qunya. Seven years into the tourism project, despite a stream of business from South African and European tourists, there are still no jobs for the vast majority of people here and he is disillusioned.

Zamile Qunya (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

QUNYA: But I must tell you the reality fact as a chairperson, and everybody will support me: there was no big impact in terms of job employment, in terms of spin-off that the tourism has created other jobs. What we are doing is that most of the people that are working in tourism as the tour guide, they are part-time and they are small people that can cook because of the tourists arriving. But they didn’t make any big impact in terms of the poverty we have and the population we have.

CURWOOD: So to bring more jobs and income to the area, Mr. Qunya tells me he has become a proponent of a project to build a highway that would link the cities of Durban and East London with a high-speed toll road. He has some powerful allies who agree.

OLVER: The Transkei itself has been historically very underdeveloped. It's an area with the highest levels of poverty in South Africa and the lowest levels of infrastructure.

CURWOOD: Crispian Olver is the Director-general of Environment and Tourism for South Africa.

OLVER: You know, for a long time government has been wanting to bring development to that area. And the best strategy for doing it that government has come up with is linking this development corridor to the north and the development corridor to the south, and, in a sense, creating an eco-tourism route that will then bring jobs and bring investments to Transkei. And, in particular, along the coast, to the wild coast.

CURWOOD: But the idea is steeped in controversy. For a while there was a debate over whether major parts of the largely pristine Wild Coast should become a national park. That discussion is now on hold, but the concerns that gave rise to the proposal are still very much on some people’s minds.

South Africa is one of the three most biologically diverse nations on earth, with many endemic species -- that is, those that are found nowhere else. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund lists this part of the Wild Coast, known as Pondoland, as a critically endangered global hot spot.

Cathy Kay is National Director of Conservation for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, the largest environmental organization in the country. She says putting a toll road through this sensitive part of the Wild Coast doesn’t make sense.

Cathy Kay

KAY: It’s the heart of the Pondoland Center of Endemism and was recognized by Conservation International at the World Parks Congress for its uniqueness, for its biodiversity and its plant species.

CURWOOD: For example, what’s in the biodiversity here that’s of so much import?

KAY: You certainly have flora that is found nowhere else in the world. You have the Pondoland’s Tea Man’s Bush which is over a thousand years old, growing in some of these valleys. We have brand new species of plants that haven’t even been given names yet.

CURWOOD: Just to the north of the Wild Coast, the beaches are crowded with hotels, condos and casinos. And while most of the new toll road would follow the present alignment of a two-lane road far away from coast, an 85-kilometer section would slice right through critical coastal habitat.

KAY: The only bit that we’re complaining about is this 85 kilometers.

CURWOOD: Again, Cathy Kay .

KAY: For the rest of the other 85 percent of the road, we have no problem. It’s only this 15 percent that we’re saying, “if you bring it this close to the coastline, what you’re going to have is another south coast” which is across the river from here where there’s solid wall-to-wall concrete right along our primary dunes, right across our estuaries and it’s actually destroyed the aesthetics of the coast.

CURWOOD: But Zamile Qunya of the Amadiba Trust says building the road would pay social and economic dividends for years to come.

QUNYA: We don’t have any industry, any factory in Transkei. So starting to put a road, which you make an access to, you will build garage, you will create a lot of employment. We are saying now to the people, even the environmentalists, they must compare and balance the issue of social needs and the issue of animals and trees. They must not be biased on trees and animals. They need to balance it because we like trees and animals to be there, but you need to balance with the poverty along the coast.

CURWOOD: Zamile Qunya also favors another proposal to bring jobs and income to the area: a mine that would dig out the titanium and other valuable minerals that have been found in the red sand dunes just inland from some of the most spectacular beaches. The Environment and Tourism Ministry opposes the mining, which they say could pollute the estuaries and threaten the area with sprawling shantytown development with people who come looking for work.

Mining might create 700 jobs that would be lost when the minerals run out, according Environment and Tourism Director General Crispin Olver, as opposed to the 9,000 tourism jobs that he says the area could sustain over the long haul. Still, he cites the bid to put in a mine as an urgent reason to find alternate means of development, including a toll road and more tourism.

OLVER: A solution that doesn't address poverty is ultimately going to lead to the entire erosion of the environment in that area. So, you know, one has to come up with a development strategy. The question is what development strategy. And for me, the basic choice on the Wild Coast is are we able to put an eco-tourism strategy on the table that works and brings jobs and brings investment into the area? Or are we going to allow alternative strategies like mining -- or I know there are a couple of agricultural proposals -- allow those strategies to go ahead? But it's going to be one or the other.


Steve Curwood and guide Lindile Mxhuma

CURWOOD: Lindele Mxhuma, the tour guide, feels strongly about what he expects would happen if the mine comes.

MXHUMA: This project that we have here will die. Definitely, it will die if the mining come here. Tourism and mining don’t go together.

CURWOOD: And what about putting a toll road through the Pondoland Wild Coast?

MXHUMA: Yeah, I don’t think that would be a good idea or a bad idea. You know, I’m neutral. What makes me neutral is that yeah, we do need the road, but we don’t need it very close to the coast.


CURWOOD: We’ll take a closer look at the biological diversity of Pondoland and find out more about the eco-tourism project involving Lindele and the Amadiba Trust just ahead, so stick around. I’m Steve Curwood and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

Related link:
Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa

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A Changing South Africa – Part Two


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, in the Pondoland along the Wild Coast of South Africa riding along in a four-wheel drive truck with Tony Abbott.

Tony is perhaps one of the foremost amateur botanists in the world. He’s an Englishman who left Zimbabwe more than two decades ago to try his hand at growing bananas in South Africa. Tall, craggy, and quick with ironic wit, he started hiking with a well-known amateur botanist throughout the region and learning plants.

Today, even though he has no formal training, Tony has been credited with discovering at least five species and having them named after him in the scientific literature. He says there are even more to discover in the Pondoland, which is one of perhaps fifty major botanical regions in the world still largely in its natural state -- and famous for the rare Pondo Man’s Tea Tree.

We’re off to see some of the plant life and other natural features near Nyameni Falls in an area that has been staked out as a possible route for a toll road linking Durban and East London.


CURWOOD: Tony Abbott gets out of the car and heads towards some bushes. Suddenly, the vista opens up into a massive sandstone gorge with a spectacular waterfall cascading down the far wall. He describes why the Pondoland region, which is two thirds of the size of the state of Rhode Island, is a biodiversity hotspot.

Botanist Tony Abbott (Photo: Steve Curwood)

ABBOTT: It’s not very big. It’s 180,000 hectares, and it’s the smallest of these centers in the country. The most exciting thing about it is that many of the plants which are special here occur in very small distributions. And we always quote the Pondoland Palm as being the sort of flagship species of confined distribution because it grows along the estuaries of two rivers only.

CURWOOD: Which ones?

ABBOTT: The Mtentu and the Mzikaba, just to the south of us here. It only grows on the north bank of those estuaries, and it doesn’t grow anywhere else in the world. But we have rarer plants than that. We have the Pondoland Ghost Bush, which for a long time was known from the odd single specimen; in 1965, we knew of one. And then that died, and then we found another one. And it was only in 2001 that we found a small breeding population. And that is the only place that they breed. So this is a plant which is obviously on its way out, because at the turn of the century -- not this century but the turn of the last century, in the 1900s -- it was spoken of as being fairly common on these sandstone waterfalls.

CURWOOD: Tony, how many different species of plants are there in this region, do you think?

ABBOTT: We talk about more than 2,000 species of plant in the Pondoland Center Plant Endemism, with certainly 10 percent of those endemic. But we’ve got a much closer idea with the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve. There it’s three and a quarter thousand hectares in extent. There’s 1,350 species of flowering plant and another 100 species of non-flowering plant. So we’re talking about 1,450 species. And these I have collected and they are kept in a hyberium so I can say this number with confidence. And in that three and a quarter thousand hectares, you’re looking at sort of the same amount of number of plants that occur in the whole of the United Kingdom, which is quite, quite remarkable.

So, we are very unhappy because there are major decisions being made about development in the area, and we believe that they are being made without taking cognizance of just how rich and diverse this area is. So I think, yeah, we have a big problem there.

A newly discovered species (Photo: Steve Curwood)

I’ll show you on that point over there, there’s a new species of cabbage tree. Do you know what a cabbage tree is?

CURWOOD: I’m afraid not. I know what a cabbage is, I know what a tree is, but I haven’t thought of them as being together.

ABBOTT: This only came to light last year. There’s another tree further up which has only come to light this year. There’s a morning glory, a species of Ipomoea, which I’ve only seen on two different occasions. It’s never been seen before. There are so many. There’s a species of Erica, a Heath, which is awaiting description. And all these things are coming out and, unfortunately for me, I suffer from something I call orographic degeneration.

STEVE: Okay.

ABBOTT: And that means the mountains are getting taller


ABBOTT: I no longer walk like I used to walk and we need more young people to get out there into these sort of areas and to walk in the wilder parts. But one thing I must tell you, walking up here towards the falls with a group of people, we went in down river from here and we were walking up and there was an incredible sweet scent drifting down the river, superb scent. And we could see nothing that was flowering until we walked around a corner, and there was a new species of tree. It’s undescribed at this time.

New species of tree flowering there with big yellow flowers, and this incredible scent filling the whole valley. And you know, to put across to people who are perhaps not interested in plants, the excitement and the thrill of seeing and experiencing something like that was a very, very special event in my life. It was superb.

CURWOOD: (sniffing) Too bad you can’t smell things on the radio. (laughter) I’ve heard that you’ve had, what, some five trees named after you? How did that happen?

ABBOTT: Well, it happens because first you’ve got to find things that are unknown. And people say, well how do you do that? How can you look at a tree or a plant or a shrub or a flower in the field and say that it’s new, it’s different? And the best way I can describe that is that – there goes a Lanner Falcon. There he goes. Isn’t he beautiful? Just coasting across the way. There he goes –

– it’s like in your workplace or in your school, and you know all the faces. And suddenly a new person moves in there and you say, where do you come from? Now how do you know it’s a new person? And it’s exactly the same with a plant. You have a mind picture of the people that live in your area and you recognize them. And when somebody new comes in, doesn’t fit your mind picture, you recognize it. And it’s exactly the same with plants.

CURWOOD: You have no degrees in botany?

ABBOTT: No, no, I’m totally ignorant. I’m just a farmer. In fact, I usually say, “I’m just a banana farmer.”

CURWOOD: But, of course, you know a lot more than that.

ABBOTT: Well, it’s…if you have an interest, you don’t need qualifications at the beginning. You gain it all as you go along if you’re interested in it. And I don’t want the kind of deep qualifications, I don’t want to sit in an office in a hyberium studying through microscopes and writing vast papers on computers. Not my interest at all. This is where I want to be. This is where I’m happy. Out here with the waterfall in the background, Lanner falcon over the top, and there were some black swifts here just now, and all these wonderful plants that are my friends.


CURWOOD: Tony Abbott is world-renown amateur botanist who lives in Pondoland on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

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A Changing South Africa – Part Three


MXHUMA: It has so many things. Like desert-like areas, and forest, and all landscape, gorgeous. It’s because of its beauty.

CURWOOD: Lindele Mxhuma loves his workplace: the Pondoland Wild Coast of South Africa. He works as a guide, leading tourists on foot and horseback to various attractions and campsite in the area


CURWOOD: Riding horses along the beach, a group of Living on Earth listeners has joined producer Eileen Bolinsky and myself for a few days to sample an eco-tour led by Lindele. The Amadiba Coastal Community Trust has created these eco-tours as part of their efforts to bring jobs and income to the community without undermining the traditional culture or altering the landscape.

JEFFERIS: The beaches are just a fascinating asset, just some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

CURWOOD: Frank Jefferis is a Living on Earth listener from Illinois.

JEFFERIS: Long, wide open beaches, no one there, with a big beautiful dark green dune from the foliage behind you. And beautiful rolling waves. It's just a beautiful asset they have here.


Amadiba Adventure horses on a hillside. (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

CURWOOD: We ride on beach after beach, making our way right at the edge of the surf. Soon our hot and tired mounts head over some grasslands and down to the Kwanyana campsite, which is next to a stream. At the camp I check in with Michael Giles, head of the travel agency Heritage Africa that arranged the Living on Earth safari. Michael has also donated safaris for some lucky listeners in exchange for underwriting credits. I ask him just why he recommended this trip on the Amadiba Trails.

Michael Giles of Heritage Africa (Photo: Steve Curwood)

GILES: Well, the situation in Africa and in other parts of the world, but particularly Africa, is that you have very poor people that live in very beautiful areas with a lot of wildlife, and those things are of value to people in the west. But it's not of as great value to them because they are contending with how to feed their families and how to take care of themselves. So one way that the West can actually vote in a very positive way, and a very effective way, to preserve these fragile areas, is actually to come see them.


CURWOOD: Morning seems to come awfully quickly for tired folks with newly bowed legs. But the smells from the kitchen are tempting.


HLONGWA: Everybody, please, breakfast is ready. I've got soft porridge in here. I've got some cereals in there. I've got the homemade bread and some eggs in here. The ladies will be busy dish upping eggs on the table, so please help yourself.


CURWOOD: Sbongile Hlongwa is the Kwanyana camp director, and I ask her what difference the Amadiba eco-tourism project has made for the lives of the people here.

Sbongile Hlongwa manages the Kwanyana campsite (Photo: Steve Curwood)

HLONGWA: Ohhh, it makes a very big difference because many families are benefiting in this business. Even though, let's say maybe you are not working personally, if you are having a horse you are working here. Because if your horse is taking a tourist along the trail we are going to get something, you are going to get paid. So, it's making a lot of difference here in Amadiba.

CURWOOD: So if you own a horse it helps. Anybody else?

HLONGWA: With other families -- like me, I'm working here, I benefit, you see. I don't have a horse, but I am working, so I benefit here.


CURWOOD: Soon it’s time to round up horses and get moving.


CURWOOD: So, the name of this horse is?

MXHUMA: Record.

CURWOOD: Like “record”?

MXHUMA: Record, yeah.

CURWOOD: Like the radio business, huh?

MXHUMA: Yes, I think he will be fine for you today.

CURWOOD: I sure hope so. (Laughing)


CURWOOD: The grasslands give way to red sand dunes. We follow another series of beaches as one day seems to flow into the next. At one point, we get off our horses to hike up away from the ocean. We scramble up a hill through some exotic vegetation and come out onto a huge covered ledge -- almost a cave, really -- that is home to a troop of baboons. And since the baboons are out, our group settles on the ledge overlooking a giant pool. But it doesn’t take a lot of urging to get a couple of the more adventurous folks to jump into the water below.


CURWOOD: Along with the high adventure there are ecological lessons, too. Passing by the Mtentu estuary late one day we noticed palm trees on the north side of the river looking a bit out of place from, say, the South Pacific. They’re Pondo Palms, found nowhere else in the world.


CURWOOD: Back at camp, it’s time to rest our bones and have some supper. Tonight’s menu is chakalaka, a traditional South African specialty blend of beans, onions, carrots and hot peppers. And under the clear starry sky it’s time for that most ancient of human customs: stories and songs around the fire. A guide named Rhoo Nzonzo begins.

NZONZO: There was a boy called Japie, and he was staying with his father and his mother. And then he was having the dog …

CURWOOD: It seems that more than one culture has the tradition of the shaggy dog story, and this one is about a boy whose parents go away, leaving him in charge. His dog has to defend the household from a dangerous lynx.

NZONZO: They fought and fought, and it is said it was indistinguishable whether which one is the dog and which one was the lynx because all of them were red in color…

CURWOOD: The story ends with Yapie’s parents returning home, proud that their son had protected their property. They declare that he has become a man.

And then Rhoo calls for a song.


CURWOOD: After four days on the trail, the Living on Earth listeners are leaving. Jenny Carter from Vermont says she is now concerned about the fate of what she calls “one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

CARTER: I hope they’re able to meet their goals of getting enough people here. Well, they have a contradiction that they have to live with, which is wanting to preserve their culture, but at the same time having to bring people in from the outside to have a strong enough economy to preserve their culture. So they’ve got a real contradiction. But I guess the greater harm for their culture would be having massive development.

CURWOOD: I ask Lindele, our guide, to look into the future, perhaps 20 years, and say what he’d like to envision for his people here.

MXHUMA: I would like to see my people getting educated. You know, there are quite few schools that we have here. The illiteracy rate is very high in this area. So many people are not educated. And people having clinics -- there’s no clinic in this area. When someone is sick has to go to Port Edward to Bizana, which is very far from here.

CURWOOD: What would be your hopes for the land? The environment here at Pondoland?

MXHUMA: I would like to see this place staying as what it is now in the next 20 years, if that would happen. But I would like to see it what it is. This is the only place that we have in South Africa. There is no such place. Only this Wild Coast that is still like this. All the coasts are damaged in South Africa, so I would like to see the Wild Coast staying like this.

CURWOOD: South Africa has already provided leadership to the world with its relatively bloodless end to apartheid, and a strong spirit of racial reconciliation that is evident here and almost anywhere one goes in the country. As the third most biologically diverse nation in the world, behind only Brazil and Indonesia, much is riding on the success or failure of the attempts here to use eco-tourism to bring about sustainable development.

Related links:
- Meet the Living on Earth safari travellers
- Photos of LOE’s safari in Timbavati, Greater Kruger National Park

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CURWOOD: Coming up: adapting to global warming and climate disruption in the tea-farming region of South Africa. I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from Kindergarten through grade 12; Ford, presenting the Escape Hybrid, whose full hybrid technology allows it to run on gas or electric power. Full hybrid technology details at fordvehicles.com; the Annenberg Fund, for excellence in communications and education; and, the Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.


A Changing South Africa – Part Four

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It’s daybreak in the far southwestern corner of Africa, a few hours drive north of the Cape of Good Hope. We’re in the wild lands and farming country known as the Succulent Karoo. The broad plateaus look like a desert dotted with shrubs called fynbos, vast and bland except when early spring rains ignite blooms of wildflowers.

Like other parts of South Africa, there are many plants here found nowhere else in the world. Though with its biting winters and scorching summers, the semi-arid Karoo has a radically different climate from much of the rest of the country. Its unique location and size have attracted scientists looking for evidence of the local impact of global climate change.


CURWOOD: Farmers here grow grain like oats and barley, and raise sheep. This is also the only place where the famous South African rooibos, or red bush, tea grows. This woody shrub looks much like the many other fynbos bushes, although a closer look reveals shiny dark green leaves shaped much like the herb rosemary.

A cultivated rooibos field, after harvest. (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

Traditionally, the Khoisan, or Bushmen, brewed a bright reddish-orange tea from the rooibos leaves. Now, thanks to smooth taste of the tea and its reputation as a promoter of health, the cultivation of rooibos is the biggest cash crop for many farmers here, including Koos Koopman.


KOOPMAN: I grow Rooibus tea. And then I make a little bit of small fruits, a little bit of vegetables in the garden like potatoes, carrots, cabbages, oranges, guavas. I don’t plant vegetables for marketing. I want to do it, but I haven’t got enough money yet to do that.

CURWOOD: Koos Koopman grew up on this land as the son of a colored farm hand. In the days of apartheid, “colored” was a distinct classification different from white or black Africans. Koos’s bronze skin, almond shaped eyes and wiry build suggest he may well have some Khoisan ancestors. He moved away to the city of Cape Town for three decades, but a few years ago after the end of apartheid, he came back to the area. By then he and his brother Barry were in their fifties. They used government assistance to purchase this farm of more than ten square miles from the white farmer who had once employed Koos and his father.

KOOPMAN: I was always thinking of this farm. And so about two years back, I come here one day and he tell me that they got problems. As we sit here in front of the house he ask me, Koos, I want to sell this farm now and I want you to buy this farm.

CURWOOD: So, you’re all in this together, this is a family farm?

Koos Koopman and his sheep (Photo: Steve Curwood)

KOOPMAN: It’s a family farm. Can we go to there? I want to see my pot quickly. I was busy to make some soup for us, for lunchtime.


KOOPMAN (WALKING): You know that’s the way I grow up, with my pots on the outside. We bake our own bread, we make everything for ourselves, you know, we try to purchase as little as possible from the shops. And that’s the only way you can survive on the farm.


CURWOOD: Saving money is especially important when you have a new and high mortgage on your farm. And during the drought of 2003 things were very difficult for Koos -- 40 to 70 percent of his rooibos plantings withered and died. Cultivated rooibos is his biggest source of cash but there was a tiny bright spot: during the drought the wild rooibos plants scattered among the brush on his land seemed to hold their own.

Like every farmer, Koos knows there can be bad years, but he does feel that the seasons are becoming less predictable. I asked him how they are changing.

Koos Koopman

KOOPMAN: Sometimes very hot. Sometimes very cold. I’m not talking about the rain. Cold, and then snow, like a little snow, and it is dry and it burns the plants. And some of the things…when it is wet and the rain fall and it is very cold in the evening, and during the day it gets very hot.


CURWOOD: A few kilometers closer to town in Nieuwoudtville, the family of Mariette and Willem van Wyk has been farming for six generations since their ancestors came from the Netherlands.


CURWOOD: Mariette van Wyk pours me a cup of the naturally caffeine-free rooibos tea, and tells me that their operation has also been hit hard by the drought of 2003.

Mariette van Wyk (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

VAN WYK: Well, for the past ten years we couldn't complain. And then last year came as a total surprise, being so dry. We had one major rain, but everything failed.

CURWOOD: Usually they harvest 40 tons of rooibos in a year. In 2003, 80 percent of the crop failed. And when it became clear that the magnificent display of spring flowers was also not going to happen, it meant the tourists didn’t come to the bed and breakfast the van Wyks have run for almost two decades.

And with nothing growing for forage they could not afford much in the way of rations for their flock of 2,000 sheep. Parsing out what little grain they did have to the sheep and recently born lambs proved to be a heartbreaker for Mariette.

VAN WYK: When they see the bakkie or the pickup coming they all run to that because they know it's food. In the commotion every mother loses her lamb. Every morning you will find 20, maybe less, hopefully less, sheep or little lambs dead around there … And the first time my husband took me out with him I felt like crawling under the bed when I came back. I just couldn't handle all those little dead bodies lying there.

If we have good rains for the next two years we hope to recover, in about two to three years.

CURWOOD: So let me ask you this: How much does it seem that the weather is outside the normal range of what it seems to have been all the years that your family has been farming here?

VAN WYK: Umm, I am always careful to say this: people are talking a lot about they don't understand the weather any longer. And it's happening later and later that your winter clothes are coming out.


CURWOOD: On the road along the front of the Suid Bokkeveld Mountains into the town center of Nieuwoudtville, rows of cultivated rooibos look dusty and dry in the heat of what locals say should be a cool early winter day. Signs that this could be more than just the odd dry spell have attracted the interest of scientists at the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town.

The science involved is complicated, but the general scientific consensus is that the earth is warming because of the widespread burning of coal, oil and gas since the Industrial Revolution, as well as the cutting of vast amounts of forests. The El Niño weather pattern that seems to come more and more often with this warming tends to parch this corner of the planet.

ARCHER: One of the climate change projections is that there will be kind of a longer term drying out, or a reduction, for the broader area. Not just for the Suid Bokkeveld but for interior South Africa.

CURWOOD: Dr. Emma Archer is a geographer with the Climate Systems Analysis Group.

Dr. Emma Archer (Photo: Steve Curwood)

ARCHER: A second one, which is quite worrying, is that there may be an increase in the frequency in what we call dry spells. So a period without rain, which is critical for agriculture within a rainy season, we may be getting more of those. And, most importantly, the broad projection, and something which the World Meteorological Organization actually put out a brief last year on which they agreed. Whereas people may have received rainfall within a certain range, around a normal value, it seems as though that variability will increase. And so more extreme precipitation events will be experienced.

CURWOOD: Emma Archer is in Nieuwoudtville to get the word out to local farmers that not only should they expect less rain, but they will also get it at different times than they are used to getting it -- and it’s time to start planning how to adapt.


CURWOOD: A few years ago a group of rooibos farmers in the Nieuwoudtville area organized themselves into the Heiveld Cooperative, with the help of the Environmental Monitoring Group, an advocacy agency. To boost income, they got their crop certified as organic and developed markets in Europe where the reputed health benefits of rooibos are prized. They are also working on strategies to cope with the effects of long term-drought. Noel Oettle is program manager for the Monitoring Group.

Noel Oettle of the Environmental Monitoring Group (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

OETTLE: The farmers are quite aware that the climate is getting tougher. That's their perception and the data is certainly supporting a trend towards drier and more extreme climatic events. And there are a number of ways in which they can adapt their practice towards production which is less likely to be affected by climate.

CURWOOD: Some growing techniques involve plowing in ways that conserve moisture, and using other plants to block winds that promote drying. And the experience of Koos and other farmers with drought-tolerant wild rooibos is prompting some botanical research as to the feasibility of using the wild tea to help adapt to climate change. Rhoda Louw is a graduate student in botany at the University of Cape Town who is conducting a study with farmers of the Heiveld Cooperative.

LOUW: We’re looking at the sustainable harvesting of Rooibos wild tea….

CURWOOD: …which is relatively slow growing. But Rhoda is looking to see if farmers could gather enough of it to make it economically worthwhile.

LOUW: And we’re looking particularly at the wild rooibos tea because it’s a strong source of income for the people in the Suid Bokkeveld.

CURWOOD: There could be advantages. The cultivated tea that farmers use now can be harvested every year, but it has to be replanted every few years at considerable expense. The wild variety only needs to be carefully harvested by hand where it is found, although it can only be cut every two years.

Rhoda Louw (Photo: Steve Curwood)

Rhoda and Emma want to take me on a tour of Rhoda’s experimental plots in Koos’s wild rooibos fields. But first, we decide to try a bit of research on our own, from the perspective of a consumer: me.


LOUW: Would you like some sugar with your tea?

CURWOOD: Oh, no thank you, just a little bit of milk.


CURWOOD: If wild rooibos tea is to be successfully marketed, it will need to stand up to the flavor of the popular cultivated rooibos. So Noel, Rhoda and Emma give me a taste test.

CURWOOD: Okay. (SIPS AGAIN) Mmmm, mmmm, this is good (SETS DOWN CUP), this is outstanding.

OETTLE: Steve, you get our "wildman from the North" award (LAUGHTER).

CURWOOD: The cultivated tea is delicious and the wild rooibos tastes great, with a sweet aftertaste like honey.


CURWOOD: We’re back on the farm of Koos Koopman to see the wild rooibos tea plants that Rhoda Louw is studying. But before we head for the fields, Koos stops to tend his flock of sheep.

In case of drought, Koos says he’s careful to limit the size of his flock. He wouldn’t want them to overgraze and clean out his wild rooibos. He’d like to sell their meat as organic, but he hasn’t found a market yet. Still, he foregoes hormones and antibiotics in favor of traditional herbs to treat any illnesses in the flock. As we wait to drive to the fields, botanist Rhoda Louw explains how she’ll use the data she’s gathering at the Koopman Farm.

LOUW: We’re trying to marry the scientific knowledge with the indigenous knowledge, which there is a great body of, and try to integrate that. The final product will not be just the thesis, but also a harvesting manual that will come out of the research based on the results.

CURWOOD: What are some of the indicators you are using for your study?

Windbreaks help prevent soil erosion. (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

LOUW: One of the research questions is what is the difference between the wild tea and the cultivar. To measure that, we are looking at the life cycles of the two and comparing them over time. Another experiment is we are trying to see which harvest season gives you the greatest re-growth after a year.


Rhoda Louw measures a rooibos bush. (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: Climate researcher Emma Archer, Koos and Rhoda point out some planted tea fields and various soil conditions on our way to the wild rooibos. And Rhoda does a bit of translating as Koos slips into Afrikaans.


LOUW TRANSLATING: This is cultivated tea on both sides. This tea is about six years old. And if you look at this patch over here on my left, you’re going to get more moisture here than down below

ARCHER: Koos is saying there is more rainfall here because it’s higher, and you can see that.

CURWOOD: But it’s out of the vehicle to see the wild tea, and more than just a short hike.

LOUW: I’m going to take you to some of the sites, to some of the samples within the experiment here.


CURWOOD: Rhoda has about 250 plants in her experiment. The tea bush branches are cut off by hand with a sickle, leaving enough behind so it can keep growing. Farmers already know that the planted or cultivated rooibos might produce for less than a decade. The wild bushes have a longer productive life and can grow to be fifty years old. The wild tea is also more resistant to pests than its cultivated cousin, although the same pests go after both.


CURWOOD: Can you move wild rooibos, veld rooibis? Can you move the plant and replant it?

KOOPMAN: That is something I experimenting at the moment. I’m busy with it, Rhoda and me, but it don’t work.


CURWOOD: As we walk through the brush to find the experimental plants, we see one that was harvested the previous year in April, during the drought, and it’s almost dead. Others fared a bit better. And then we come upon a particularly robust rooibos plant, and Rhoda flashes a big smile.

LOUW: This is the July, one of the samples harvested in July.

CURWOOD: So, this is your more successful one from last year?

LOUW: From what I’m seeing, this is the most successful.

CURWOOD: What is the traditional time to cut this?

KOOPMAN: The traditional time is anytime from February to April. But look at those ones that were cut in January, February and into March. The experiments of that and the growing of that are much slower than the one of July. So, this is something that I’m working on. Maybe. But there’s one thing: you can’t dry the tea in July month because it needs sun and it is our rainy season, July. And we need sun, no rain when we harvest the tea and make the tea.


LOUW: So the production factors play a role in when tea gets harvested conventionally. But the tea, from what I’m seeing the tea is responding to rain events, not season patterns but rain patterns.


CURWOOD: As we leave the experimental plot, the ironies sink in. Wild tea is more resilient than cultivated tea, but it does its best when it is harvested during the rainy season -- yet traditional methods of curing the tea must be used when there is no chance of rain.

Like much good research, this study is raising as many questions as it is answering. For example, what cost-effective techniques could be used to process wild rooibos when it rains? And could timing the harvest according to the rains help the cultivated rooibos, as well? Long established farmers in the region as well as people trying to get started, like Koos, all share the changing climate of this place, and hopefully all can share in the benefits of the adaptation strategies that farmers as well as scientists develop in the coming seasons.


CURWOOD: Meanwhile, Koos is working toward a future that he hopes he can pass on to his children. And he’s confident with his experience and faith and the findings of the researchers, he’ll find a way to survive.

KOOPMAN: And we pray for the rain. Come and see me in five years time.

CURWOOD: What happens if it doesn’t rain?

KOOPMAN: Ah, I will never say that it won’t rain. It will rain. God makes summer, winter, spring and everything. You know, that’s one thing that a farmer must have. He must never lose hope.

CURWOOD: If there ever was a land of hope, South Africa must be it. More than a decade ago this nation of 40 million people seemed headed for a racial meltdown. But that didn’t happen. And Nelson Mandela, who grew up in the Transkei near the Wild Coast, went from political prisoner to president with remarkably little violence.

The nation’s fledgling democracy endures, and now South Africa faces the challenge of reconciling the urgent need of alleviating the poverty that plagues half its population with the critical mission of protecting its fragile ecosystems, from the Karoo to the endangered Pondo trees to the vanishing cheetahs. Democracy came here as all sides strove to forgive and find common ground. Perhaps South Africa can tap that legacy again, this time to find a common goal: to save its ecological riches and enrich all its citizens as it takes its place in the world economy.

Related link:
Environmental Monitoring Group

Back to top


CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. “South Africa at a Crossroads” was produced by Eileen Bolinsky. We had help from Ingrid Lobet, Chris Ballman, Jennie Cecil Moore, Diana Schoberg and Monica Wright. For photos and more from the Living on Earth safari please visit our Web site, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

Our program was mixed by Paul Wabrek in the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the World Media Foundation in Somerville, Massachusetts. Al Avery runs our Web site. Alison Dean composed our theme. I’m Steve Curwood, thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt and more. Women of inspiration speak at the Stonyfield Strong Women programs taking place in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. Details at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues.

ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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