Securing the Southern Drakensberg watershed through stewardship and governance of communal Rangelands

Photo Credit: WWF


For every two drops of water in South Africa’s rivers, one originates in 8% of our country’s land area, mostly in the high mountain catchments along the eastern escarpment. This 8% of land is known as our water source areas. These water source areas are arguably our most important natural national assets; they are the crown jewels of our water resources and they are absolutely critical for South Africa’s water security and water supply.

The Matatiele region of the southern Drakensberg area of the Eastern Cape is part of the 8%. It forms the watershed between South Africa and Lesotho at the source of the Umzimvubu catchment or river system, which extends all the way to its mouth in the Indian Ocean at Port St Johns. It is the third-largest river system in southern Africa, draining over two million hectares, and supporting one million people along its length, 70% of whom live in rural settlements.

The Matatiele region is ideal cattle country, with rich grasslands and wetlands that serve as water storage areas. Well-managed livestock grazing is highly compatible with grassland and water system rehabilitation and provides a decent form of income for the local farmers. Poor management of water and grazing, by contrast, leads to land degradation, poor grazing and severe soil erosion, as is evident in this region. Vast amounts of topsoil are continually being washed downstream and ultimately out to sea through the Umzimvubu river system, which has the highest sediment load of any river in South Africa. In such a compromised system, any dam that is built in the catchment is destined to fail as it will quickly become a silt trap, nullifying its ability to store water.

To address all of this holistically the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, in partnership with Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS), is funding a farming support project to improve livestock grazing methods in five communal grazing areas in the greater Matatiele district. These areas are situated high up in the catchment as all rehabilitation efforts have to start at the top of the catchment to slow down the water flow and restore the grass cover. The project helps communal farmers, who are the environmental and water stewards of the region, to manage their rangelands and their cattle more productively and sustainably at the source of the river system and along its course.

The project work requires reintroducing some of the traditional methods of rotational grazing in combination with high-density, fast-rotation grazing. We work in partnership with the traditional leaders and livestock farmers who are part of the communal grazing groups in this project, including 55 rural villages and 190 households with an average income of R43 000 a year derived from cattle sales. Livestock is the currency in the area and many families are entirely dependent on it for their livelihoods. A key component of this project is to produce a healthy resilient landscape for cattle that provide households with an income.

Previously, farmers would sell their cattle locally for traditional use or to individual speculators, and they did not receive market-related prices. Alternatively, they would walk their cattle for two days or more to get to the nearest livestock auction, and the cattle’s condition would decline en route.
As part of the grazing improvement project ERS is working with a mobile cattle auction company called Meat Naturally Africa Pty Ltd (MNP) as key partner. With this company the auction comes to the rural communities and they sell their cattle in situ at competitive prices. The main bidders at the auction are commercial cattle farmers and livestock agents. The farmers who participate in the grazing improvement project pay a lower commission to the auctioneer (3% instead of 6%) and they are assisted with their cattle vaccinations.

Adding to this is the EcoFutures initiative that ERS is driving to empower local learners about careers in the wide range of environmental fields, from tertiary educational studies (such as environmental or veterinary science) to becoming livestock farmers, water technicians, plumbers, renewable-energy entrepreneurs, paravets or ecorangers. We have a team of 13 ecorangers who manage and monitor the grazing programmes and who are paid by the Natural Resource Management Programme of the Department of Environmental Affair’s (DEA). Supervision, training and equipment of the ecorangers is funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and managed by ERS. A further 102 people from the community are part of the Working for Water invasive-alien clearing project. Their wages, training and equipment are funded by the DEA in partnership with the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. There are several ongoing invasive-alien clearing projects in the greater Matatiele project area, predominantly to address the black wattle infestations in the catchment.

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