Photo Credit: Nicky McLeod

At first light, the tolling of cattle bells can be heard drifting across the misty, dew-drenched grassland. As the background peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains are painted in glorious orange sunlight, cattle emerge from behind a curve in the undulating landscape, a gentle trickle that builds into a herd of hundreds of animals milling and mooing as they move into a nearby field.

by Samir Randera-Rees

At first light, the tolling of cattle bells can be heard drifting across the misty, dew-drenched grassland. As the background peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains are painted in glorious orange sunlight, cattle emerge from behind a curve in the undulating landscape, a gentle trickle that builds into a herd of hundreds of animals milling and mooing as they move into a nearby field.

Keeping the rural economy going

The owners of the cattle accompany their travelling livestock, and as they arrive at their destination they join a snaking line that leads to a small canvas gazebo in the middle of an open field.

Each farmer is met by employees of local NGOs based in Matatielie – Environmental and Rural Solutions, LIMA and Conservation South Africa – who dole out a squirt of hand sanitiser, a locally-made fabric face mask and a request to stand 1.5 m apart at all times.

The line culminates at a temporary cattle auction run by Meat Naturally Pty. Their concept of creating these mobile cattle auctions – bringing buyers to where the cattle are – is an innovation that is helping rural farmers and their families to continue to earn a living and remain resilient to the stresses of drought and compounding shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, during April and May 2020, Meat Naturally auctions in the Eastern Cape have facilitated the sale of over R3.6 million worth of cattle, supporting more than 640 people in this area.

A mighty river runs through it

To fully appreciate how WWF and its partner organisations are achieving this, we have to understand the relationship between the people and their landscape.

The area in question lies in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, near the Eastern Cape town of Matatiele. These highly biodiverse grasslands are particularly special because they straddle two of South Africa’s 22 strategic water source areas. These high-altitude mountain catchment areas receive a lot more rainfall than the rest of the country. In fact, our water source areas make up just 10% of the land area of South Africa, but provide 50% of our country’s surface water.

This particular place – part of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg Water Source Area – lies in the upper reaches of the Umzimvubu River, one of South Africa’s largest rivers that supports a primarily rural population of more than one million people.

In these deeply rural areas, the people have an intimate relationship with the natural environment. There is little formal economic activity, but rather, the people rely on the traditional livestock economy where cattle and small stock constitute a crucial part of the local currency. Their livelihoods are based on the quality and quantity of their livestock, which is based on the quality and quantity of grass and water. An impact on the grass or the water has an impact on the livestock, which has an impact on the people’s livelihoods. They’re all connected.

 A vicious cycle for livestock and livelihoods

The historic migrant labour system caused the management and governance practices that once kept the grasslands healthy, to deteriorate. As men left the rural areas, the traditional grazing associations that once determined where and how cattle were allowed to graze were weakened, and the urbanised men lost some of the centuries-old knowledge of how to manage the grasslands sustainably. This resulted in overgrazing, poor grass growth and erosion.

At the same time, alien trees have invaded the landscape, overpowering the local grasses and converting grasslands into dense, ecologically abject jungle. These single species stands suck up a lot more water than do the grasses, leaving less water available for people and livestock.

Furthermore, the invasive forests reduce the area of grass available to the animals, which means more livestock are being grazed on smaller areas. This means depleted grasslands, skinny cattle and more impoverished people. This degenerative cycle has been degrading landscapes and livelihoods for decades.

Collaboration for regenerative landscapes and livelihoods

Yet in recent years, this picture is starting to turn around thanks to the efforts of the Umzimvubu Catchment Partnership (UCP), a partnership of local communities, NGOs and government institutions, of which WWF is a member. WWF supports and funds partners like the Matatiele-based Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS) to convene and implement strategic interventions to regenerate landscapes and livelihoods through socially inclusive stewardship actions.

One such intervention involves clearing the menacing invasive trees and restoring healthy natural grassland in their place. More grass = more water = healthier cows = happier people.

We are also working to restore traditional grazing associations which govern the use of the grasslands. ERS has worked with the grazing associations to revive traditional grassland management practices such as rotational grazing. This ensures that the grasses are not overused and the ability of the land to feed the cattle is not compromised.

Turning healthy livestock into cash money

However, the partners faced a problem: the healthier cows were not necessarily translating into more money in the pockets of the farmers. Therefore the incentive to comply with agreed grazing plans was not very strong. The reason for this was that in the past, when farmers wanted to sell their cattle they either had to march their animals for two days to the nearest town, by which time the cattle had lost much of the condition they once had, or they had to sell to their neighbours who often didn’t have the money to pay a decent price.

UCP partners recognised this problem, but also the immense untapped commercial potential that lies in traditionally managed livestock across the continent. In response, one of the partners, Conservation South Africa (CSA) started Meat Naturally Pty., a private company whose business model seeks to unlock the potential of rural African livestock farming.

Their model is fairly simple: bring the people that buy cows to the people that have cows to sell and take a commission on the sales. They set up mobile cattle auctions in these deep rural areas in collaboration with local partners like ERS, CSA and LIMA. The auctions allow the farmers to get fair market value for their cows, and healthier cows mean more money in their pockets. What’s more, Meat Naturally Pty. incentivises sustainable management practices by charging members of compliant grazing associations a lower rate of sale commission on their animals. This has proved an incredibly effective incentive for farmers to join grazing associations and to manage their grassland resources more sustainably.

Livestock sales during lockdown

The culmination of all this is that, through a special agricultural permit, Meat Naturally Pty. was able to hold three auctions during lockdown, supported by ERS, CSA, LIMA and WWF. Around 540 animals were sold for a total income to the farmers of more than R3.6 million.

In total, 194 farmers – 23% of whom are women – sold cattle at these three auctions.

What is more, 64% of the farmers said that this income was critical to their family’s survival. These auctions, and the landscape management practices that enable them, are supporting at least 640 people through these difficult times.

A successful synergy for Eastern Cape farmers

All of this comes on the back of a devastating drought and the economic impact of the national lockdown. This small success story demonstrates how sustainable landscape management combined with strategic market access is helping these rural farmers to remain resilient, and in many cases to thrive, in the face of adversity. This story shows the importance of pursuing a green recovery plan post-Covid-19, balancing the needs of people and nature, so that we as a society will be more resilient to the many challenges that lie ahead.

WWF would like to thank all the funders for their financial support to enable the vital work in this area – Coca-Cola RAIN, First Rand Foundation, Nedbank, Sanlam and WWF Nedbank Green Trust.