Communal livestock grazing today is highly complex from both a people and landscape perspective, and without sound governance in place generally leads to serious overgrazing, erosion and water shortages, as can be seen in some areas of the Transkei.

Turning this around is a long-term landscapes for livelihoods programme in the magnificent Matatiele region of the Eastern Cape. Called the uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership (UCP) it is a communitywide programme of landscape, water and grazing restoration that started in 2013. This is a showcase for other rural communities and offers a key strategy to mitigate the impact of crises like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic on the health and economic well-being of vulnerable rural households.

‘We are in the upper uMzimvubu river catchment, which is part of the southern Maloti Drakensberg watershed – one of the strategic water source areas (WSAs) for South Africa. WSAs cover 10% of the country’s land surface but provide more than 60% of our water,’ explains soil scientist Sissie Matela of Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS), a non-profit social enterprise organisation established in Matatiele 18 years ago and part of the UCP. Through ERS, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, with funding from Nebank, has supported the UCP programme over several years.

‘Key to good water management is good livestock grazing management – they go hand in hand. Well-managed grazing keeps the grasslands and wetlands healthy, and the soil mantle intact,’ Matela explains. To achieve this, ERS, in collaboration with six chieftainships and partner NGOs introduced an adaptive livestock grazing and land management programme eight years ago which has evolved into widespread conservation grazing associations across the six chieftainships.

Matela says during this time they have seen tremendous improvement in the grasslands and wetlands in the upper catchment. Streams that had dried up for many years are flowing again due to the improved land management practices by residents and the alien plant management activities.

Healthy grasslands, soils and wetlands are integral to catchment management; they slow down the rush of water from the top of the catchment that recharges the rivers and streams, and they form a landscape sponge system for water that can be absorbed across these areas and slowly released during the course of the year.

As the grasslands and wetlands improve, so too does the quality of the grazing and the condition of the cattle – a key source of income in Matatiele and most rural communities.

ERS member Zuko Fekisi is responsible for the livestock management programme in the field. He is from one of the villages in the Matatiele area and works with the livestock farmers to plan the communal grazing. ‘Our work requires reintroducing some of the traditional methods of rotational grazing and rest in combination with high-density, fast-rotation grazing to improve the health of the rangelands,’ Fekisi explains. ‘We work in partnership with the traditional leaders who are the custodians of the land and with the communal livestock farmers who are part of the cattle grazing groups in this programme. It includes 55 rural villages, 1 338 members and 190 households with an average income of R43 000 a year derived from livestock sales.’

He explains the challenge is that of the 1 338 members, only 53 are young people and 392 are women. ‘Many young people today believe that livestock management should be done by the elderly. We have education programmes to address this as livestock is the currency here and a strong form of local self-employment and income generation for everyone, young and old, men and women.’

As part of the communal grazing project ERS is working with a mobile cattle auction company called Meat Naturally Africa (Pty) Ltd as a key partner. Instead of the livestock farmers having to walk their cattle over long distances to get to auctions, Meat Naturally brings a mobile auction to their community 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%), they are assisted with their cattle vaccinations and purchase vaccines at a lower price, as one of the incentives. Livestock sales fetch between R1 million and R2 million at each auction.

‘This is 100% grass-fed beef and it has a far lower water and carbon footprint than feedlot beef,’ says Matela. ‘It should be available to all South Africans and it should fetch a top-grade price, but the beef classification system in South Africa favours grain-fed or feedlot beef. We are trying to have meat reclassified in this country and we are very opposed to beef being imported when South Africa produces more than enough grass-fed beef. What we need to do is to educate the consumer that grass-fed beef with its creamy colour fat is the best beef to buy. At the moment only feedlot beef with its white fat is sold as A-grade.’

For the small-stock farmers (sheep and goats) in the Matatiele region, most of whom are women farmers in their own right, Meat Naturally assists with group sheep shearing and does the marketing of the wool.

‘This is precisely the kind of multiple-benefit, catalytic project that Nedbank advocates through its see-money-differently brand identity, which is all about recognising true value for the benefit of people and the environment,’ explains Yvonne Verrall, Nedbank Marketing Manager for the Green Affinity, Green Leadership and Sustainability.

Also part of the UCP implementing effort is another WWF Nedbank Green Trust project that recently started construction on 18 spring capture systems. These will offer fresh, clean quality water to 600 households in 12 villages (about 3 000 people), which is essential for good health and the frequent washing of hands during the pandemic.

This project is being managed by Christopher Jackson of the Lima Rural Development Foundation in collaboration with ERS and Conservation SA. He explains: ‘At the start of this project we deployed young people called EcoChamps from the area to undertake a hydro census of springs used by the communities. Together with engineer Mahabe Mojela from ERS, the project adapted a smartphone app to capture relevant data.

‘This included the location of springs where the communities fetch water for drinking and household use; the amount of water coming from the springs; and the current level of contaminants such as E.coli or dung. From here we took the data back to the leaders in the six chieftainships and engaged with them on the best sites to build the spring capture systems.’

Jackson explains they build a brick or stone structure around the spring to protect the clean water emerging from the spring from contaminants introduced by, for example, livestock or people doing their washing. ‘Our goal is to ensure that he springs continue to supply good clean potable water to households within 500 metres of the source, and to supply every member of the community with at least 20L per day.’

The next goal of the UCP is to establish the Maloti Thaba Tsa Metsi Protected Environment (MTTMPE), a 48 500ha protected area including all six chieftainships along the Umzimvubu watershed. ‘We finally had the National Department of Land Affairs saying we can go ahead, and all participating communities have signed resolutions for their land to be declared a Protected Environment,’ Matela explains.

‘It has been a long process of consultation and co-planning, and we are now trying to establish a fully representative and able management body,’ Matela explains. ‘Well managed livestock farming can continue in a protected area based on clear planning and implementation guidelines which is being done through a Protected Area Management Plan; it just elevates the whole programme into a stronger level of sustainable conservation and livelihoods.’

Small-stock farmers auction in Matatiele, Eastern Cape