Credit  Angus Burns

‘We are rural people who want to do good for other rural people.’ This line bears such consequential sentiment. It was said by soil scientist Sissie Matela of Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS), a non-profit social enterprise that she and environmental scientist Nicky McLeod established in the rural Eastern Cape village of Matatiele 20 years ago. They both live here and have done exceptional work in improving rural livelihoods through a series of ‘landscapes and livelihoods’ projects.

Their unique partnership is featured on the BBC StoryWorks platform as an exceptional example of agency in action, for which Matela and McLeod received WWF’s Living Planet Award in 2019.

‘People need to be able to make a living where they are,’ says Matela. ‘When you see young rural girls and boys walking down the road smiling and chatting, you wonder where they will end up, and how they can develop skills and employment for a better future. Some of them will be able to pursue higher education or find work in the cities, but what about the majority?’

Over two decades, Matela, McLeod, their ERS team and partners, have incrementally created jobs and increased sustainable self-employment, predominantly through livestock farming – the main source of income in the area – as well as through microenterprises such as eco-friendly charcoal production, and by training a team of young people to be part of ERS. More recent projects include the development of smallholder vegetable farming and a pilot microenterprise that removes alien invasive wattle trees from the river banks to make eco-friendly charcoal.

The ERS projects are centred on growing the green value business chain through the uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership (UCP) – a communitywide programme of landscape and water rehabilitation, combined with a managed livestock grazing regime, in partnership with six local chieftainships. ERS’s projects have been supported by the Nedbank-funded WWF Nedbank Green Trust for several years, and by other partners such as Avocado Vision, Lima Rural Development Foundation, Conservation SA and Meat Naturally Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Conservation starts with improving livelihoods

‘Our work starts with people’s livelihoods, as it’s so much easier to engage people in environmental conservation if we improve their livelihoods,’ Matela explains. ‘When livestock gets fat and healthy, the farmers and their families are happy as they make more money at the livestock sales. Millions have been made simply by rehabilitating the grasslands and protecting the water.’

WWF’s water source areas manger, Samir Randera-Rees, who works closely with ERS and who helped lead a field trip to Matatiele to view what they are doing, says: ‘It’s a good story to tell because the projects are not only critical for local livelihoods and conservation, they are also critical for the whole country because this is one of a handful of strategic water source areas (SWSAs) in South Africa.’

Matatiele is situated in the upper uMzimvubu river catchment, which is part of the southern Maloti Drakensberg watershed, extending all the way to the river’s mouth in the Indian Ocean at Port St Johns. The third-largest river system in southern Africa, it is every bit a water factory draining over two million hectares and contributing to the country’s water supply hundreds for hundreds kilometres, as far as Johannesburg.

50% of South Africa’s water is from 10% of its land surface

SWSAs cover less than 10% of South Africa’s land surface but provide more than 50% of the entire country’s water. The country is disproportionately reliant on water from the SWSAs, and they need to be carefully managed at all levels – from policy and legislation, all the way to what happens on the ground.

‘Put it this way, if 10% of your business product provided 50% of your revenue, you’d strongly protect that 10%, wouldn’t you?’ asks Randera-Rees. Ironically, over 40% of people in the Matatiele mountain catchment do not have access to tapped, potable water. They have to fetch it from the rivers and streams, many of which are infested with alien invasive silver wattle. It’s a huge problem, as one hectare of wattles uses approximately two million litres of water per year.

Ideal cattle country

‘The Matatiele region is ideal cattle country with rich grasslands and wetlands that are good for grazing and that serve as key water storage areas,’ McLeod explains.

‘Grasslands need to be grazed, otherwise they become moribund with single, unpalatable species like wattle or mountain wiregrass dominating instead of a healthy mix of palatable indigenous grass species and shrubs.’

Healthy grasslands, soils and wetlands are integral to catchment management; they slow down the water flow from the top of the catchment that recharges the rivers and streams, and they form a landscape ‘sponge system’ whereby the water 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. ‘Key to good livestock grazing management is good water management – they go hand in hand,’ says McLeod. ‘Well-managed grazing keeps the grasslands and wetlands healthy, and the soil mantle intact. Unmanaged grazing leads to grassland degradation and severe soil erosion, which undermines the water catchment system, as is evident in large parts of this province.’

The project helps communal farmers, who are the environmental and water stewards of the region, to collectively manage their rangelands and their cattle more productively at the source of the river system and along its course.

Partnerships with communal farmers in six chieftainships

‘Our team works in partnership with the communal farmers in six chieftainships to reintroduce 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,’ McLeod explains. The programme includes 55 rural villages, 1 338 members and 190 households with an average income of R43 000 a year derived from livestock sales.

As part of the communal grazing project, ERS is working with a mobile cattle auction company called Meat Naturally Africa (Pty) Ltd. 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. Community livestock sales fetch between R1 million and R2 million at each auction.

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.

Producing 100% grass-fed beef

 ‘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 need 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 white fat is sold as A-grade.’

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

 Wattle infestation turned into eco-friendly charcoal

To tackle the wattle infestation in the region’s river courses, a Forest Stewardship

Council-accredited eco-friendly charcoal production microenterprise, Ecochar, is being piloted in one of the tributaries of the uMzimvubu river. Here, several people from the area, are hard at work, cutting down alien invasive silver wattles from parts of the riverine area.

Chainsaw operator Thobani May, who leads the business, explains that they reduce the wood into kiln-size logs and bake them in two kilns at 600° C. One kiln uses one ton of wattle wood to produce up to 180 kg of eco-friendly charcoal.

The project is supported by Avocado Vision, a small-business-development company, whose managing director Henry Sebata explains: ‘We change this liability into an asset, in turn it frees up water and we can start the process of grassland rehabilitation where the wattles have been removed. Our vision is to help to drive the eradication of alien invasive species through microenterprises and SMMEs. The team clears two to four hectares in a month and the project is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).’

Significant carbon absorption of grasslands

The carbon absorption of grasslands is far higher than the wattles. Grassland carbon sequestration, much of which happens below the ground, needs to be far more widely researched. WWF’s senior manager of the land and biodiversity stewardship portfolio, Angus Burns, explains this could potentially be significant for South Africa where 30% of the surface area is covered in grasslands. Globally, grasslands are one of the largest biomes.

Avocado Vision has trained the young people in charcoal-making and business financial literacy. The income the young people make from Eco Char supports them and their families, and is invested in other businesses. Another of the project partners, Inhlabathi sources the market for the charcoal. ‘The good problem we have is that the pilot project cannot make enough to meet the demand,’ says Sebata. ‘It needs to be upscaled, with small teams of young people repeating the Eco Char model. Of course it comes with  issues, such as addressing the theft of the cut wood, but it can be done.’

Clearing of the alien invasive vegetation needs multiple interventions, including partnering with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s (DFFE) Working for Water and Working for Wetlands extended public works programmes. According to DFFE statistics, invasive alien plant species cover at least 10 million hectares of land in South Africa and are using an estimated 6% of the country’s freshwater yearly.

 Companies buying credits for ecosystem services

Randera-Rees says an idea being explored is payment by companies for ecosystem services, such as the freeing up of water. The FSC wants to create water, air and biodiversity targets, for which credits could be bought off the platform. Credits, for example, could be based on how much water would return to the environment per hectare cleared. The whole process would be tightly audited as already happens with the FSC, which is a member of CMO that conducts fastidious audits locally and internationally.

Disposable nappies are another major pollution problem and the project is discussing ways to address this with the communities.

Supporting 120 smallhold vegetable farmers

Another WWF Nedbank Green Trust project in the greater Matatiele area is supporting 120 smallhold farmers to establish and maintain organic vegetable gardens using natural compost and grey water bucket filter systems to water the vegetables. One of the farmers, Nomanesi Botomane, has a highly impressive garden with several types of vegetables thriving in neat beds that she started a few months ago.

‘We need to encourage households to grow their own vegetables and to increase production to be able to sell the surplus,’ says Matela. ‘They have to be organically grown as the runoff from fertiliser on both a small and large and scale, pollutes the rivers, streams and wetlands.

Freshwater springs for healthy water

Also part of the UCP effort is a WWF Nedbank Green Trust project that is making headway on the construction of 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. ‘We engaged with the leaders in the six chieftainships on the best sites to build the spring capture systems,’ says Christopher Jackson of the Lima Rural Development Foundation who is managing the project in collaboration with ERS and Conservation South Africa.

Locals collect water for drinking and doing their washing at spring capture systems. They build a brick structure (it can also be stone) around the spring to protect the clean water emerging from the spring from contaminants. ‘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 20 litres per day,’ he says.

Matela explains that their work is never done. The overarching goal of the UCP now is to establish the Maloti Thaba Tsa Metsi Protected Environment (MTTMPE), a 48 500 hectare protected area including all six chieftainships along the Umzimvubu watershed. The National Department of Land Affairs has given the go-ahead, and all participating communities have signed resolutions for their land to be declared a Protected Environment.

The good they have done

A 20th anniversary celebration for ERS was held at a hotel in Matatiele, where Matela and McLeod were honoured for the long walk they have done with the rural people of Matatiele and their project partners.

At the event, WWF’s CEO, Morne du Plessis, said: ‘ERS celebrates its 20th anniversary and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust celebrates 32 years, having invested over R300 million in environmental sustainability projects. Nedbank started flying the flag for the environment at a time when sustainability was not on anyone’s lips.

‘When you see the scale of the work being undertaken in the Matatiele area, you think it’s impossible until you see the sparkle of passion in the eyes of the people involved in it. It motivates us to bring the full might of public-private-government projects to this project and to all the projects we are involved in throughout South Africa.’