‘Time to fix things now’
In Africa’s most biodiverse grassland, a local partnership is benefiting the community and nature through cattle
(Cover photo © Trond Larsen)
Editor’s note: This story is part three of the feature series “South Africa, side by side with nature,” which explores two South African landscapes where doing right by nature and doing right by people are the same. Read part one here.
A day at the auction
Two pickups rolled up on a field outside the village of Mafube, a small hamlet outside the farming town of Matatiele in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. The bed of these pickups held steel livestock fencing, an industrial scale and a levered gate wide enough for a single animal to pass through. Inside the cab, register books, deeds of sale and a bullhorn rounded out the materiel needed for a livestock auction.
But this wasn’t just any livestock auction. It was part of a community-led plan to save the most biodiverse grassland in Africa — and the people who rely on it.
It was a day long in the making. For months, Gerbrand Nel — the director of Meat Naturally Pty, a for-profit business established by Conservation South Africa and NGO partners in the Eastern Cape — had worked with the community to arrange for this livestock auction. The task had been more than picking a time and place. Under the Meat Naturally model, communities must practice environmentally friendly ways of grazing their livestock. In exchange, Meat Naturally provides access to the commercial livestock market that these rural farmers have never had.
The business builds on work that has been underway in Matatiele for 15 years.
In 2002, Sissie Matela and Nicky McLeod founded Environmental and Rural Solutions is a small but active association of ranchers, conservationists and development specialists working in the villages around Matatiele. Their work, in Matela’s words, is “integrated development” – building livelihoods and conserving nature at the same time. According to McLeod, “Livelihoods and landscapes link. To expect someone to derive a livelihood off of a dying landscape is crazy.”
For Matela and McLeod, expanding their efforts to include a for-profit business made long-term sense. Rather than focus only on rangeland conservation measures, they could meet ranchers where it mattered to them: their bottom line. “The concept is to link nice grass to fat, healthy cattle,” said McLeod. “The market link has helped us turn the corner. It’s about making the system sustainable. It cannot be donor-dependent; it must become market-dependent.”
For Nel, it was a chance to use his for-profit ranching experience to benefit his hometown. Maintaining healthy range and running a business off the land is what the Nels have done for generations.
“Coming back, I realized that after nearly two decades there was still a major divide in what had been the old homelands and what had been the farms,” Nel said. “It’s very challenging but also very fulfilling to be working across that divide.”
In addition to better managing the land, communities work with Meat Naturally to brand cattle and provide veterinary care. In exchange, Meat Naturally auctions bring together community sellers with commercial buyers who can be sure of an animal’s ownership and health. Before the Meat Naturally auctions, local ranchers struggled to sell their livestock — perhaps finding a local buyer looking to purchase a single animal to provision a wedding or graduation celebration. Now, buyers purchase animals by the truckload.
For rural farmers, a day at the auction can represent several months’ worth of income. So far, the program has put 3 million South African Rand — about 220,000 U.S. dollars — into the pockets of local herders. As a result, more families are now able to afford the fees to send their children to school, and farmers are able to reinvest in their businesses.
At the auction, buyers lined up alongside a fenced chute, and the bidding began as the first steer was coaxed down the chute. Four thousand Rand; 4,500; 5,000. With a final price of 6,000 Rand – about 300 U.S. dollars – both buyer and seller appeared pleased.
Thozamili Tyhali, a herder and member of the local livestock association, said that the auction has been a welcome change in the community. “I am so happy because everyone is excited about the prices and everything,” Tyhali said, a broad grin on his face.
Tyhali said the new system of rotational grazing now in place on the communal rangelands has had noticeable effects. “Even the soil erosion on the veld — there is a lot of change,” he said. “You see the grass now, there is a change.”
Robert Rawlins, a third-generation farmer who has been buying and selling cattle around Matatiele since 1980, partnered with Nel from the early days of Meat Naturally. He has seen a marked improvement in the quality of both grass and beef as a result of the partnership.
“In the last four or five years, the quality of cattle has improved incredibly,” he said. “Good cattle are a byproduct of good grassland management. They’re not farming with cattle; they’re farming with grass.”
Forests of grass
While the question of cattle or grass may seem like a zero-sum proposition, the reality is more complex — a fact that reflects the rich natural history found in grasslands.
With around 12,000 described species, grass is as diverse as the animals that rely on it. Looking out across a native grassland, one could be excused for imagining an overgrown lawn. But native grasslands are in fact more like forests than playing fields — they have canopies, understories and floors, all containing species competing with each other for nutrients, water and sunlight.
A healthy and productive rangeland means more than just tall grass; it means a self-regenerative system that can support animals over the long term. A field full of waist-high grass, if invasive or inedible, can be useless. But a patch of barren soil with the right seed bank and fertilizer can be healthy range, if given time enough to regrow.
When animals graze the range, they impact the grass’s ability to regenerate and grow. Casual grazing by dispersed herbivores can mean that only the edible species get clipped, leaving only unsavory varieties behind to take over. And without time to rest, the savory grass regrows at the expense of its roots, gradually losing the ability to bounce back to future grazing.
For millennia, predators like lion and cheetah kept herbivores on the plains of Africa grouped into herds, which meant intensive grazing followed by rest for grassland plants. But for livestock that lack natural herding behavior, like cattle, humans must step in to keep the animals from nibbling a rangeland into degradation. That means mimicking the natural regimen of intensive grazing followed by regrowth.
Tori Linder, a fifth-generation rancher who serves as the sustainable livestock coordinator in CI’s Africa field division, frames the challenge with urgent precision.
“Grasslands and savanna cover 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “If they are not managed sustainably, Africa’s development will never succeed.”
“One of the things that I think people would find most surprising about livestock is that it can actually be good for the environment, if produced on natural rangelands,” she said. “On the grasslands and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, livestock have a valuable role to play in mimicking the ecosystem function of wildlife that once covered these areas.”
“Grazing and water translate to life,” she said. “When the ecosystem is unhealthy, communities pay the consequences.”
Protecting water, sustaining life
Pesh Mgwali grew up in a rural community in the Eastern Cape. Now a rangeland scientist with Conservation South Africa, Mgwali is working to restore communal rangelands by clearing invasive wattle trees, an Australian species that drains groundwater and pushes out native grass.
To address this threat, Conservation South Africa and a partnership of NGO and government allies recruited and trained teams of “eco-rangers” to clear wattle trees and institute rotational grazing practices. The work has resulted in more available rangeland, replenished streams and springs, and new jobs for the community.
Corralling livestock overnight on recently cleared land can help the native grass recover as animals trample wattle seedlings and deposit dung. Her findings are now informing work on the ground to restore land across the region.
As part of her research, Mgwali is studying ways to keep restored land free of the invasive wattle.
For Mgwali, working to strengthen rural communities is part of building the sort of South Africa that she envisions. “What we want, is for people to now focus on the future,” she said, “doing things that can help the next generation.”
“Whatever happened in the past, happened in the past. It is time to fix things now.”