Turning grass into gold
For the communities outside Kruger National Park, livestock and development offer a lifeline to a future without poaching
(Cover photo © Trond Larsen)
Editor’s note: This story is part two 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.
‘Within a village, everything is connected’
Bumping through the dusty villages of Utah and Dixie with Mike Grover was something like being on a goodwill tour. In a series of waves, inside jokes and greetings delivered in the local Shangaan language, Grover didn’t let an interaction pass without a personal touch. For Grover, this is about more than just his job. This is his community too.
As he pulled his pickup into the drive of the local day care, his daughters came running, followed closely by their Shangaan classmates. Enrolling his daughters in the local day care was a turning point for Grover. A former scientist and part-time ranger for the wildlife reserve that abuts the village, life had led him to the very community he had once viewed with suspicion.
“When you work your day to day life on the inside of the reserve and you’ve seen the carcasses, you really get into the idea that anyone outside of the fence is there to cause harm,” he said. “You never really look outside.”
With his daughters attending the local nursery, Grover gained a new perspective on his neighbors. “You suddenly recognize that they are just like you. They are parents just trying to keep their family alive.”
It was around that time that Grover was first recruited by the local nonprofit Buffelshoek Trust — now a part of Conservation South Africa, a member of the Conservation International network. Led by Julia Levin, the trust had been working in the communities for years, investing in schools, clinics and small-business ventures.
On top of the benefits the work provided to people, Levin saw value for changing local attitudes about conservation. “The communities became resentful about the rhino. Everyone seemed to care about the rhino, but no one seemed to care about their starving child.”
According to Levin, poachers from outside the community found it easy to exploit these attitudes to their benefit. “It does not have that much to do with money or rhinos,” she said. “It has more to do with power and legacy.”
The model of the Buffelshoek Trust was to change that legacy through comprehensive community development — focusing not on any single factor like education, health or environment, but rather addressing all at once. The strategy was one born of experience. The trust’s first project, a school, initially failed on its own.
“A new school in the context of a degraded environment, no jobs, no health, no water — the school was actually making things worse as people became resentful of the school,” Levin said. High-achieving students still wound up at home unemployed. Adults did not have access to the education that the youth had. “It brewed a lot of negativity because it was being treated in isolation,” she said.
In response, the Buffelshoek Trust expanded its efforts, working with the government health agency to open a clinic in the community and launching a small-business incubator. With the clinic nearby, school attendance grew as students who had previously spent days traveling for basic medical care were instead in class. And with new opportunities for adults as well as children, community benefits were more evenly shared.
Then, there was the matter of the dam.
In Dixie village, an earthen dam that had previously supplied reliable water for community cattle had fallen into disrepair. It was the community’s top priority, but the leadership of the trust questioned whether it connected to their mission.
After years of failed efforts in Dixie, the trust finally embraced the dam project. “A trustee came and said, ‘Let’s build that bloody dam,’ ” Levin recalls. “And so we did.” In drought conditions, the rebuilt dam failed to realize its potential, but the simple act of working on the project collaboratively with the village had built enough trust and goodwill to cement a working relationship.
“The process has got a lot to do with listening, finding ways to unlock local leadership that already has a vision for the community, and understanding what capabilities already exist,” Levin said.
“Within a village, everything is connected.”
Creating opportunity and restoring nature
Mike Grover talks about his work for Conservation South Africa in deeply personal terms. “I choose to work here because it has captured my soul,” he said. “I believe that this rangeland is key — and nature as a whole is key — to happiness in communities here.”
Building from the success of the dam project, Levin and Grover expanded their focus. Their goal: to reinvigorate the small-scale agriculture that had long been the economic bedrock of the community. Together with local partners, the trust helped to build a revenue-generating garden selling fresh product to the nearby tourist lodges. The partnership hit upon a powerful model.
“The lodges and landowners want to do something for the community,” Grover said. “They just don’t know how.” Purchasing vegetables and flowers from the community garden was an easy way to build a relationship. Many of the local lodges are now major partners in the community.
Beyond the garden, the team set its sights on a greater challenge still: improving the traditional herding of cattle to make it more profitable and less taxing on the land. To tackle a practice so steeped in cultural importance, they turned to local allies.
Cliff Nkuna is just such an ally. A native of Dixie, Nkuna’s family has long worked for the wildlife lodges. He is the sort of local advocate that makes community conservation happen — a natural leader with respect from the people and an abiding connection to the land.
Nkuna’s eager smile betrays his passion for the project. As a local kid interested in conservation and cattle, he practically begged his way into the program, eventually working his way up to be a key herd monitor for the area. His status as the son of the Dixie village Nduna, or headman, means that he is afforded respect as a matter of course; his commitment and charisma suggests that he would be anyway.
With Conservation South Africa, Grover and Nkuna are working to bring market access to the villages by way of a mobile slaughterhouse, a necessary innovation due to the sale restrictions placed on cattle raised near the disease-carrying wildlife of Kruger. In partnership with Kruger National Park and the private tourist lodges, the venture seeks to provide an outlet for local herders to sell their meat for profit — a commercial opportunity long closed to these villages.
In return for this money-making access, communities are working to cooperatively manage the range with rotational grazing — a complicated task given the open and communal nature of the village’s grazing lands. But as local herders organize themselves to better manage their grazing, Nkuna looks hopefully to the future.
“In 30 years, I want to see this place growing — in terms of having a lot of farmers and having opportunity,” he said. The key, as he sees it, is better taking care of the nature that the community relies on. “Growing up here, my life depends on nature,” he said. “Nature is my life.”
Photo gallery: People of Utah and Dixie villages
‘Everything is gold’
The success of the Buffelshoek Trust in Utah, Dixie and beyond is carefully tallied in numbers: 3 nurseries and 44 classrooms built, 6 agricultural projects launched, 2500 patients cared for each month. The scale of this success has been made possible by far-reaching partnerships with government agencies, park management, private lodges, universities and corporations.
But the most impressive stories remain those of individual people.
Magic Mabunda is one of those people. A longtime resident of Utah village, Mabunda used to poach wildlife in the nearby reserve for food. Now, with training and support from the Buffelshoek Trust, he is a small-business owner and entrepreneur. He is also a leader in the effort to rebuild the community livestock cooperative that will oversee revenue generation from upcoming cattle sales.
Starting with a contract from South African National Parks, his business now employs 19 people clearing encroaching bushes to improve rangelands in and around his village. Now, Magic has begun diversifying his revenue by picking up bush-clearing jobs with the private lodges.
Assisted by the Pfunanani Enterprise Development Project — a partnership between the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, the University of Johannesburg and Conservation South Africa — Mabunda has developed a keen business sense to complement the hustle and determination honed during his bush hunting days. (One of his favorite stories ends in a tug of war with a leopard trying to steal his kill — Mabunda won.)
Mabunda credits the Pfunanani project with keeping people where they want to be: in their hometowns. “The benefit is going to the community,” he said. “There is more opportunity. People don’t have to go and work in Johannesburg if they just open their mind.”
In a region where there is often no distinction between business revenue and personal income, Mabunda is reinvesting in his business for future growth by purchasing tools and hiring new teams. His optimism springs from the land around him. “There is gold here lying around,” he said, gesturing to the bush. “Everything is gold.”
For Julia Levin — former head of the Buffelshoek Trust and now a senior director at Conservation South Africa — efforts like Mabunda’s are the key to a stable future for the initiative. “In 10 years, I would like to see the projects that have been started thriving independently, completely community owned and community driven,” she said. “I’d like to see those same community members driving replication up the fence line and up the catchment.”
For Levin, joining forces with Conservation South Africa presents an opportunity to support that community-led replication.
“I realized that the work we were doing had more value than the immediate communities we were reaching,” Levin said. “It became clear that we actually had a role to play in something bigger.”
From a village to a biosphere
There are 1.5 million people within the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, an internationally designated landscape that extends from the Drakensberg Mountains in the west to Kruger National Park in the east. The biosphere represents a functional ecological whole in a way that Kruger never has on its own.
When it was created, Kruger National Park was established in a north-south orientation. The natural migration of the animals, meanwhile, ran east-west, as herds would graze in the productive lowlands during the wet summer and retreat back to the mountains during the dry winter.
With the construction of park fences and the development of towns on the western border, that migration all but ceased. It is now played out only in miniature, as bees and rodents continue the trek once completed by elephants and giraffes.
The landscape is still connected by hydrology. All seven perennial rivers that run through Kruger — the park’s lifeblood — start in the Drakensberg escarpment and course through communal lands before reaching the park.
A few years ago, crocodiles in the Olifants River died in large numbers following heavy-metal contamination from small-scale mining upstream. It was a lesson for conservationists: The park could potentially lose iconic species due to activity occurring entirely outside of its boundaries. The incident spurred new efforts to work cooperatively across the biosphere, including new development efforts in the villages.
For the work perused by the Buffelshoek Trust, Levin calls the strategy “enhanced sustainable development,” a combination of traditional development and land improvement. “When you bring a community-focused conservation program and bring it together with a habitat restoration program, it’s a powerful thing,” she said.
Levin would like to see the communities of the biosphere shift away from unsustainable use of the land to a system more in balance. For Levin, it is less about pursuing particular projects or building certain facilities, but rather knowing how to understand and unlock local capacity to care for their environment.
“If you trust community members to really have a deep sense for what is really needed and to support them to achieve it, the most amazing work bubbles up.”
For Mike Grover, the opportunity is huge. “You’ve got the Kruger’s entire boundary that faces the exact same thing. And you’ve got most of East Africa in exactly the same situation,” he said. “So it’s a model that could potentially be replicable across Africa.