Landscapes where we work

The Baviaanskloof Part I: A community embarks upon soil restoration

Enfolded in mountain ranges from north to south, the Baviaanskloof is South Africa’s largest wilderness area—a remote hardscrabble landscape, home to both humans and wildlife.

By Thekla Teunis | Edited By Hailey Gaunt

12 October 2020

Baviaanskloof Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Welcome to the Baviaanskloof

Baviaanskloof is Afrikaans for “valley of the baboons”, and for good reason. But besides baboons, zebras, buffalo and several species of small antelope roam largely unfettered by fences. It’s a hotspot of biodiversity, with a number of plants that occur nowhere else on the planet. A single unpaved road goes from west to east; the eastern section, set aside as a nature reserve, is only accessible in a 4×4. Until 2019, there was no cellphone reception. Anywhere.

Within this wilderness is an area called the Hartland, where approximately 20 private landowners hold tracts of mostly non-arable land. This amounts to thousands of hectares penetrating deep into the mountains.

Tough ground

The farmers of the Baviaanskloof were facing enormous challenges when I first arrived on the scene in 2013. There’s a saying in Afrikaans that captures the essence of their dogged approach: boer maak ‘n plan, which means, “a farmer makes a plan”. Yet, despite their characteristic grit and creativity, the problems here were too big for any single farmer to solve.

Decades of poor agricultural policies had caused destruction to the land and soil. Predecessors of the current farmers had been incentivised by previous governments to do things like graze unsustainably high numbers of goats in the mountains, and channel the river to make room for more agricultural fields.

Although most of the present-day farmers had adopted low-intensity grazing methods, much damage had been done. The mountainsides were heavily overgrazed, and severely lacking in the vegetation necessary to prevent erosion and feed the soil naturally. The dense thicket that once covered the slopes and acted as natural carbon storage had largely been lost.

The soil on the degraded slopes was barren—rock-hard in most places—and even when rainfall was good, moisture couldn’t penetrate. No new seeds could sprout.

Some farmers started to sell off livestock and build guesthouses to attract local tourism and supplement their income. A range of accommodation started cropping up in the area—everything from treehouses and caves to luxury lodges.

The farmers were, as always, making a plan, but this was only part of the solution.

Sparsley vegetated land caused by overgrazing

Sparsely vegetated land, caused by overgrazing, is extremely vulnerable to erosion.

It takes a (global) village

Meanwhile, the NGOs and researchers working in the area were trying to convince farmers they could restore their heavily degraded lands—an area that totalled about 10,000 hectares, or 12,000 – 13,000 soccer fields. Several workshops were held on the topic, and creative solutions posited. But the farmers couldn’t afford to be idealistic. They couldn’t, for instance, just start planting trees to offset carbon emissions. It would mean they could no longer use those lands to generate an income from grazing goats—and that was too risky.

Around that time, I was invited into the area by Dieter van den Broeck, founder of environmental NGO, Living Lands. Dieter had been living and working with his colleagues in the Baviaanskloof for seven years, trying to mobilise change. They were instrumental in bringing almost a hundred students and researchers to study the natural water systems, vegetation, wildlife, and effects of restoration measures on carbon capture and water infiltration. Living Lands had done a lot of good work, but at that point their progress was stalling: they needed a business model that could work for the farmers, and foster large scale transformation in the area.

At the same time, Willem Ferwerda and Michiel de Man had established what is now Commonland, a Netherlands-based NGO that aims to work on large-scale ecosystem restoration. Willem had years of experience, and developed a methodology called the ‘Four Returns’, which takes a twenty-year approach to ecosystem transformation. Interventions are tailor-made for landscapes and aim to deliver four core returns: a return of inspiration and hope to the area; a return of social capital; a return of natural capital; and a return of financial capital for investors.

Addressing challenges in the Baviaanskloof

Addressing the challenges in the Baviaanskloof has meant partnerships between farmers, researchers, local government and NGOs.

Casting a wide net

With my business background and an eagerness to get my hands dirty with ecosystem restoration, I joined these ecological experts.

At first, all I did was follow Dieter around. We explored the possibility of the carbon market, but again found out it was too uncertain and could not form the basis for transformation. We spoke with the water authorities on municipal, provincial and national levels about using the ecosystem to improve water security, and rewarding the farmers for that. We partnered with other organisations to encourage downstream investments in the ecosystem upstream.

In short, we did a lot of things—from approaching governments to appealing to the ecological responsibility of huge multi-nationals. With some effect, the South Afcian government, Coca-Cola and the Dutch Postcode Lottery all contributed at intervals to the restoration of some 3,000 hectares in the Baviaanskloof.

It was significant for the landscape, but none of it was translating into income for farmers. It seemed what local farmer and ecosystem restoration pioneer Pieter Kruger had said was true:

We would have to find an economy behind restoring the degraded land in the Baviaanskloof that could generate income for the people living there.

We had to start focusing on the economics of the farmers themselves.

Spekboom in the Baviaanskloof

Spekboom is an indigenous succulent with many virtues, but while it might regenerate the landscape in the Baviaanskloof, it wasn’t going to sustain the farmers.
Photo credit: Andrew Zylstra

Farming for the future

We began with a long list of opportunities—from farming traditionally-wild animals for meat, to blueberries and soybeans. Eventually we came up with a model based on three pillars: growing pecan nuts, essential oils, and sheep and goats on lucerne in the valley.

First, we realized that to cut down on the transport costs of trucking crops in and out of a remote area, it was important that we grow at a sizable scale. Creating a centralized company—a bit like a cooperative—would allow relatively small farming operations to achieve economies of scale.

Next we took a hard look at the potential crops. Each had its merits: pecans would deliver long term high value, essential oils would yield a good return on the medium term, and goats and sheep on lucerne could provide cash flow.

When we took a closer look, however, pecan nuts were a trickier prospect. Not only do they require a lot of water, but they would be an enticing snack for the abundance of baboons in the area, who would almost certainly pillage the trees before harvest. The losses could be serious, and many of the careful measures to thwart the baboons were costly, and/or risky.

Farmers already had sheep and goats on lucerne, so this seemed like something we could quite easily integrate at a later stage. The more we looked at it, a combination of essential oil crops seemed like a strong platform for building regenerative farming in the area.

Narrowing the field, scaling the vision

We dove further into the business case for essential oils. There are a few indigenous plants in South Africa that make really nice oils, but they’re tough to grow, and although their prices can be good, markets are small. We needed a crop that could support a larger economy like the one in the Baviaanskloof, so we started with the oils that are traded in bulk quantities: lavender (or, to be exact, a hybrid called lavandin) and rosemary.

We also decided it made sense to process the oils in the Baviaanskloof itself, rather than truck the raw material to the closest processing facility several hours’ drive away. Given our ambitions and the capital required to establish a processing facility, we thought we’d better go big as quickly as possible.

We planned to establish 100 hectares at first, and possibly expand to 250 hectares or more at a later stage. Experts told us this was the scale we needed to break into the international market for the oils—small volumes wouldn’t be interesting for those buyers.

Newly established field of lavandin abrialis in Baviaanskloof

Regenerative Agriculture – Farm Workers in Langkloof area, South Africa
Photo by Gareth Hubbard

From paper to planting

The financial models looked great. (To be honest, you can always make an idea look great on paper—but that’s another story). The farmers were excited, and so were the investors. We had momentum and felt that we couldn’t afford to lose another year. Our deadline was the next planting season.

Four farmers were keen to get on board. We formed the Baviaanskloof Development Company, and created a joint mission, vision and strategy with the farmers and investors. We established a farmers’ trust, which owned the majority of the shares in the company. Commonland was the investor. Grounded, and Justin Gird, the local manager, became the other shareholders. Mountains of paperwork, and a few months later, we were ready to start growing.

The financial models looked great. (To be honest, you can always make an idea look great on paper—but that’s another story).

There was tension because of the deadline to plant before the heat of summer (and all the predictable yet unforeseen delays), but we had done our due diligence.

Still, the proof would be in the planting.

This story will be continued in an upcoming blog post.

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