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Coming together to conserve wild treasures

Carina Becker has lived in small towns for most of her life – born in South Africa, she grew up in Namibia. Having worked with the successful conservancy approach that has improved rural livelihoods and increased wildlife numbers in arid Namibia, she now finds herself as the new Conservation Manager for the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy in Robertson. She shares some insights into the exciting work ahead in a very vital landscape of fruit, wine and wild natural treasures.

Breede River valley
© Carina Becker
The Breede River Valley is a highly productive agricultural landscape, from vineyards to orchards, set against striking mountains.

We’d love to hear about your career journey so far…

I’m passionate about arid land management and conservation. I’ve worked in the savannah and arid thicket biomes, as well as assisting with research into restoration of cultivated fields in Namaqualand, in the Hardeveld region of the Succulent Karoo. I have a degree in nature conservation, and a Masters in botany and ecology. For the last few years I have been working a variety of jobs, doing botanical and ecological consulting work in the Swartland and West Coast areas. During the flower season I was a field guide in Namaqua National Park and a field ranger at Elandsberg Nature Reserve.

And your experience working with conservancies?

When I lived in Namibia I worked for an organisation that promotes community-based natural resource management with conservancies in the north-west of Namibia. The conservancy model has been incredibly successful in the rural communities in Namibia, both for the livelihoods of people living in them and for the environment in general. So I am very keen to see how we make this model work with private landowners. The key is getting everyone to work together for common goals, and understanding that we are all connected.

In your view, what makes the Succulent Karoo special?

I can spend ages looking at little succulents, bulbs and sometimes even moss growing in the rocks. The diversity of plants for such an arid area is amazing. And like most arid areas, a tiny bit of water results in this incredible transformation of colour. I’m really fascinated by plants, especially ‘vygies’ (succulent plants) and their adaptations to their environment. Everything that lives here has to be very strategic on its water and energy usage, so that nothing is lost. The Succulent Karoo also encompasses many different areas – Strandveld, Knersvlakte, open plains and rocky outcrops – each with their own unique identity.  

The Kamiesberg Mountains and the Namaqualand coastline are another two areas where a variety of vegetation types meet in small spaces creating this constant changing landscape which is incredible. To really appreciate the Succulent Karoo you can’t look at it from a car window. Most of the plants are quite small with fascinating features, so one needs to get low to the ground. Its mind blowing to think that this dry area accounts for third of the world’s succulent plant species!

Carina Becker
© Namaqua Flower Camps
During the last flower season, Carina worked as a field guide in the Namaqua National Park.

Please tell us about the Breede River Conservancy.

The Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy was founded in 2006 by a group of conservation-minded landowners, championed by Graham Beck wines. It covers the area from Nuy Valley to Goreeshoogte outside Robertson. We now have 26 members, covering an area of roughly 16 000 ha. Two ‘corridors’ – land identified as critical biodiversity areas to allow movement of wildlife between mountain ranges – run through the conservancy as well. Therefore the co-operation of the landowners to preserve and correctly manage their land is very important. The conservancy assists these landowners through education, clearing of invasive alien plants, and fire management as well as promoting stewardship and establishing conservation projects.

We have some exciting projects in the pipeline which should start yielding some results in the coming year.

Carina Becker
Carina Becker Langeberg
© Carina Becker
The conservancy has received support from WWF because the area between the Langeberg Mountains and the Breede River has been identified as a priority conservation area for the Succulent Karoo.

How did you get hired as the Conservancy Manager?

WWF realised that the conservancy needs support. The conservancy committee members are all full time business and landowners and don’t have the time to carry out the strategy and make any significant conservation progress. The conservancy needed a dedicated person to drive the work forward and one with a conservation background. Through funding from the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust, a position has been created for two years – and I was hired in March. This is a brand new position so we are still figuring out exactly what that role is. Like many conservation jobs it is quite varied and at the moment I have been identifying what is needed.

What will you be focusing on first?

I will primarily be ensuring that the conservancy strategy is maintained, overseeing alien clearing work of the riparian areas, providing environmental education and assisting landowners to manage the natural veld and farm more environmentally, assisting WWF and CapeNature with stewardship work, and improving our understanding of the area as very little is known about the local biodiversity. I will also be enhancing partnerships with other conservation agencies and building relationships with the landowners in the conservancy, as well as growing that membership. 

Succulent Karoo flower
© Mark Berry
This near threatened succulent, Brianhuntleya intrusa, is found only between Worcester and Robertson and occurs in the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy.

So you started your role, and then lockdown happened – how has this impacted the area?

Lockdown has had a huge impact on the area and the conservancy members. For those that are fruit growers, they were still able to trade. But most of our landowners have vineyards that supply the wineries, or are wineries themselves. We also have a craft brewery and many members with accommodation facilities and eateries. The Robertson region is a wine and tourism destination, which relies on foot traffic with festivals and accommodation. All these sectors have been impacted. It has also impacted our environmental work, which is largely based on building relationships with landowners, as well as our fire break and alien clearing teams that have not been allowed to work since March.

How does being locally based help your work?

For the last two years I was living in Darling (1000+ people), so moving to Robertson (27 000+ population) has been like moving to a city! Being based locally is crucial. I work a lot with LandCare, who are based in Worcester, to facilitate alien clearing work so I need to be on the ground for that. A large portion of my job is building relationships with landowners and that cannot be done via a computer or telephone, and I want them to know that my door is always open to talk.

Can you give us context about what is farmed in the Breede River Valley?

Historically, the area was heavily grazed by ostrich and sheep for many years and the effects of that impact are still visible today. There has been a shift from that intense grazing to cultivation. The Succulent Karoo and Renosterveld vegetation have fertile soils, and we have three major rivers running through this area – the Breede, Vink and Noree Rivers. This combined with our winter rainfall creates a Mediterranean-type environment that allows for excellent production of stone fruit (peaches, apricots, plums), olives, citrus and grapes (for both wine and table grapes). Developments of increasing nearby dam capacity and development of future water pipelines will mean more expansion of agricultural land into the already heavily reduced natural habitats of the Succulent Karoo. Development of agricultural land means further fragmenting of the natural environment which has impacts on ecosystem functioning, loss of habitat for wildlife and loss of local plant life.

What goals does the conservancy have?

We have some exciting projects in the pipeline which should start yielding some results in the coming year. Building good relationships between the landowners and with conservation agencies, so that agriculture and conservation work together, is a goal! Having a better understanding of the local biodiversity and where species of conservation concern occur is a vital goal in order to better plan developments and obtain the correct protection.
 

Anysberg Carina Becker
© Carina Becker
Carina recently went on a trip to set up cameras in the Anysberg Nature Reserve, together with fellow environmental organisations Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Cape Leopard Trust.

Future ambitions?

Long term, the conservancy also needs to be a benefit to the broader community, by finding income sources to support its conservation work and providing jobs. We hope to get more landowners, particularly those who fall within the corridors, to join the conservancy and to have landowners sign up to different levels of stewardship. The conservancy should be a recognisable entity that protects the environment and has a voice in developments that occur in the area.

I really hope during my time to prove that a conservancy can be an effective conservation tool with private landowners in the area, and that we can extend the manager role too.

Carina Becker Photo
Carina Becker , Conservation Manager - Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy

Carina is passionate about conserving drylands and working with people in these environments to better understand their role in the environment.

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