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Building resilience in the Succulent Karoo

Malinda Gardiner lives in the little town of Kamiesberg in the heart of Namaqualand where she works closely with the communal livestock farmers who eke out a living in this mountainous, botanically rich landscape. She tells us about her work as a Senior Stewardship Coordinator and how it benefits people and nature.

Kamiesberg farmers
© Conservation South Africa
The Kamiesberg farmers mainly farm with sheep and goats, which is their source of income.
What sparked your interest in conservation?

I grew up in an area of Namaqualand known as the Hardeveld.  My father was a livestock farmer, but he was also a naturalist and a conservationist, long before it was fashionable to be one. From a very young age he took us with him whenever he went out to his sheep, showed us the special plants and shared his incredible knowledge of the veld. He strongly believed in looking after rangelands by not allowing them to be overgrazed and in preserving the natural environment. 

You call the Kamiesberg your heartland. Why?

Early in my career, when I first worked here, I fell in love with this incredibly beautiful area and its communities. The Kamiesberg Massif, as it is known, is comprised of beautiful mountains with unbelievable diversity. In a relatively small area you will find so many vegetation types: succulents, fynbos and Renosterveld.  I love the hills and the mountainsides, and I walk there often. It's dry through most of the year, but after the first rains, a complete transformation starts. Bulbs and flowering annuals appear so fast and the dead-looking shrubs start budding. You often see herders walking their livestock as they have done literally for millennia. Although I love all of Namaqualand, the Kamiesberg, with its amazing views, lush kloofs dotted with wild olives and fragrant plants, has a special place in my heart.

Malinda exploring flowers
© WWF South Africa / Dimpho Lephaila
Malinda never gets enough of admiring the beautiful vegetation of Kamiesberg. She also has vast knowledge of the many species found in these picturesque landscapes.
Tell us about your stewardship work in the Kamiesberg area?

Through Conservation South Africa (CSA), doing stewardship work that was previously funded by WWF, I work with 90 communal farmers who come from four local villages – Leliefontein, Nourivier, Kharkams and Spoegrivier. They all farm with sheep and goats, as their ancestors have done for 2000 years. The communal area they farm on, the Kamiesberg Commonage, is formally an open-access system, which means that any farmer can graze their livestock anywhere. Most farmers have a winter and a summer grazing area, and they move their livestock on a seasonal basis between these areas. Many people here rely on their livestock to make a living and to supplement government grants. 

We sign voluntary conservation agreements with “stewardship farmers” which are designed collaboratively with them. This means that their wisdom and incredible knowledge of their environment is combined with CSA’s access to expertise and knowledge for the benefit of conservation.

What role do the livestock herders play?

Stewardship farmers take actions such as moving their livestock around to prevent overgrazing and trampling, abstaining from ploughing wetlands in their area, participating in a livestock health programme and switching to climate-resilient livestock breeds which puts less pressure on their rangeland. Herders are farmers’ “feet on the ground” and they are responsible for taking the actions the farmer gives them on moving livestock. This means that the plant life not only has a better chance of recovering, but also that the farmers have access to better grazing and their animals are healthier.

Kamiesberg herder
© Conservation South Africa
This herd consists of heat and drought-resilient livestock, meaning that they are well suited for extreme temperatures. They are the Northern Cape speckled indigenous veld goat and meat master sheep.
Out of all the conservation-worthy areas in South Africa, what makes the Succulent Karoo special to you?

I love the Succulent Karoo for so many reasons. It is sparsely populated and still has many places where you can be entirely on your own in the veld. The harsh environment shapes both the plants, the animals and the people living there, which makes them all unique.  It’s a tough world with hardy people, and yet, both the species and the people are so vulnerable to the major changes brought along by climate change and land-use pressures.

I also love it that so may people here are closely connected to the land. When you listen to their stories and myths, they all revolve around their environment. The land is what shaped their culture, and without that land and all that it contains, their culture would not survive. There is nothing like it in the entire world, and I think that if you know it deeply, you cannot help but love it – it creeps into your soul and stays there.

Malinda with farmers
© WWF South Africa / Dimpho Lephaila
Through her work in Kamiesberg, Malinda has established strong and healthy bonds with farmers, and they know that they can rely on her for advice and support.
Any highlights of your work you can share with us?

One highlight is the way in which the communal farmers have organised themselves into structures and are launching initiatives of their own which boost our collaborative conservation efforts. 

For instance, one organisation has started their own micro-financing programme, where farmers can access small amounts to buy equipment and materials which will make their farming more sustainable. Others actively encourage their members to move their livestock as soon as the veld shows signs of deteriorating and they even assist with the moving of the livestock, which means the veld can rest. In one village, they sold off the donkeys which are a problem in the area as they breed uncontrollably and put an enormous amount of pressure on the veld. The farmers have also adopted the climate-resilient livestock breeds, introduced first by CSA, and are already trading rams amongst themselves.

Have there been positive changes in the landscape?

Recently an extended trip through the entire area showed visual improvement in the rangelands of farmers who participate in this programme, as opposed to those farmers who don’t. This demonstrates growth and commitment on the part of the stewardship farmers to improve the land and their livelihoods, as well as a strengthening realisation that people need nature. For me, this is a true highlight of my work.  

Livestock farmer
© Conservation South Africa
The farmers show remarkable commitment to advancing their knowledge about their livestock and rangelands that mean so much to them.
Any particular challenges you have faced here?

The biggest challenge I guess is overcoming the perception of the “tragedy of the commons”. It is an outdated idea, and, in my experience, there is no such thing. As in any endeavour in life, appropriate support makes all the difference, and this is all that is needed to make our work in the commonage successful. 

When I started working in the Kamiesberg, I did not know the people and I did not know the area that well, and there was very little real guidance in what it is we should implement to achieve our double goals of protecting biodiversity and improving livelihoods. It took 11 years of close work at grassroots level, the ability to ask for advice from my expert colleagues based on what is really happening and the solid support from our manager and core staff. 

The complexities of communal farming and the impact it has on the environment cannot be tackled by just one person. It needs a dedicated, committed team of the right people to work on it, and I am lucky that I have always had this. As a team, CSA untangled many of the knots and found appropriate actions to take. That said, many challenges still rear their heads and there is still so much to learn.

What does the future for the Kamiesberg look like?

Poverty, combined with climate change, is putting enormous pressure on people’s ability to make a decent living, and lacking other mechanisms for survival, the land is what people turn to. If land-users and decision-makers continue with business as usual, it will ultimately lead to more environmental decline. These challenges ask for true innovative thinking which closely involves the local people and that is bold and courageous in tackling the challenges of a new, changed world. I believe this is entirely possible. 

Malinda Gardiner Photo
Malinda Gardiner, Senior Stewardship Coordinator - Conservation South Africa

Malinda would love to see the Succulent Karoo taking care of its people, because they are taking care of it.

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