Restoration of the land and the people in Vanwyksdorp

The area

The community of Vanwyksdorp, a little agricultural village in the heart of the arid Little Karoo, was stuck in a status quo of depopulation of rural agriculture, unemployment, poverty and helplessness. Vanwyksdorp has a good school but the situation was exacerbated by the annual exodus of school leavers, full of knowledge and expectations, only to find a world of closed doors and very few or no opportunities.

The recent prolonged drought and a local shift from cultivation to livestock farming left the farm worker community stranded and without a future or hope. The consequent rise in alcoholism, drug abuse, violence and theft demoralised the community and it simply lost all pride in itself.

It was thus ordained that the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR) were about to launch the Jobs for Carbon project in the Vanwyksdorp area. Vanwyksdorp lies within the westerly distribution range of the spekboom (Portulacaria afra) but much of it had been lost due to continual overgrazing of the area due to the unsustainable stocking rates that were applied to this arid succulent Karoo vegetation type.

The Jobs for Carbon project manager, André Britz, is a local farmer who is concerned with much more than his own commercial farming enterprise and who believes that rural people should be proud of their land and how it is managed.

The project

André put together spekboom planting teams, however, his goal was not only to get the spekboom planted, but also to restore the pride of the community. Workers were trained to plant spekboom, and also to manage the project, keep records, maintain tools, run a store, apply first aid, open a bank account and establish a nursery as well as vegetable gardens. This was clearly more than just planting trees for the GCBR.

The teams were educated about the reasons for establishing such a project, what the long-term nature conservation vision was, how important each one of team is and how the mere act of planting a spekboom cutting can eventually make a difference.

The participating landowners were naturally an important part of the entire project, without their co-operation the community upliftment or Jobs for Carbon project would not have been successful.

Conservation Management Services (CMS) were contracted to provide the Jobs for Carbon teams with basic training in the methods used for soil erosion control in 2018 & 2019. Altogether we had three training sessions which included practical application of the methods on the nearby Rietkraal Nature Reserve which is managed by the GCBR.

André Britz (Jobs for Carbon project manager) briefing his team while Ken Coetzee (Conservation Management Services) looks on

Because the Jobs for Carbon teams were already sensitised by André and understood the overall objectives of the work, they quickly mastered the methods that they will use to apply in the district when the funding for the Jobs for Carbon project eventually dries up. Soil erosion control will still remain very important in the area and mastering and improving these skills now will enable the Vanwyksdorp community to provide a critical service in the future.

Through this project, people are identified and trained as leaders; encouraged to make a difference; making a lasting and valid impact on the environment; creating a better future.

The methods

The methods taught by CMS are all relatively inexpensive, uncomplicated and easy to install, making use of whatever material is locally available like tree branches, dwarf shrubs, reeds and even the cut leaves of Agave.

Gulley flattened out and stabilised with a layer of Soilsaver and locally harvested dwarf shrub mulch

As is the case with most soil erosion control projects, the objectives are to slow-down the runoff water flow, increase water infiltration in the soil and establish a protective plant cover as quickly as possible.

Erosion control fences, made with geotextile materials (Grassfence) and bare soil covering with a biodegradable geotextile (Soilsaver) and brush cut locally are the core methods taught and used. The emphasis is on the use of methods that are within the affordability range for most farmers or other implementers like the GCBR.

An important method that is used to improve soil infiltration is the construction of hollows or pits. These fill up during rains and each holds about 45 litres of rainwater. Only 100 of these constructed hollows will result in the infiltration of 4 500 litres of rainwater into the soil, where before, only 2cm of the soil was wet after rain because of soil capping and a waterproof seal.

A series of hollows made over a sealed, sheet eroded site
Grassfence installed as an erosion control fence (above) with Soilsaver used to stabilise bare soil (below)

The people

An important aspect of the CMS training is that the workers themselves have an opportunity to evaluate their own efforts and to point out where the methods applied could have been done better or at a different locality.

Trainees evaluating their efforts

Another aspect of the erosion control training is that the aptitude for this type of work soon becomes apparent and the technically advanced people and leaders in this field are easily identified for future leadership and even training roles.

The Jobs for Carbon teams are thus much more than just planters of spekboom cuttings, they are also able to make a real difference with the mechanical improvement of eroded sites and the long-term restoration of the veld around Vanwyksdorp and elsewhere in the district. Pride in their work is clearly apparent in the spirit of the workers and this spirit has infiltrated into the whole community. We really need more farmers like André Britz.

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