Rooibos tea farmers on the front line of climate change

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When Mma Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of the best selling “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” has a particularly troublesome case to consider she sits down and pours herself a soothing cup of bush tea.

Rich in anti-oxidants but caffeine-free, bush tea, or rooibos, has been known to natives of South Africa for centuries. But in the past decade, helped by the success of Alexander McCall Smith’s book series, it has become popular with health-conscious consumers around the globe. Sales and production have soared.

Yet, like many rare flora and fauna, this valuable plant is threatened by climate change – and with it the smallholders that depend upon it for their livelihoods.

Unusually, the entire global supply of rooibos comes from a single production area in the west of South Africa that measures just 200 x 100 kilometres. Efforts to cultivate it outside of the Suid Bokkeveld have not been successful: it draws on the region’s unique soils and climate and needs to grow alongside other components of its ecosystem.

“Temperatures have already risen and there are strong indications that the climate will change in other ways,” says Bettina Koelle, director of Indigo, a South African rural development organisation.

With funding from the Department for International Development (DFID) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Indigo is supporting local efforts to adapt to climate change through a pioneering project that also aims to serve as a model for other threatened communities.

With December’s Copenhagen summit on climate change wrapping up, it is hard to overstate the threat that global warming presents to countries such as South Africa. Increasingly harsh weather conditions are compounding the difficulties of communities that are already struggling with extreme poverty.

While much of the focus in the industrialised economies has been on limiting future global warming, for many developing countries helping communities already affected by climate change is a more immediate priority. Ahead of Copenhagen, pressure has been building for help with local adaptation on a far greater scale.

Suid Bokkeveld’s mountainous environment is harsh and drought-prone. Much land is already marginal – especially that of the small holders on the fringes of the production area, away from the large farms run mainly by white landowners.

It is with members of this group, the 50-odd men and women in the Heiveld Co-operative, that Indigo and the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) programme (see below) have been working.

Formed in 2001, the co-operative’s main initial focus was economic - to help members benefit from the booming export market for rooibos. But a severe drought between 2003 and 2006 highlighted the need to make climate change another key priority.

Amongst other things, the CCAA project is addressing the challenge of climate change for producers who have both been caught in poverty traps and also have limited scientific knowledge.

Climate diaries

While it is bringing information about new technologies and techniques to the community, it is not prescriptive and does not provide off the shelf solutions: to be successful, adaptation to climate change has to be place based and employ specific strategies, notes Ms Koelle.

Rather, she says, the initiative seeks to build problem solving capacity within the community and to give it the impetus and confidence to tackle its problems.

Because the local micro-climate can vary strongly from farm to farm, one element has been to deepen knowledge of local weather patterns. This is done through “Climate Diaries” in which farmers record rainfall, weekly minimum and maximum temperatures, other observations and their farming activities. The information is shared in community workshops and compared to the official seasonal forecast. The two sets of data can then be fed into local adaptation strategies.

As well as confronting climate change, this participatory approach has broader spin-offs. The workshops, which also involve children, have brought together a scattered and isolated community in regular meetings, helping generate the enthusiasm and support networks needed to surmount multiple problems.

“It is crucial to integrate adaptation with development,” says Ms Koelle. “Importantly, the workshops are also social events to exchange personal and farming news. They fulfill a host of needs.”

On top of climate change, the community faces many other difficulties such as market access for its tea and poor infrastructure. The UK is supporting the groundbreaking North South Corridor initiative, which will see 4,000 km of road and 600 km of rail track upgraded on the major trading routes across eight African countries, including South Africa.

Facts and stats

  • Africa is the continent least responsible for climate change but the one with the fewest resources to combat it. The African Union estimates that the carbon emissions of Africa’s 1 billion people are equivalent to those of Texas’s 30 million.
  • A report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute in September concluded that, on present patterns, the number of malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa will jump from 33 million in 2000 to 52 million in 2050, with more than half of the increase caused by climate change.
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