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Wines, Mines, and Sustainable Development
In Focus, June 2005
by Ben Jolliffe
Two charred eucalyptus stumps stand on either side of the track as you cross into Paul Clüver’s wine estate in South Africa. From there, all “alien invasives” get equally short shrift – aside from the vines, which the far-sighted Clüver planted in 1987.
They're now producing award-winning vintages, which in turn inspired Clüver to set aside more than half the 2,000-hectare estate to conserve its 1,600 plant species for the future. Here, conservation and wealth creation go hand-in-hand, showing what can be done when natural resources are sustainably managed.
In many parts of South Africa, it’s a very different story. Demand for jobs, housing, and urban development are putting huge pressure on the country’s unique ecological heritage. Despite some of the most progressive environmental legislation in the world, the threats remain high as many of the areas richest in biodiversity are also those best suited for development.
Conventional conservation is just often not enough by itself.
In two quintessential South African industries, however, more innovative approaches are now showing great promise as part of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund's strategic approach to promote private sector involvement in conserving the Cape Floristic Region and Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspots.
Unique Wines, Unique Natural Habitats
In the Cape Floristic Region Hotspot, the unique combination of topography, climate, geology and soil that have allowed the world’s smallest but richest plant kingdom to evolve entirely within the country’s borders have also been welcomed by wine growers over the last 400 years.
But it was only three years ago that the idea of marketing South African wine as a product of this unique environment was floated as a way of encouraging viticulturalists to play their part in conserving what remains of the region’s vulnerable natural habitat.
With a grant from CEPF, the South African Brandy and Wine Company established the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) last year, drawing together an extensive network of conservationists, wine growers, marketing specialists, and government to help conserve the rare lowland fynbos and renosterveld habitats unique to the hotspot.
Fynbos literally means “fine bush” in Afrikaans after the very small fine leaves of the characteristic heath or Erica type plants to be found there. More correctly, it consists of a complex of Erica, Protea and Restios. Covering a range of soils from sand in the coastal areas to shale, clay, granite, and sandstone at the progressively higher altitudes of the Cape, the fynbos comprises more than 8,500 described species.
BWI’s key strategy for preventing further habitat loss is to encourage and enable closer cooperation between the technical and marketing arms of the South African wine industry.
On the technical side, BWI has encouraged take up of biodiversity guidelines into existing sustainable industry practice while on the marketing side, the scheme has enlisted the help of progressive growers within the Cape Floristic Region, such as the 300-year-old Vergelegen estate ( and the Clüver vineyard), to showcase the benefits of biodiversity stewardship to producers and consumers alike.
At Vergelegen, 2,000 hectares have been set aside for conservation purposes and the aim is to eventually create a mosaic of different habitats including fynbos, renosterveld, wetland and, on higher ground, afromontane areas. An accidental fire in 1997 brought the unexpected return of a number of fynbos endemics, prompting wider clearing by estate staff of alien invasive species such as eucalyptus, pine, and acacia.
According to Gerald Wright, consultant conservation manager on the estate, the remarkably strong seed bank ensures the quick return of original vegetation once the alien invasives have been removed, even though they have dominated some areas for the past 100 years.
Creating a Culture of Conservation
Research is also crucial for success. A Centre of Learning and Excellence is expected to open next year at Vergelegen, combining on-site research with outreach education for environmental students across the Western Cape and development of best practice for the wine industry.
“It's not just for our benefit here at Vergelegen,” Wright said. “We're keen to share what we have and to show small-scale growers that biodiversity conservation has benefits for them too. We may have 2,000 hectares under conservation here but you can do great things with just 20.”
BWI hopes to encourage smaller scale wine producers to do just that by offering them the opportunity to sign up to the regional conservation stewardship program, which offers a combination of tax rebates, help with clearing alien plants on their land and other land management assistance in return for setting aside important habitats for conservation.
On the marketing side, BWI is working with the industry body “Wines of South Africa” to make biodiversity the unique selling point of the country’s overall wine brand. Buy this wine, runs the argument, and you can be sure that those who made it will be restoring and conserving what they can of rare habitats for future generations. Unlike many marketing strategies, however, this one actually adds up.
As Clüver explains, “If consumers are willing to pay a higher price for the product, we are happy to cultivate less and conserve more hectares.”
With the help of BWI, the world’s first biodiversity wine route is also being created in the Groenlandberg region of the Cape. The route will enable discerning consumers to tour local vineyards and see for themselves the unique biodiversity on each participating farm. The route will generate awareness of the need to conserve the Cape Floristic Region as well as providing additional incentives for its conservation.
South Africa’s arid west coast could hardly be more different from the fertile winelands but over the last 100 years, its diamond-laden crop has generated incredible wealth. The subterranean wealth of Namaqualand, however, is matched by its rare and diverse flora and fauna and the mining harvest has taken a heavy ecological toll.
Right up the west coast of this area, which is part of the Succulent Karoo Hotspot that stretches into neighboring Namibia, the land is deeply scarred. Huge tracts of land no longer support the biodiversity native to the area while relations between miners, local communities, and conservationists are at best complex, at worst, acrimonious.
Unlike farming, there have been few, if any, incentives for miners to nurture the land that supports them. Indeed, mechanization has enabled them to work at ever larger scales, cutting costs and rewarding shareholders as demanded by conventional economics, yet devastating the rich flora and fauna of the area as they go.
Diamonds tend to lie in narrow seams anything up to 50 meters below the surface and, despite the relatively rich soil even in this arid habitat, open cast mining is the norm.
Historically, mines have been left gaping open, with huge piles of “overburden” – the soil and sand that lie over the mineral deposits – on either side. Legislation passed in the last 15 years requires mining companies to restore the land to a state where it can support new land uses, which in Namaqualand is primarily livestock grazing.
Some operators have begun to implement basic rehabilitation efforts but more often than not, this means merely shoving back what has been mined, irrespective of its complex original layering. In many areas, the layer of topsoil is as thin as 5 centimeters and even if it does get replaced correctly, it can quickly be eroded by the wind.
Furthermore, most of the indigenous perennials so crucial for ecological recovery stand little chance of re-establishing themselves without assistance.
A Partnership for Restoration
To be fair, restoration techniques for these delicate desert habitats are underdeveloped and the scientific community has perhaps not been as active as it might in focusing its research efforts.
However, recent advances in semi-desert ecology and a grant from CEPF have enabled Peter Carrick, an ecologist at the Leslie Hill Institute of Plant Conservation, to start developing the ecological and financial tools necessary for restoring degraded areas. The program will also establish monitoring benchmarks and, crucially, create a forum for conservationists, regional communities, and the mining operators to work more closely together.
Despite widely differing corporate styles, environmental officers from companies such as De Beers, Transhex, Namqua Sands, and Namaqua Diamonds have shown considerable interest and some willingness to commit financially.
Paul Kruger of De Beers Namaqualand Mines is optimistic about the initiative: “We trust that it will assist us in achieving our objective of mining responsibly, that’s to say, making a lasting contribution on not only the economic and sociopolitical fronts, but also as far as the environment is concerned.”
Yet for Carrick, ecological restoration is only the first stage. In the second phase of the project, the Institute will seek to engage local communities more in the regional economy by setting up small businesses to help carry out the restoration work for the big mining operators.
“Although the ecological understanding behind the restoration is cutting-edge, the work itself can be relatively simple,” he said. “Mining is the main source of employment here and if there’s a way of creating jobs for local people and restoring some social balance to the area, then I want to do all I can to help.”
New Local Jobs from Sustainable Mining
Carrick and his team want to work with local people to develop “restoration packs” containing, amongst other things, the right nutrients and seeds, while also giving on-the-job training as to which microhabitats have the most likely restoration potential.
Once the initial sites are through the first stages, the project includes developing a detailed monitoring and evaluation process and creating a manual of best practice techniques for different habitats for mining operators and government bodies.
Re-establishing functioning ecosytems is a daunting task in itself, further complicated by the different priorities of all the partners involved. Yet it is exactly the kind of innovative thinking that South Africa needs to meet its considerable challenges in conservation and job creation.
Carrick himself admits it’s an ambitious project. "But," he said, "If I dream big enough, then perhaps some of my work will become a reality." It’s a noble hope and one to which his fellow visionaries in the wine industry would surely raise a glass.
For more information, contact:
- Tony Hansen, Biodiversity & Wine Initiative,
- Peter Carrick, Leslie Hill Institute of Plant Conservation,
View more In Focus features
© Wines of South Africa
Vineyards give way to the renosterveld and afromontane habitats in the Cape Floristic Region Hotspot.
© Peter Carrick
Mountains of sand and soil sifted for diamonds dominate much of the landscape along South Africa's arid west coast in the Succulent Karoo Hotspot.
Magnificent pincushion proteas and ericas in bloom on the fynbos.
© Sean Benjamin, Arc Images
Fynbos proteas attract a variety of fauna including the endemic Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer).