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Time for Tea!

In Focus, October 2006

By Ben Jolliffe

Free from caffeine and rich in the anti-oxidants that help protect the immune system, South Africa’s celebrated rooibos tea is now consumed in many parts of the world. Yet the rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis) grows only in and around the Cederberg Mountains of the Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot, in the newly created Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor.

Due to its increasing popularity, farmers are converting large areas of the region’s richly diverse fynbos habitat to grow the plant commercially, threatening numerous endemic species which include rooibos’s many diverse sub-species.

More resistant to both pests and drought than the cultivated variety, these wild sub-species are also important to the health of the commercial crop in case more plants are needed for cultivation in the future.

To counter these threats to the natural habitat, the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG), a local nongovernmental organization, has been working with farmers in the area to increase the yields they can get from wild rooibos and develop a market for it, therefore reducing the need for turning more fynbos into farmland.

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is supporting EMG’s work as part of its strategic direction to promote innovative private sector and community involvement in conservation in landscapes surrounding Cape Floristic Region biodiversity corridors.

Engaging Local Communities

The footprint for cultivated rooibos is growing at a phenomenal rate: from 14,000 hectares in 1991 to 60,000 hectares today. In 2005 alone, 15,000 hectares were planted.

EMG recognized the need to combine research with conservation action in this fast-changing environment, and helped create partnerships between more than 200 local rooibos producers and academic researchers.

They have so far mapped the distribution and taxonomy of wild rooibos on 44 sites and begun testing rooibos management strategies and harvesting practices to monitor the effect on different sub-species.

“I like to keep a record of where and when I’ve harvested the wild plant, as well as notes on the cultivated bushes,” said Koos Koopman, who farms 1,000 hectares of land with his family in the Northern Cape Province. “By working with the team from EMG and using a more scientific method, we get a much better idea of the best time to harvest and to collect wild seed.”

Koopman is a founding member of the Heiveld Cooperative, one of only two community cooperatives involved in the rooibos industry.

Learning from the Land

According to EMG Program Manager Noel Oettle, the studies produced some unexpected findings: “We’ve found wild rooibos with very different morphology and reproductive strategies growing in the same area, but apparently adapted to very specific and highly localized ecological niches.”

Early studies demonstrated that harvesting the wild plant in July during the rainy winter season stimulated the plant to grow back much more vigorously. But Rhoda Louw, a consultant botanist on the project, discovered that winter harvesting limits the plant’s ability to produce seed.

“What is more, without a great deal of sun you can’t ferment and dry the leaves effectively,” Louw said. She agrees with local farmers that harvesting in the late summer is both practical and more sustainable.

Participating farmers benefited from sharing their knowledge and experiences at eight workshops held by EMG at six different places in the region. The EMG team is now writing up results from these meetings in both scientific and popular formats.

Once published, the results will be shared with the rooibos farming community as widely as possible with the long-term aim of helping rural communities make a viable living from wild rooibos, helping to protect the area’s biodiversity by preserving fynbos habitat.

Engaging Business and Consumers

To complement these efforts, CEPF is supporting two more rooibos-related projects through the Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor Small Grants Fund, managed by CapeNature (formerly the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board).

Both draw on experiences and lessons learned from CEPF projects designed to engage South Africa’s wine and mining industries in sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. (See related story: Wines, Mines, and Sustainable Development).

One project is helping the recently established South African Rooibos Council (SARC) develop a sustainable production strategy for the rooibos tea industry, based on a successful scheme implemented by the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI).

After completing a comprehensive study for SARC, Tony Hansen, BWI’s project coordinator, recommended developing biodiversity guidelines in partnership with farmers and harvesters that can then be explicitly marketed to consumers who are willing to pay a premium for such products.

Retailers such as Equal Exchange, who already sell sustainably harvested, fair trade rooibos from the Heiveld Cooperative, welcome the scheme. So does Bruce Ginsberg of Dragonfly Teas, whose grandfather was the first to market the tea commercially in 1904 and encourage its cultivation.

“It’s vital for the local ecology and also an excellent way for spreading the potential fair trade premium to low-income rooibos harvesters and farmers,” Ginsberg said.

CEPF also helped conservation group Indigo Development and Change set up the 95-mile Rooibos Heritage Route between Wupperthal and Nieuwoudtville. The route aims to encourage visitors to explore the area’s natural and cultural heritage while also creating sustainable livelihoods for rooibos-farming families.

“The Rooibos Heritage Route will help the farmers to diversify their livelihood strategies and preserve the unique culture and ecology of the home of rooibos,” said Indigo Director Bettina Koelle.

Despite its relatively short history as a cultivated crop, thanks to support from CEPF on these three projects, rooibos will now play an equally vital role as a conservation crop.

And in the Cederberg Mountains, there will hopefully always be time for tea.

For more information contact:

Noel Oettle, program manager, Environmental Monitoring Group, .

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© Bettina Koelle
Members of the Heiveld Cooperative participated in studies of the wild rooibos plant.

© Bettina Koelle
Wild rooibos (center) is one of the many endemic species in the Cederberg Mountains.

© Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor
The Rooibos Heritage Route will inform tourists in the Cederberg about the importance of the plant.

To find out more about CEPF’s work in this region, visit the Cape Floristic Region section of our site.

Visit the News & Feature Archive for this hotspot.

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