Conserving biodiversitysaves farming

The viability of our farmland depends on conserving biodiversity – production won’t be sustainable for future generations without healthy, functional ecosystems. After seeing both disaster and triumph in conservation, Cameron McMaster concludes that the role played by farmers is central.
Issue date: 13 February 2009

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Recently I was privileged to attend a presentation on biodiversity conservation by the remarkably talented and insightful Corrie de Blocq van Scheltinga, who inspired the following article, and to whom I owe thanks for permission to quote her.
Biodiversity has been described as “variability among living organisms from all sources and the ecological complexes of which they are a part”. It provides goods and services of direct economic value, such as food for humans and livestock, medicine, raw materials and facilities for tourism and recreation. An estimated 40% of the global economy is directly based on biological products and processes. The earth’s biodiversity is our biological wealth and capital.

In a nutshell
We humans are an important part of biodiversity at all levels. The human impact on natural ecological systems has been catastrophic, and while our population keeps expanding, biodiversity is declining.
We’re eroding our biological capital at an alarming and unsustainable rate. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates 45 to 275 species become extinct every day as a result of human activity.
There’s incredible interdependence between the plants, insects and animals that constitute a stable ecosystem. The loss of only a few of the elements in a sensitive system can disturb the balance necessary for sustainability, leading to rapid environmental degradation.

Assuming responsibility
It’s farmers and other landowners such as the state, municipalities, forestry companies, national parks and road and rail authorities, the custodians of the land, who have the responsibility to manage land in a sustainable manner and pass it on to the next generation in a better state than they received it.
Failure to do so causes a decline in productive capacity and irreparable loss of our natural heritage. Between 80% and 90% of the land in South Africa is in private hands, and most of it in the hands of commercial and subsistence farmers. Their future and livelihoods are at stake if the abuse and overexploitation of natural resources continues at the present rate.
Mechanisms and strategies must be developed so human activity can be integrated with biodiversity conservation, to ensure present and future generations aren’t denied the benefits and services given free by healthy and functioning ecosystems. These can’t be replaced at any price.

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Saving production sustainability
Biodiversity conservation and sound farm business principles are inextricably linked with economic opportunity in managing natural resources wisely.
In my lifetime I’ve seen massive deterioration in the condition and productive capacity of veld in the regions I’ve worked in. I’ve seen entire populations of many species of wildflowers disappear. I continue to be alarmed and saddened by the degradation of grazing land in the Eastern Cape, Karoo and elsewhere, particularly on redistributed land. The policy of giving land to people who are unable to care for it or use it properly has resulted in the destruction of production capacity (FW 30 May 2008, pg 56).
Why, when it’s so clear continuous overstocking and indiscriminate burning wreak havoc on the productivity of grazing land, does this abuse and economic suicide continue on many properties? Only farmland that’s well managed and maintained will be able to produce sustainably and support future generations. In future, farm businesses that can reduce negative environmental will reap competitive advantages.
On the other hand I’m heartened by initiatives dedicated to conserving and enhancing the image of our agricultural industries. Increasingly sophisticated clientele will demand accountability from primary producers, and the undertaking that products are produced in an environmentally friendly, sustainable and socially responsible manner.

Establishing an ethic
The Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) is an example of the wine industry and conservation sector undertaking to conserve the rich biodiversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom. The total area conserved, 50 278ha, is the equivalent of 50% of the total vineyard footprint in the Cape winelands (FW 9 November 2007, pg 26).
The Code of Best Practice of the National Wool Grower’s Association, published in October 2008 as a supplement to their official organ, The Wool Farmer, is another excellent initiative that will involve sheep farmers. Woolgrowers may sign a declaration undertaking to ensure sustainable resource use, animal welfare and social responsibility.
 Part of the declaration is a commitment to environmental protection as part of farm management, and the monitoring of this management’s effectiveness by implementing appropriate impact assessment.
Certain landowners’ endeavours to set aside reserves to protect rare and vulnerable species is another praiseworthy initiative that should be more widely applied (Waainek Wild Flower Reserve, FW 30 January 2009, pg 92).

Farmers the key to saving our flowers
What has biodiversity conservation got to do with wildflower conservation? The answer is simple – biodiversity, including our flora, will be maintained in well-conserved and well-managed veld that isn’t overstocked and is adequately rested at appropriate intervals and kept clear of alien vegetation.
The outcome will be sustained and increased productivity and the spin-off is effective conservation of our native flora.
This series has attempted to illustrate the rich diversity of South African wildflowers, emphasising the role of farmers as custodians of the land and undoubtedly the key to preserving our flora. – Contact Cameron McMaster at [email protected].     |fw