Green revolution hangs in the balance

The Mzimvubu Basin is justly regarded as the greatest untapped source of agricultural wealth in South Africa.
Issue date: 2 March 2007

- Advertisement -

The Mzimvubu Basin is justly regarded as the greatest untapped source of agricultural wealth in South Africa. Covering an area of 20 000km2 from Port St Johns at the coast, extending in a vast fan to the Lesotho Highlands, it boasts annual rainfall of 700mm to 1 500mm with a mean annual runoff of 2 900 million m3. Yet, there isn’t a single significant dam in the basin.

According to the Eastern Cape government only 33 million m3 of water is currently in use. “The Transkei is sitting on a gold mine of water but you don’t see anything happen – it just flows into the sea,” says one farmer.

Kevin Wakeford, former CEO of the Eastern Cape Development Corporation and now economic advisor to premier Nomisa Balindlela, agrees. “This area has incredibly good soil, wonderful rainfall and a subtropical climate – with virtually no production.

- Advertisement -

The eastern half of the Eastern Cape is a gem that’s waiting to be cut and shined.” To rectify this, a giant waterworks scheme coordinated by the premier’s office involving the presidency, at least two national departments, two parastatals, provincial departments and a specialised implementation vehicle is on the cards. The scheme would be a prime anchor project in an economic investment corridor designed to attract private capital.

The scheme translated into figures
The level of public investment planned is staggering. The capital cost of a series of large dams proposed is R6 billion. But even if the full forestry, agriculture, livestock and industrial potential is realised, together with domestic consumption, this would account for use of only 640 million m3 – out of 1 300 million m3 of potential usable water. At a capital cost of another R15 billion, the surplus could be transferred to drier areas of SA for canals, tunnels and pump stations.

Eskom is investigating nine potential hydro-electric sites, four requiring large dams, with a total potential output of over 2 000MW – more than Koeberg nuclear power station in Cape Town (1 800MW). The total public investment would add up to R21 billion, compared with only R7 billion for the entire Coega industrial zone near Port Elizabeth. The focus would be on opening up land for food and biodiesel production, and forestry. The projected figures, supplied by the Eastern Cape government, are impressive. It has identified 25 000ha to 35 000ha immediately available in the basin suitable for new forestry plantations – the largest unused area in the country. This would translate into an annual turnover of R100 million and create 7 000 jobs when downstream processing is included.

Crop production potential is even more dramatic. Crops ranging from soya, sugar beet, cotton, nuts, maize, sorghum, essential oils, herbs, spices to high-value tropical fruits have been identified as suitable. There are 40 000ha of irrigable land available, capable of producing an annual income of R620 million, and a staggering 346 000ha of dryland suitable for crop production and capable of earning farmers R1,5 billion a year.

Currently agriculture is largely subsistence. The land could support almost one million mature units of livestock, with an annual income of R1,2 billion and the potential for 300 000 jobs within 10 years, especially if the mixed-bred herds are gradually upgraded to Nguni. This would reduce dipping and feed costs and open up overseas and local markets in hides and organic beef.

An EU-funded study published in 2006 concluded less than 10% of cattle in the former Ciskei and Transkei are Nguni. However, the study also cited cultural barriers to commercialising Nguni production. “Communal farmers generally do not see their cattle as a source of income but rather as a source of wealth,” the study found. They needed financial incentives to sell animals at an optimal age rather than only when cash was needed.
The need for authority coordination Wakeford cautions departmental coordination, and institutional and land tenure arrangements must be ironed out to unlock public and private investment. “We need an executing authority with a CEO, board and project team. Then land-use issues must be sorted out. All this requires a coordinated approach between national, provincial, local and traditional authorities,” he stresses.

The fact that almost all land in the former Transkei is communal, with no clarity on use and ownership rights, has proved a serious impediment to development. So far few political leaders, from local to national level, have had the stomach to take the bull by the horns, fearing fallout from entrenched elected and unelected local elites. But Wakeford believes this should not lock the province in a time warp of underdevelopment. “We might need an interim land-use regime. Sensible land-use agreements for land not in use can be reached,” he says. Government is already matchmaking with potential investors. According to Wakeford, there are significant negotiations under way with a biodiesel investor from Germany.

All talk, no action?
Locals say they’ve heard it all before, yet see few signs of progress on the ground. This is borne out by official statistics for the coastal strip between Kei Road and Port Edward, where poverty indicators show conditions are getting worse, not better. Out of a population of over one million, the workforce unemployment rate is 70%. Last year an estimated 88% of households were living below the poverty line, compared with 74% in 2001 and 65% in 1996. “There is great potential for development in terms of soil fertility, water and human resources,” says prominent Lusikisiki businessman Veli Ntsubane. “There are vast areas of land available for cane, timber and maize for biofuels. Yet this is a place of desperate poverty.”

This is also highly contested terrain. Mining companies are eyeing the coast’s rich deposits of heavy metals. Environmentalists and the national environment department want this treasure trove of biodiversity and natural beauty to be preserved for posterity by creating a large coastal park. But local business leaders and many traditional leaders are openly hostile to these plans. They strongly back commercial agriculture, forestry, commercial real estate and resort development, although opinion on whether to back mining is divided. Most people have waited too long in vain for promises of jobs to materialise and don’t really care what form development takes – as long as something happens.

Lack of tangible results has made many hostile to any green-driven plans, especially the park, and increasingly susceptible to the carrot being dangled by business leaders like Port St John’s entrepreneur Dumisa Dlatu.

Enormous upliftment potential
Dlatu supports the revival of major estates such as Magwa, Majola and Pondo Sugar that are now being planned or under way to become the nuclei of an economic revival driven by massive infrastructure development sorely lacking in the region, such as the N2 toll road. Peasant outgrowers attached to the estates could form large cooperatives capable of negotiating favourable contracts with major biofuels buyers and retailers.

Markets could be revived and new ones built, processing plants set up with fresh and processed surpluses exported cost-effectively using newly built high-speed transport links to the outside world. Right now the region is a net food importer, and even school feeding schemes, which represent a huge potential market, source most of their produce from other provinces or regions. “Thousands of jobs would be created and the region would no longer have to import food or rely on handouts,” argues Dlatu. “We want to drive a green revolution with massive production of crops.”

Ultimately there is no reason why conservation efforts, ecotourism, resort development, forestry, commercial agriculture and downstream processing cannot coexist in a way that uplifts the region without destroying its natural treasures – although it remains highly questionable whether the same claims can be made for dune mining. But it will require mature and realistic leadership from elected officials, traditional leaders, the business fraternity, external lobby groups and communities themselves. If selfish interests continue to trump the common good, the green revolution will remain a pipe dream. |fw