What the desert needs

The Karoo Development Foundation will need buy-in from farmers if it is to solve the region’s biggest problems – creating enough decent jobs for its marginalised communities without destroying its soul or natural resources, writes Roelof Bezuidenhout.
Issue date : 24 April 2009

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Skeptical farmers might call the recent Karoo Development Conference and Trade Fair the academics’ misguided attempt to change everything – except the rainfall – in this vast, empty arid zone. Although the world’s dry regions aren’t well-suited for concentrated human populations, it’s become fashionable to examine their economic potential with a view to developing towns and creating livelihoods. Mostly, this is to be done via niche tourism, adding value to agricultural products, and establishing low-impact industries. Development includes money-spinning with disruptive activities such as uranium mining and building space ports.

What was not mentioned might be more important. Farming built a large chunk of the Karoo into what it is and is the mainstay of the economy and workforce. Today, farmers and their organisations also help keep services such as policing, roads and water supplies from disintegration under municipal and provincial mismanagement.
But the only farmers at the conference, run by the newly-formed Karoo Development Foundation, were in the exhibition tent, not on stage in the lecture hall. If they’re excluded from the debate about their own future, plans to unlock the Karoo’s potential may not be based on social, economic, and ecological realities. Farmers know things about rural life that academics don’t – ask the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, which ignores their inputs and ties itself in knots with impractical environmental concepts.

A small town with a 90% unemployment rate could have 4 000 inhabitants surviving on grants. On All Pay day hawkers and traders arrive to sell their wares in a suddenly crowded main street – opportunistic trade that hurts local businesses – and there’s large-scale drunkenness. The retired owner of a village bottle store told me he sold over 20 000â„“ of cheap wine monthly, plus beer – almost all bought by the taxpayer.
Thousands upon thousands of jobs are needed to cut this grant-dependency and the horrific wastage of human capital. Other challenges include re-establishing a work culture in communities raised on handouts; alcohol abuse; and training courses that give skills but no rewards. Time is running out.

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Should the Karoo be settled at all?
Water is running out, too. Even Graaff-Reinet, which hosted the conference, will have to double its water supply to grow much further. While it makes sense to pipe water from the Gariep into growth points where feasible, few districts have enough groundwater reserves good enough for human consumption to support expansion, without installing highly efficient recycling plants. Several towns are already overdeveloped in terms of water needs, and farmers claim water tables are dropping and boreholes are drying up – threatening the only industry keeping the region alive. The Karoo is increasingly shedding farmers and workers. Mostly, the farmers still operating have bought out struggling neighbours. Attempts to establish emerging farmers in large number in this harsh, unforgiving environment are sure to end in financial and ecological disaster because the land can’t support more animals or people.

Arguably, parts of the Karoo are so arid and rainfall so erratic they should never have been settled at all. Like the popular anecdote goes, a US rancher asked a Karoo sheep farmer: “why did you fence in the desert?” The conference certainly created awareness about desert economies. Municipalities, helped by active business chambers, could do more to tap into local and international funds. But to what extent should such regions be developed and populated? Unbridled development would destroy the very qualities that make them enchanting and unique. For the sake of the environment and sustainability it might be better to steer clear of so-called coordinated state planning.

Instead, we should cultivate a political climate allowing economic drivers to function as they always have, with limited, sustainable development around a few growth pockets. These can be supported in other districts by farmers and businesspeople who understand local conditions, and can create prosperity and stability in their immediate neighbourhoods.

And don’t forget the life-giving role the South African Railways played until two or three decades ago, even along the most remote tracks. Then, the Great Karoo was thought the best developed semi-desert on the globe. But shrinking rail traffic eliminated thousands of jobs, leaving bustling towns overwhelmed by poverty.     |fw