A group of farmers in the dry and dusty central Karoo are turning a series of farming challenges into solutions and opportunities. In so doing, they have become true examples of LandCare – driving a project to ultimately develop self-reliance by working together and by working with partners in government.

The project is called the Koup Area Wide Planning Project. Here 19 farmers from the Laingsburg district in the Western Cape, covering an area of 80 000 hectares, have joined forces to manage their farms at scale. Together they have developed a concept that researchers from the University of Cape Town say sets ‘something of a gold standard’.

The project came about as a result of an extreme farming environment. The area has been affected by a prolonged drought. Rainfall has reduced by up to half the average annual rainfall over the past four years. According to farmer, Lukas Botes (and chair of the Koup Area Wide Planning Project), ‘I have never had it this bad.’

At the same time, farmers have been losing as many as 60% of their lambs to predators every year. Black-backed jackal, caracal and baboon are seen as the chief culprits. Given these challenges, farmers here started asking the question: is farming still viable in the Koup; and if so, under what conditions?

In order to answer these questions, farmers, academia, government and the private sector started working together to find ways to help these Koup farmers manage their landscapes optimally to survive the difficult times. Francis Steyn, head of LandCare in the Western Cape said, ‘This project has become one of the best examples of community-based natural resource management in the Western Cape, and an example for any farming community in the world.’

The Koup Area Wide Planning Project is built on three legs: job creation; research; and empowerment. In a fencing project with LandCare, a team of 25 workers created a jackal-proof fence covering a distance of 238 km. The fencing work took place between 2011 and 2015. Not only did it help control the movement of jackal, but it also provided an income for some of the poorest members of society.

At the time, farmers had many questions, such as, ‘How were predators impacting the farming economy? And how was the drought changing grazing, game and livestock management?’ A team of researchers from the University of Cape Town spent the next six years compiling research papers answering these questions. The results were essential in guiding farmers to implement improved practices.

In one such study, researchers looked at the grazing management on the farms – and in particular, the change in the carrying capacity over time. Botes said, ‘We wanted to get data on our grazing through this project. Our grazing is our greatest asset. Now we have a basis to work off. If we’re told to reduce our sheep numbers, then so be it. We don’t want to lose our most important resource.’ This study helped farmers implement a monitoring protocol. Now, every three years, changes in their rangelands are captured, to help guide planning for livestock and game capacity.

A scanning project, led by the Department of Agriculture, helped farmers capture data before predators could catch the lambs. Botes said, ‘This really helped with the management of sheep. Farmers realised they needed this data. Now they are still scanning, even though the funding has stopped.’

Studies helped farmers better understand the biodiversity on their own farms, and the impact and movement of jackal. One research project found that farming areas provided more biodiversity than expected, even when compared to the neighbouring Anysberg Nature Reserve.

For Botes, while farming is still a challenge, things have improved. ‘I think there’s better cooperation than in the past. The ideal is for us to work together. Over an area of 80 000 hectares, we would be a mega-farmer. I don’t just want this to become a conservation area. I want to have something tangible for farmers. I want to ensure that soil restoration work takes place, and other (natural resource management) activities help the environment. This can’t just come from the Department of Agriculture.’

And it doesn’t, said Francis Steyn. ‘The project was implemented by using the LandCare methodology of community-based natural resource management, where the farmers are the leaders in this project. The Koup Area Wide Planning Project is an international success that is still surviving after a four-year drought. All the projects and research done in this area are the initiative and hard work of the community and the partners that contributed. But it is led by the community.’

Nationally, the project has also been recognised for its innovative approach to addressing questions around natural resource and farm management. It won third prize at the National LandCare Awards as the Best Community LandCare project.

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