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University of Cape Town (2003)

What are the costs of land degradation to communal livestock farmers in South Africa ? The case of the Herschel district, Eastern Cape

Vetter S

Titre : What are the costs of land degradation to communal livestock farmers in South Africa ? The case of the Herschel district, Eastern Cape

Auteur : Vetter S

Université de soutenance : University of Cape Town

Grade : Master of Science (MS) 2003

Résumé partiel
For several decades, there has been growing concern about the state of communally grazed rangelands in South Africa and other parts of the continent, and the sustainability of communal farming practices has been questioned. In the past, the perception that overgrazing causes land degradation has led to the implementation of betterment planning, forced destocking and other government interventions in the former homeland areas of South Africa. A more recent approach to communal rangelands argues that this traditional view has ignored communal farmers’ objectives, which are to maximise stock numbers rather than offtake in the form of sales and slaughter, and challenges the view that communal rangelands are necessarily degraded. Long-term livestock records in many former homeland districts of South Africa have shown no appreciable long-term decline in animal numbers. This has led several influential researchers and policy makers to conclude that no loss in productivity has occurred and that these systems are sustainable in fulfilling the objectives of the land users. The aim of this study is to assess the costs of degradation in terms of land users’ objectives using a case study in a communal rangeland area in South Africa. The Herschel District in the North-Eastern Cape is considered to be one of the most severely degraded areas in the country, as measured by vegetation changes, reduced plant cover, invasion by unpalatable shrubs and soil erosion. Livestock records however show that total stock numbers have not declined over the last hundred years. District borders have not changed during that period, and the livestock census data are generally held to be reliable and consistent over the years. Does this mean that, in terms of land users’ objectives, no degradation has occurred ? To answer this, the following key questions are addressed : What are the objectives of livestock owners in Herschel ? Does degradation go back as far as the livestock records - and how has it changed over that period ? How have livestock owners in Herschel maintained high stock numbers ? The objectives of livestock owners in Herschel differ between livestock species. The most important function of cattle is as a store of wealth and a form of insurance for times when cash is required. People also keep cattle for slaughter on traditional occasions such as funerals and weddings, milk, ploughing and lobola (dowry). The most important benefits are thus realised from live animals, not offtake. Sheep are primarily kept for wool production, slaughter and sale, and goats are kept for slaughter and sale. The benefits of small stock are thus derived from offtake rather than maximum number. However, under the communal land use system where all residents have free access to the grazing land, stock owners maximise stock numbers to achieve maximum offtake. Total stock numbers in the district thus reflect the maximum possible and not a regulated stocking rate with an aim to production. To determine the present status of soils and vegetation in Herschel, I analysed transect data which show that Herschel has lower average basal cover, more erosion and distinctly different grass composition than surrounding commercial farming districts. Geology and slope play a secondary role in influencing grass composition and cover. At higher altitudes, Herschel is characterised by higher cover of Karoo shrubs. Steeper slopes and lower incident solar radiation are correlated with increased shrub cover. I used the literature, interviews with people in Herschel and aerial photographs dating back to 1950 to reconstruct changes in soil erosion in Herschel.


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