Rural Development

Our work with rural communities aims to illustrate the value of participatory approaches that draw on inherent resources, build problem-solving capacity, and develop the base for sustainable livelihoods.

Rooibos ProcessingAt the same time the programme aims to develop arguments for better policy and practice that promote effective adaptation to climate variability and address land degradation while maintaining biodiversity, agricultural productivity and local livelihoods.

Most of the world's governments have committed to United Nations’ conventions on Desertification, Biodiversity and Climate Change. Implementation however is typically patchy, poorly coordinated and not well informed by conditions “on the ground” in rural areas. The broader context of EMG's work includes giving local-level substance to these 3 UN conventions, and to provide policy makers with a better understanding of the realities and aspirations of people who live in the rural drylands of South Africa.

Our work with soil and water conservation is a feature of one of EMG's Untold Stories, Rebirth in the ancient Bokkeveld, which you can read here.

NIEUWOUDTVILLE: The scars run chest-deep in the grainy tillite clay on the renosterveld slopes of the Bokkeveld plateau, outside Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape. Their walls are hard as cement, baked solid by the sun since their topsoil has long since been carved away through the  scouring action of rain water. 

Some of these fissures are over a century old, slashed into the hillside by water erosion following overgrazing, the plough shear and failed contour lines where previous generations of farmers tried to stop tilled soils from washing away.

rural rbos harvets men smallThe leaves and young shoots of the rooibos bush (Aspalathus linearis) have been used by indigenous peoples of the Western Cape since pre-history to produce a health giving beverage known as rooibos tea. It was only in the early 1900s that the species began to be cultivated on a commercial basis.

The cultivated rooibos variety is fast-growing and high-yielding, but less resistant to pests and drought than wild varieties. Because of increasing demand, much of the specie's natural habitat has been ploughed up and put under intensive mono-crop cultivation. There are very few areas remaining where wild tea plants can still be found

rural rbosseedcollectionFrom our field office in Nieuwoudtville, EMG has been working with small-scale rooibos farmers of the Suid-Bokkeveld for some years, assisting them in accessing fair trade and organic markets. For these farmers, marginalised by apartheid and the monopoly rooibos processing industry, the higher prices obtained on the fair trade and organic markets, mean that tea-growing is no longer merely a survival strategy, but a viable farming activity.

EMG provides a range of on-going support to Suid-Bokkeveld farmers organised under the Heiveld Co-operative, representing some 60 small-scale farmers and their dependents. With access to alternative trading systems comes supportive financing and training. The farmers have been able to raise capital to build their own tea-processing facility and have recently purchased their own administrative and processing facility in the village of Nieuwoudtville.
As their farming activities have become more profitable, so opportunities for building sustainable farming practices have increased.

EMG has also worked closely with small-scale farmers of the Eksteenskuil Agricultural Co-operative, who farm along the Orange River and produce fair trade certified sun-dried raisins and sultanas, with the Ericaville Farmers Association, and with small-scale farmers of Wupperthal.

In the Suid Bokkeveld in 2003, a prolonged drought wiped out most of the small-scale farmers' cultivated rooibos. Since then they have been engaged in a process of learning and action to enhance their resilience in the face of climatic variability.

Every 3 months members of the community (young and old, men and women) gather to share their records of the weather in the previous quarter, discuss weather impacts and their responses to these, review long term forecasts, develop plans to adapt their farming practices and livelihood strategies and learn more about the drivers of climatic change and its effects.

A similar programme has been implemented with the Ericaville Farmers Association who cultivate honeybush tea near to Plettenberg Bay.

Farmers have modified their farming practices and have appreciated the natural adaptation of wild rooibos to increasing temperatures and drought events, recognising that husbandry of wild rooibos provides a safety net that reduces their vulnerability and conserves biodiversity at little or no additional cost.

Fire trials in the Suid-Bokkeveld. We believe that to effectively counter degradation, local organisations and communities living in drylands should be at the heart of the effort. We work together to promote the involvement of these organisations and communities in the national and international arenas of decision-making.

P1010376Alternative trading systems, particularly fair trade, offer many opportunities for small-scale and emerging farmers. But while fair trade worldwide and in Africa is dominated by products from small-scale farmers, in South Africa they are in a distinct minority.

Of the more than 60 South African producers certified through the international Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) only 4 are small-farmer organisations, and only a handful are worker-owned "commercial" farms.

The remaining are however required to comply with South African BB-BEE requirements, which promote part-ownership of the enterprise by farm-workers.

For more about EMG's work in this field...




firetrials suidbokEMG is part of the global Drynet network of civil society organisations working in the drylands to advance the interests of local people and promote sustainable use of natural resources.

Drynet is a network of 14 NGOs based in 18 countries, and working in many others.




HeiveldTourismEMG has partnered with Alterra from the Netherlands and South African NGO Indigo development & change to develop the SynBioSys Fynbos information system on sustainable management of biodiversity in the Cape Floristic Region.

SynBioSys Fynbos brings together a wide range of data on the ecology, geography and sustainable use of species and habitats within the Fynbos biome in its wider context. The entire system is data driven, open ended and large datasets can be analysed.
SynBioSys Fynbos incorporates a GIS platform for the visualisation and analysis of layers of information on different levels (species, ecosystem, landscape).

SynBioSys Fynbos has been developed to provide a wide range of stakeholders with an accessible and user friendly tool to gain insight into the rich botanical resource that is found in the Fynbos region. These stakeholders include planners, farmers, decision makers and implementers at all levels of government, consultants, researchers, students, amateur botanists, tour guides and the general public. It is designed to contribute to improved understanding and wiser decision making regarding the management of natural resources in the Cape Floristic Region, so as to conserve the incredible biodiversity of Fynbos ecosystems in South Africa.

The development of SynBioSys Fynbos is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Interested individuals can register on the SynBioSys Fynbos website at in order to download the software at no cost.

avontuur katstertAvontuur is a 1,300ha property on the north-Bokkeveld plateau that was purchased by WWF in 2008 to conserve its unique biodiversity. Since then the property has been managed as a conservation property by EMG under the guidance of the non-profit Avontuur Sustainable Agriculture.

After being farmed for more than 250 years, the arable sections of the property and its highly specialised and diverse flora have been severely impacted by grazing and cultivation. Nevertheless, there remains a remarkable diversity of plant life. The latest count yielded 483 plant species, with at least two (possibly three) previously undescribed taxa recorded – one of which is known only from this property (Felicia sp.) Another plant, Aspalathus obliqua was rediscovered on site, after not having been seen for over 160 years, and is also known only from this site. At least 33 of the taxa recorded on the property are Red Listed as Species of Conservation Concern.

Since 2009 EMG has commissioned scientific research to establish baselines and implemented a Management Plan for the property. Soil erosion has been prevented, alien vegetation removed and fences repaired. The property has been rested since it was purchased, and active restoration of the vegetation and rehabilitation of the eroded areas has also been undertaken. Avontuur demonstrates how the ecological balance can be tipped back in the right direction in a degraded landscape, and the site is used for educational and training workshops for members of the local and wider communities.

Funding to make this work possible has been received from:
Alterra, WWF/Table Mountain Fund, DG Murray Trust, National Lotteries Board, Both ENDS, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation

Many of our publications are available at no cost in the SynBioSys Fynbos Information System. Review them in the "Documents" and "Multimedia" sections in the main menu.
The following books, articles and documents can also be obtained directly from Noel Oettle at EMG (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

  • Koelle, B; Oettle, N (2003) Myths, Legend and Nature – Farming as an emotional enterprise, Conservation Farming Project; South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
  • Koelle, B., Oettle, N., Schmiedel, U. (2010) Lessons learnt from interdisciplinary participatory research in the BIOTA project. – In: Schmiedel, U., Jürgens, N. [Eds.]: Biodiversity in southern Africa. Volume 2: Patterns and processes at regional scale: pp. 343–348, Klaus Hess Publishers, Göttingen& Windhoek.
  • Koelle, B., Oettle, N., Thobela, M., Arendse, A. (2003) Learning Partnerships to conserve Biodiversity – Findings of the social research team of the Conservation Farming Project; South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town
  • Oettlé, N. (2006) Knowledge and UNCCD: The Community Exchange and Training Programme. In Johnson P.M., Mayrand, K and Paquin, M. Governing Global Desertification: Linking Environmental Degradation, Poverty and Participation. Ashgate, Burlington
  • Oettlé, N.M. (2005) Enhancing sustainable livelihoods in the Suid Bokkeveld. In Douma, A. & Hirsch, D. Local Contributions to the Rio Conventions. Both Ends, Amsterdam.
  • Oettlé, N, Arendse, A, Koelle, B, Van Der Poll A. (2004) Community Exchange and Training in the Suid Bokkeveld: A UNCCD Pilot Project to Enhance Livelihoods and Natural Resource Management. In Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.
  • Oettle, N., Goldberg, K., Koelle, B. (2009) The Heiveld Co-operative: a vehicle for sustainable local development. Drynet/ Both ENDS, Amsterdam
  • Oettlé, N, Koelle, B. (2003) Capitalising on Local Knowledge: Community Knowledge Exchange. The World Bank, Washington.
  • Oettlé N.M. and Koelle, B. (2003) New directions for extension in democratic South Africa. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
  • Oettlé, N, Koelle, B, Arendse, A, Mohr, D. (2002) Juweel van die Berge. Environmental Monitoring Group.
  • Patrickson, S., Malgas, R., Oettlé, N. (2008) Rooibos tea: environmental threat or conservation opportunity? Veld & Flora March 2008, Botanical Society of South Africa, Claremont.

Rural Development - Resources

Co-published (2015) by the UNCCD and Tudor Rose, Living Land includes a chapter on EMG's work with small-scale rooibos farmers in the Northern Cape.

The Sustainable Harvest of Wild Rooibos, (2007) Noel Oettle and Rhoda Malgas, EMG (2.1MB) -- ook in Afrikaans beskikbaar by EMG

Juweel van die Berge: Handleiding vir die organiese rooibosboer (2002) Oettle, EMG

Amazing Grace – A mealie farmer’s story (2002), Illustrated by Carlos Amato, EMG & Biowatch, 2nd Ed.

Capitalising on local knowledge - Community knowledge exchange: A toolkit for the preparation, implementation and evaluation of community-to-community knowledge and learning exchanges (2002), Oettle & Koelle, Toolkit 1 - Methodological overview & case studies, Toolkit 2 - Guidelines for Implementation , World Bank

Everybody's cup of tea: Community Action and Rooibos tea (2001) Noel Oettle