In the fertile, rolling hills of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, it’s hard to imagine a food shortage. But hunger is a serious threat there, especially for children. The area also has high levels of poverty and HIV infection.
Researchers at the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) are teaming with local groups to try to improve those conditions. Together they have formed the Livelihood, Agroecology, Nutrition and Development project— LAND for short—to address the region’s complex, interrelated problems.
“Using a participatory approach, we have built strong ties with local villagers and their co-op, the Ncedisizwe Co-op, which means ‘helping the nation,’” says CIAS director Michael Bell, a professor of community and environmental sociology. The Ncedisizwe Co-op encompasses 800 smallholder farmers in 26 villages.
Other local partners include the Indwe Trust, an NGO focusing on sustainable development, and Kidlinks World, a Madison-based charity dedicated to AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children.
The group’s goals are to provide sustainable livelihoods for smallholder farmers and their communities; to integrate health and nutrition with sustainable agricultural practices; to enhance ecosystem services such as crane habitat, erosion control and carbon sequestration; and to strengthen communities through participatory decision-making.
Better use of grasslands will be key in those efforts, researchers say. “The people of this region are blessed with a wealth of grassland resources, but these resources are literally being eroded before their very eyes,” says agronomy professor Randy Jackson, who accompanied the LAND team on a recent visit. “Much of this is attributable to a governance system that treats most rangelands as unregulated commons, resulting in continuous grazing that promotes undesirable plants and exposure of bare ground.”
Rotational grazing, the group notes—which actually originated in Africa—will potentially double the level of animal production while also building soil quality, reducing erosion and promoting wildlife habitat. LAND has conducted workshops with farmers on rotational grazing and helped develop a supply chain connecting local grass-based meat to national and international markets.
Other activities have included helping form a women’s cooperative for vegetable production, working with community members on improving water supplies, and helping establish perennial home gardens to increase the quality and variety of local diets.
The LAND project has matured to the point where it can serve as the basis of a new global health certificate field course, “The Agroecology of Health,” that debuted this past winter. Bell and doctoral student Valerie Stull brought 10 undergraduate and two graduate students to the Eastern Cape for a 15-day visit that encompassed learning about agroecology and hydrology systems and working with community members to establish a one-acre vegetable garden at a school in the village of Kumanzimdaka.
The students planted herbs, tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage and radishes and plotted locations for future fruit trees.
“The experience left me feeling a tremendous amount of respect for the people in the community who continue to live off and use the land,” says Alexa Statz, a junior in life sciences communication. “I have high hopes that the garden we built together will be something that can stay with them for generations to come.”
Bell plans to continue having undergraduates participate. Learning about themselves and their place in the world, questioning and thinking critically were all objectives of the trip. “But the biggest objective was to provide students with the chance to discover what it means to lead a life of consequence,” Bell says. “Now that’s a pretty grand goal—and I think it happened in South Africa. It clicked.”