News Articles


Ecosystem Farming

Amanda Hawn

Following its success with an innovative "Working for Water" program, South Africa has begun experimenting with a whole new approach to conservation and restoration; an approach that has scientists "mapping" ecosystem services and land-users "farming" them. The Ecosystem Marketplace takes a closer look at these recent developments and considers whether or not "trading" will be the next new verb for ecosystem services in the RSA.

Following its success with an innovative "Working for Water" program, South Africa has begun experimenting with a whole new approach to conservation and restoration; an approach that has scientists "mapping" ecosystem services and land-users "farming" them. The Ecosystem Marketplace takes a closer look at these recent developments and considers whether or not "trading" will be the next new verb for ecosystem services in the RSA. The photo looked like it came from Mars: a reddish, dry riverbed running beneath yellowed marshlands and brown hills. Even the sky, where white streaks striated a pale blue horizon, looked parched. The printer had run out of blue ink. The result was a photograph version of South Africa's Gariep River that looked decidedly thirsty. And yet, embedded as it was in a document entitled, "Working for Wetlands, South Africa," the unintended photograph seemed strikingly appropriate, even prescient. It read like a warning: take care of South Africa's wetlands or the Gariep Basin may, itself, run out of blue in the decades ahead. South Africa is a dry country and recent climate projections suggest that much of the nation will grow drier in the years to come. By 2025, according to a recent WWF document, "the country's water requirements will outstrip supply unless urgent steps are taken to manage the resource more sustainably." Fortunately, South Africans are taking steps to conserve their water resources and, notably, they are using an ecosystem service-based approach to fuel their progress. Protecting watershed services in South Africa has, in fact, become the catalyst for a whole new approach to conservation and restoration in the country, an approach that some in the business are calling 'ecosystem farming.' Ecosystem farming is interesting because it implies a very different approach to a long recognized environmental conundrum: biodiversity conservation and people's need to earn a living from their land don't always coincide. In the United States, the government generally has resolved this conflict by paying farmers to take their land out of production. In South Africa, both public and private interests are currently testing the feasibility of paying landowners and laborers to do the opposite, i.e. to put land into a new form of production – one geared towards ecosystem services. Against this backdrop, the recently published 'ecosystem services map' of the country's Gariep Basin is especially intriguing. Could the project – a product of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a four-year international effort to assess the state of Earth's ecosystems – represent a road-map, not just for the development of the Gariep Basin, but also for the whole of South Africa and, by extension, for the rest of the world?

A New Kind of Map

The Gariep is not only the longest river in South Africa, it is also among the most important and most heavily regulated. Large dams and complicated transfer schemes knit together over 665,000 square kilometers of catchment, as the river flows from the mountain nation of Lesotho through Gauteng Province and on into the arid western reaches of South Africa and Namibia. On its way, the Gariep system supplies water to Johannesburg, the economic hub of Southern Africa, fuels South Africa's "grain basket" (where food for approximately 70% of the nation is produced), and supports two international biodiversity hotspots. Given its ecological and economic importance, the Gariep Basin is, in many ways, just the sort of place in need of an ecosystem services map. And so it was that, in 2000, The Gariep Basin Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was born. Broadly speaking, the aim of the project was to provide a map that would be useful to policy-makers balancing the trade-offs associated with the protection and use of ecosystem services at the local, national and regional scales. Toward this end, the scientists used models and participatory methods to assess the location and "irreplaceability" of three types of ecosystem service in the basin: water services; food and fuel production; and services linked to biodiversity. Water reaches were assigned classifications ranging from A to F, according to their level of ecological integrity and industrial/agricultural function. 'A' regions of the river carried proposals for strict management practices that would support biodiversity in a near natural state. In descending order, Bs, Cs and Ds allowed for successively greater alterations of natural flow, water quality and temperature. Finally, recommendations were made that Es and Fs – stretches of the river so modified by human activity that their function potentially was impaired irreversibly – should be restored to D level when and where possible, but that some reaches of the river should be treated as sacrificial "workhorses" for industrial, agricultural and municipal water needs. Once the basin's present water resources had been mapped, the researchers next used models to forecast attainable classifications for each area in the future. This second map thus described the 'restoration capacity' of the catchment over the course of five years, charting a path toward an increased net flow of watershed services to a variety of sectors. A similar approach was taken in the mapping of biodiversity and food production services. The basin was gridded and each cell, representing a piece of land, was ranked according to the level of service it provided in three areas – the production of protein, cereal and biodiversity. "We used the notion of irreplaceability to assign comparable values to areas of land," explains the report. "Irreplaceability is a measure of how important the features that an area contains are to the achievement of a stated goal." In the case of the Basin, the scientists defined their goals as the provision of the nutritional needs (in terms of protein and calories) of 70% of South Africa's population and the preservation of a baseline measure of biodiversity. The resulting map, in which areas with high irreplaceability values look like bright spots on an electricity grid, indicates those regions that should be managed most carefully for each of the respective services. Importantly, the map also reveals regions of overlap, where the same geographic area provides irreplaceable services in terms of both biodiversity and food production. It is in these "ecosystem service hotspots," stress the scientists, that different management practices should be considered most carefully, with decision processes that weigh trade-offs explicitly and pricing policies that reflect the full cost of the land being used. While the project's managers are quick to point out that, "framing a question of ecosystem services only as an economic issue has several shortcomings," they also acknowledge that market forces can play an especially important role in assigning values to services in areas where the trade-offs between two or more management regimes must be considered. The basic notion of economics, of course, is that economic forces give price signals that, because they are continually revised, are an especially useful means of assigning and tracking value in dynamic systems. Thus, it is in the basin's most irreplaceable 'ecosystem service hotspots' that market-based conservation mechanisms may have a role to play: "We are currently exploring markets for ecosystem services," says Christo Fabricius, one of the lead investigators on the project, "but there are no examples in South Africa, that I know of, where this has been successfully implemented…yet."

Brick by Brick, Tree by Tree

While true market-based conservation programs per se aren't up and running in South Africa, a suite of public works programs is laying the foundations upon which they might soon be built. Throughout the 20th century, public works projects generally focused on regulating rivers – through dams, dikes or irrigation schemes – in ways that made them less natural. In the first decade of the 21st century, South Africa has been widely recognized for turning this paradigm on its ear through a program called 'Working for Water'. By restoring watersheds to their 'natural' state, South Africans are harvesting the benefits of ecosystem services while simultaneously providing jobs to their nation's poor. Invasive species suck up a great deal of water in South Africa – a single eucalyptus can use up to 400 liters of water in a day. Consequently, their removal immediately increases the amount of water available to recharge water tables. Recognizing that two of the country's wrongs – unemployment and water-scarcity – might make a right, the South African government began paying people to clear invasive species out of river catchments in 1996. They called the program Working for Water and, in the decade since its inception, they have watched it grow from strength to strength. Click here for more on WfW. Now, Working for Water's impact is rippling ever wider through a series of spin-off programs: Working for Wetlands opened up shop in 2000 to restore the water filtration services of native marsh habitat; likewise, Working on Fire began dispatching crews to sustain healthy forests/veld and prevent wildfires last year; and a new program near Port Elizabeth, called Working for Woodlands, is beginning to restore pastoral lands to sustain biodiversity and sequester carbon. Taken as a whole, the projects constitute not only the largest conservation program on the African continent, but also a sea-change in terms of the recognition of the value of the services provided by healthy ecosystems. "Programmes like Working for Wetlands, Working on Fire, and Working for Woodlands, not only provide 'value' and employment because of their pro-poor policies, but also engender a conservation ethic amongst their workforce," says Val Charlton, Advocacy Coordinator of the Working on Fire Programme. "We could use more programmes like this – with lots of synergy and potential income generation possibilities based on land-users acting responsibly, looking after their land." The idea that land-users might not only act as stewards of the ecosystem services flowing from their land but also benefit financially from doing so is the win-win goal of modern conservation – the environmentalist's version, so to speak, of having one's cake and eating it too. In the case of South Africa, however, the idea is that land-users are, at the same time, baking more cakes. This, in a nutshell, is the basic notion behind ecosystem farming. And so, importantly, the new programs in South Africa are not only mapping and harvesting ecosystem services like soil protection, water delivery and carbon sequestration, they are also investigating the long-term economic returns that might convince private stake-holders to invest in increasing them. Those at Working on Fire, for instance, are stating their case to private agricultural and silvicultural enterprises. "The commercial sectors of Forestry and Agriculture suffer extensive financial loss as uncontrolled fires destroy crops, plantations, buildings and equipment," reads the program's website. "As this project aims to provide direct benefits to private sector bodies, it is expected that this sector will in return, support the venture." Working for Woodlands, meanwhile, is investigating potential income streams to entice private and communal land-users to undertake restoration work on their land. "Ultimately the aim is to remunerate the land-user for delivering services such as biodiversity conservation and the protection and maintenance of ecosystem functions – i.e. erosion/soil regimes, water delivery and quality and –the most talked about one at the moment—carbon sequestration," says Christo Marais, the Executive Manager of Strategic Partnerships at South Africa's Working for Water Programme. Working for Water and its sister programs – because they are seeded and sustained by government money rather than by direct payments from the users of their services – are not true market-based mechanisms, but rather an excellent example of how innovative public programs can create positive synergies between poverty alleviation and ecosystem restoration. Nonetheless, as the programs explore new funding streams in the private sector and begin to cultivate the notion of ecosystem farming among landowners, they are inching South Africa ever closer to the widespread deployment of market-based conservation. Experts in the field, however, warn that, before the 'mapping' and 'farming' of ecosystem services can actually generate 'trading' in South Africa, uncharted and tricky waters have yet to be navigated.

Here be sea-monsters?

"South Africa is a mix of both first and third world economies, with all the challenges associated with such," says Charlton of Working on Fire. "At the third world level, poverty is dire, and it is extraordinarily difficult to preach ecosystem services approaches to an audience that is starving – they are not thinking about tomorrow, only the meal that needs to be put on the table today. Thus the first challenge is to make conservation meaningful to the poor." Charlton's point is an important one. In a country where 8 million people still lack access to safe drinking water, the notion of farming the resource for others is a foreign, even absurd, idea. "Although Payments for Environmental Services (PES) are understood as a market based mechanism, in most instances in this country and region poor communities are providing environmental services without compensation and these are typical cases of market failure and a lack of bargaining power in the transaction of services," says Paula Nimpuno of the Ford Foundation. "[Our] current work with Resource Africa has the intention of mapping but also of improving our understanding of how to make the ecosystem market approach benefit the poor." Bread and butter politics reign supreme among the poorest of the poor in South Africa. If they are to succeed, market-based conservation mechanisms like the users-pay approach to ecosystem farming described above (also known as a PES or ESP model) must justify their relevance in these starkest of terms. Equally important, they must make sure the poor can access buyers for the services they render and that they can negotiate with them on equitable grounds. Click here for more on PES programs and the rural poor.

It is not all Poverty

Although poverty is perhaps the most pressing issue relating to ecosystem services in South Africa, it is worth noting that 83% of the country is privately owned, much of it by white landholders who are not impoverished. What of market mechanisms in these areas? Mark Botha, of the Conservation Unit at the Botanical Society of SA, cautions that important conservation opportunities are likely to be missed if these parties are not welcomed to the table. "Tenure and ownership are well defined in the private areas, and there are opportunities to link specific payments to well defined management actions (biodiversity friendly land use, increased run-off, increased carbon storage). However, international NGOs and donors are not prepared to test PES with this politically marginal and not-poverty stricken group," says Botha, who has looked carefully at the PES approach in South Africa. "The focus on poverty and communities has taken us away from some more direct PES opportunities." Evidence exists to suggest that Botha is right in looking closely at private, as well as communal, land-users. Private landholders in the country have had the right to use and manage the wildlife on their land for the last several decades, and the result, according to the Millennium Assessment "has been a doubling of protected land as well as increased economic benefits." Clearly, private property owners are well positioned, and perhaps ready, to take up the challenge of ecosystem farming on a much wider scale than anyone else.

The Voyage Ahead

Finding the synergies between poverty alleviation and ecosystem service conservation, while at the same time ensuring market-access to both economically and politically marginalized populations, is the next challenge for South Africa as it moves from mapping and farming its ecosystem services, through to trading them. Tied up as this challenge is in the past as well as the future, striking the right balance will be neither simple nor easy. History has shown, however, that it would be a mistake to count out this particular nation's possibility of success simply because of political, social and economic complexities. When it comes to the successful navigation of troubled waters, there may be no better boat to follow than that flying the green, black and yellow flag of the New South Africa. Amanda Hawn is the Assistant Editor of The Ecosystem Marketplace, she may be reached at

Please see our Reprint Guidelines for details on republishing our articles.