The spirit of innovation shown by wine-farmers in conserving the sensitive ecologies of the Western Cape winelands continues to play a major role in ensuring South Africa has one of the most conservation-conscious wine industries in the world. According to extension officers of the WWF Conservation Champions programme, Joan Isham and Jacques van Rensburg, the innovative approach to conservation shown by Conservation Champions has been one of the profound successes of this initiative aimed at creating a tangible culture of the importance of conserving the delicate wineland ecologies.
“As extension officers, we spend most of our time on the 40 farms who have applied for and been approved for WWF Conservation Champion status,” says Isham. “Since the programme began 15 years ago, then known as the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, it has captured the imagination of the wine community. This has led to practical successes achieved by Conservation Champion wine farmers in preserving some 22 000ha of the Cape Floral Kingdom situated on their properties, which has underscored the tangible success of this initiative. However, it must be said that together with the practical measures taken to protect these unique ecologies, the ethos of conservation shown by these farmers and their farming communities is one of the most successful and rewarding aspects of the programme. What is most satisfying is knowing that the foundations are now being laid for the future generations who will pick up the baton and follow the examples set by today’s generation of conservation-minded farmers and farm-workers.”
Farmers who are WWF Conservation Champions own some 45 000ha of land between them, of which 22 000ha is conserved as a pristine part of the world-famous Cape Floral Kingdom comprising fynbos and succulent Karoo plants. The 40 members work closely with the WWF in their conservation endeavours and are subjected to annual assessments to ensure they meet the specifications required of a Conservation Champion. All Champions’ credentials are also underscored by South Africa’s Integrated Production of Wine certification, with these wineries having achieved 70% of more in their IPW evaluation.
According to Van Rensburg, the commitment to conserving the natural habitat of their respective farms has resulted in benefits that were likely not foreseen when the programme began in 2005. “Having worked with the wine farming community for some time, I know that the spirit of innovation runs deep – including when it comes to conservation,” says Van Rensburg. “Initially, the main priority of the WWF Biodiversity Champions was to conserve the over 9 000 species of indigenous plants making-up the Cape Floral Kingdom as well as the insects, birds and mammals depending on this unique ecological system. But today this conservation mind-set has grown to conserving water and to ensure the responsible usage thereof. And then of course, with the global drive to decrease carbon emissions, WWF Conservation Champions are playing a leading role in the South African wine community in regulating and controlling the off-set of carbon on their farms.”
Water stewardship became an especially relevant topic during the extended drought experienced by the Western Cape between 2016 and 2018 and is one of the main criteria on which WWF Conservation Champions are monitored.
“No-one experienced the full extent of a drought the way a farmer did,” says Isham, “and those years definitely caused many to relook the way water is used.”
The drought showed the importance of water stewardship as some WWF Conservation Champions were able to avoid the worst effects of the dry years. “By already having systems in place to use up to 50% less water than they had become accustomed to through their water stewardship commitments, Conservation Champions were in a far better position to ward-off the potential destruction of drought than farms without similar water conservation programmes in place,” says Isham.
“Boschendal, one of the WWF Conservation Champions, in fact found themselves with access to more water during the drought than they did in years with normal rainfall, this the result of the farm having cleared their water catchment areas from alien vegetation,” she says. “Just by applying logical conservation strategies, such as removing water-guzzling alien plants and trees, a farm gets a new lease on life, waterwise.”
Van Rensburg says the use and conserving of energy has also rapidly leapt to the top of the list of priorities for WWF Conservation Champions, with carbon calculation being used to monitor members’ farming activities.
“World-wide this is currently the most talked-about aspect of wine-farming and production, so it is important that energy usage and carbon emissions receive top-priority within the realm of the WWF Conservation Champions programme,” he says. “Here we are seeing incredible innovation from our members, especially on the front of renewable energy with solar power rapidly becoming the norm for providing electricity for production as well as housing facilities on farms.
“Here we also see our members being tremendously innovative: La Motte Estate in Franschhoek, for example, uses water-pumps with variable speed-drives to ensure that as the elevation of the irrigated land lessens, the energy used to pump the water decreases, ensuring the optimal use of power. Then at Anthonij Rupert Wyn in Simondium one finds hydro-electricity used with a mountain waterfall generating power to complement the solar and other energy sources on which the farm operates. Hydro-electricity in a wine region that is just emerging from the effects of a drought might sound a bit ironical, but it shows the combination of human innovation and natural resources in this wonderful part of the world.”
Van Rensburg says that another role undertaken by the WWF Conservation Champions over the past few years is that of training and education among the wineland communities, especially among farmworkers and their families.
“For a true conservation mindset in the region, the hearts and minds of all people living and working in these ecologically sensitive areas have to support this ethos of looking after and embracing nature,” he says. “We are therefore not only aligning with wine producers and vineyard managers, but with the people who work the vines and tend the land. By educating them of the harm caused by pollution, alien vegetation and illegal snaring of animals – which is disturbingly rife – we are aiming to make the conservation of the Cape winelands a programme whose aspirations are shared by all who reside there. And to make them understand that their collective futures and that of their region depends on their interaction with the natural world.”
Isham says that the WWF Conservation Champions programme is unrivalled as far as conservation in wineland protection and wine production goes.
“Australian bodies have contacted us for advice on a similar programme, and are slowly adapting similar measure so ours,” she says. “Chile has shown interest but find it very hard to get traction for such initiatives due to the poor state of regulated conservation in that country. And the European winelands have become victims of urban sprawl, without any real natural ecologies remaining. The South African wine industry, thus, can truly lay claim to being a leader in conservation, which should be one of the unique selling points of our wines.”