Mercy Nqandek speaking at Greenpop's Reforest Fest. Photo by Schalk Hanekom

For restoring rural landscapes and communities in South Africa, equity is key

Mercy Nqandeka puts rights at the center of food and water security

By Skye Ayla Mallac, freelance writer

“When I think about my childhood, I think about my grandmother’s garden.”

Mercy Nqandeka was brought up in the rural villages of the Eastern Cape. In her youth, vegetables came from her family’s garden, soils were fertile, and villagers largely grew their own food. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the rural Eastern Cape has vastly changed: few trees, fewer gardens, an increased reliance on store-bought produce, and growing poverty due to a lack of food security. 

Nqandeka works for Viva con Agua in Bulungula where she coordinates projects for clean water access and sanitation in schools. But these days, she’s looking to widen her scope. Water security is paramount, but so is food security. The degraded soils in the area make it difficult for even those who want to grow food to do so successfully. 

Mercy Nqandeka speaks at the GLFx Cape Town Speaker Stage at Greenpop’s Reforest Fest

The solution? Well, plant trees. Cover the soil and allow life to regenerate. But the tricky aspect of this is context. Rural South African villages maintain deeply ingrained cultural beliefs, habits and superstitions around trees and land-use, and these beliefs must be taken into consideration if these projects are to thrive. 

Consider this: in Nqandeka’s childhood village, planting a coral tree (Erythrina) is considered to bring bad luck and imminent death. People are more likely to retain bare soil than risk the planting of one within their village. Additionally, in rural landscapes where resources are few, a tree looks far more useful cut down than growing. This way, it can serve as firewood or building materials, while a living tree can be considered a haven to snakes and unwanted insects. 

So how does one, taking cultural and social perspective into account, still move forward with land rehabilitation in areas like these? Well, there are a few options. 

First, agroforestry. Planting food-bearing trees (primarily fruit and nut species) immediately bolsters food security, while annual crops planted around these trees provide alternative food sources between seasons. Creating a stable, food-bearing ecosystem allows for communities to eat as well as restore soil health.

Second, incentives. Within rural, often poverty-stricken areas, money rules. Incentivizing tree-planting with the promise of financial reward for annual surviving trees gives a cash-strapped community another reason to engage in the project. 

So where does Viva con Agua come in? These projects need water, and they also need to create a feedback loop to maintain the sustainability of these systems. Viva con Agua is looking to link land restoration efforts with, essentially, water restoration efforts to create water neutrality alongside carbon neutrality. And in turn, local communities become more food secure. 

As is clear in Nqandeka’s work, “equity first” should always be at the center of South African land restoration. Support the people, and you support the land. 

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