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Sustainable Farming and Fair Trade Helping South African Rooibos Farmers

Equal Exchange is excited to launch our new pyramid tea bag line, which includes an Organic Wild Rooibos from Heiveld Co-operative in South Africa. Equal Exchange also partners with the Wupperthal Tea Association for our Organic Rooibos. The farmers of these two co-ops are facing challenges as climate change threatens their crop yields, but they're taking action through sustainable farming methods. Read on for their inspiring story.

"… Our forefathers used this plant [rooibos tea] as a remedy for stomach and skin problems. I myself am out of a family of 12 kids… I have six sisters and five brothers. My mother, she’s still alive today; last month she became 88 years of age. And because of a lot of kids, she didn’t have enough mother’s milk to feed us all. The rooibos tea was a substitute for me for mother’s milk. So this product runs in my veins.

That is why I am so proud that Equal Exchange can help us to put a bridge between the past and the future where we can become again proud and free and independent to share our heritage with the rest of the world. And we are proud of this product. This product is grown not only in just one specific area of South Africa, but it’s grown only in one specific area of the whole world.” -Barend Salomo, Wupperthal Tea Association, at Equal Exchange's 20th anniversary celebration

“Desperately poor and mostly illiterate, Oompie Hen [Hendrik Hesselman] would probably never have believed that he might one day become a land owner, but rooibos may be his ticket to gaining that one thing that has evaded his family – a title deed. Except that shifting long-term weather trends might put an end to this dream.” -Leonie Joubert, Boiling Point

A long history of oppression and struggle during apartheid

Nearly 200 years ago, during the colonial and apartheid eras, native South Africans of the Khoi and San groups were pushed off their ancestral lands to make room for large-scale, white-owned plantations. These indigenous farmers were relocated to the outer reaches of the Western Cape Province, where the mountainous landscape is particularly arid and unsuitable for most agriculture. Many farmers found work as sharecroppers for the white landowners, initially paying with a portion of their crops, and later with cash.

For generations, the farmers in this region have produced rooibos tea (both wild and cultivated) and subsistence crops. Little else grows in the scraggy landscape. Historically, the price of rooibos has been quite low and most farmers own less than four acres of land. Widespread poverty is endemic to the area. Farmers typically have low levels of formal education and there are few employment opportunities for unskilled labor.

Consequently, migration is a growing problem, as young people leave their communities for Cape Town or other urban centers to look for work. Many farmers try to make ends meet by working as seasonal laborers on nearby farms. In fact, it is common for a farmer to tend his own farm for a few months, and then work the rest of the year as a day laborer on a plantation.

The Rooibos Miracle
If there is any silver lining to this story of apartheid and on-going struggle, it is the miracle of rooibos. This herb, which is one of the only crops that grows in this region, grows nowhere else in the world. Once considered a poor man’s drink, it has suddenly become the highly valued and much sought-after tea of the health-conscious European and North American markets. Rooibos is said to have medicinal properties - good for stomach ailments and skin conditions - and is packed with potassium, iron, zinc, and other vitamins.

From sharecroppers during apartheid to members of democratically run co-operatives

In the late 1990s, the farmers began to organize in an attempt to combat the extreme poverty they were facing. Due to the remote area in which they lived, poor soil to grow much else besides rooibos, and rough mountain roads, which meant poor access to the market and high transportation costs, the farmers knew they needed to work together to overcome these obstacles.

In the village of Wupperthal, located in the Cedarberg Mountains, a semi-arid landscape of high, rocky plateaus at the southern end of the Kalahari Desert, the Afrikaans-speaking descendants of the Khoi and San tribes formed the Wupperthal Tea Association in 1998 with 16 members. In 2005, they received their Fair Trade certification and membership grew to 150. Today, there are approximately 170 farmers active in the co-operative. The farmers are extremely proud of their independence and are determined to preserve their indigenous culture.

East of the Cedarberg Mountains, in the South Bokkeveld plateau, approximately 600 farmers live scattered throughout the rocky terrain. Unlike the Wupperthal co-operative, which has a community center and an active church (the community was originally started by the Moravian Church), it was a much more difficult endeavor for the farmers to organize themselves. They received assistance from a local non-governmental organization, Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) and the Heiveld Co-operative was created in 2000 with 14 members. During their initial organizational phase, EMG brought the farmers to visit neighboring community projects. When they visited the Wupperthal co-operative and saw the farmers’ success, they became excited as they envisioned new possibilities for the future. They received their organic certification in 2000 and Fair Trade certification in 2004. Today, approximately 50 members are producing cultivated and wild rooibos and exporting into the European and U.S. markets.

These two communities are the only descendants of the original inhabitants of the area that have access to land and produce rooibos. The health-giving teas were discovered by their ancestors who were largely hunters and gatherers. As rooibos has grown into a relatively large industry, today it is more than 98% dominated by white producers and business interests.

New possibilities emerge for a brighter future

Access to international markets, and higher Fair Trade prices, have dramatically helped to improve the farmers’ incomes. In her book, Boiling Point, Leonie Joubert describes the impact of this new market on the Heiveld Co-operative: “Oomie Hen is chairman of the Heiveld Co-operative, a group that has grown to just over 40 sharecroppers who, in 2001, broke into the swelling rooibos market. Most of their tea is cultivated but they also pick through the natural veld for rare wild rooibos… And the community’s fortune is changing. All the co-operative members have their first bank accounts. One person had a set of dentures made; another took a family member to hospital for treatment – both healthcare 'luxuries.' These are quiet signals that a community, whose education often does not extend beyond grade four, is dipping its toe into a viable mainstream market.”

She goes on to write how one member has been able to buy a second-hand tractor and trailer and a small 2x4 bakkie. “This means they can bring their supplies to Dobbelaarskop by vehicle from nearby Nieuwoudtville, if they have the cash to afford fuel that month, instead of hauling it in on their backs or by bicycle or donkey cart.”

Global climate change: An end to the dream?

Just as the rooibos farmers have begun to imagine a brighter future for themselves and their children, the changing climate has already begun to threaten their market success. In the past few years, the farmers have been experiencing severe impacts from drought and higher temperatures, felt most acutely in the drier parts where they farm. The delicate soil and water conditions in this area are being exacerbated by increasingly warmer temperatures. Rainfall patterns have also changed and the rooibos farm plots have suffered from high levels of degradation and mortality. These vulnerable lands have been affected by wind and water erosion, and this threatens not only the livelihoods of the farmers, but also the long-term production of the lands. And so, the farmers’ long-term prosperity will depend greatly upon their ability to adapt their farming practices to these new conditions.

Sustainable rooibos production: biodiversity, soil and water conservation capturing the farmers’ indigenous knowledge and practices

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other researchers have predicted that agriculture in southern Africa will be especially severely affected by climate change. Crop yields, which are expected to decrease as a result of rising temperatures, are predicted to decrease in areas where local populations are struggling to meet food security needs and where the natural resource base is already extremely fragile.

EMG continues to work with the Heiveld and Wupperthal co-operatives to increase the farmers’ resilience to respond to climate change. Through a Participatory Action Research project, they are working with the farmers to recapture the indigenous strategies of natural resource management used by their ancestors, and by monitoring the rooibos production in order to develop future climate change mitigation strategies, such as the conservation and promotion of agricultural biodiversity, and soil and water conservation.

Through this Climate Change Adaptation Project, EMG will work with the farmers to design and implement measures to control soil erosion, promote the conservation of water and enhance biodiversity. They will also incorporate additional methods to enhance soil carbon and to reduce soil degradation by using native plant materials to serve as windbreaks.

But because global climate change is yet another force out of the control of these farmers, who have been growing rooibos tea for generations using artesian practices, we believe there is more we can do. We have launched a campaign to raise $20,000 to support the Heiveld and Wupperthal farmers continue to evolve best practices for sustainable farming and natural resource conservation.

In 2006, Equal Exchange launched our first line of rooibos tea from the Wupperthal Tea Association. In June of this year, we expanded our tea line to include Wild Rooibos from the Heiveld Co-operative. The rare Wild Rooibos is packed in special pyramid shaped bags that are fully biodegradable and will allow for the best infusion. While 98% of the rooibos industry is dominated by large plantations and business interests, the rooibos tea Equal Exchange offers is the ONLY rooibos tea in the Fair Trade certification system that comes from indigenous small-scale rooibos producers.

Support the Heiveld and Wupperthal farmers through our Small Farmers. Green Planet. fund. Read about the fund on our blog.

• Purchase Organic Rooibos (in traditional bags) and the Organic Wild Rooibos (in pyramid bags).

• Purchase 12 oz. packages of Love Buzz coffee. For each package you purchase, Equal Exchange will donate 20 cents into the fund. In 2008, the fund will be used to support this Climate Change Adaptation project, as well as other environmental projects of our small-scale farmer partners in Mexico, Nicaragua and Colombia. Read about these eco-projects on our blog.

• Write a tax-deductible check to Grassroots International and send it to Equal Exchange, 50 United Drive, West Bridgewater, MA 02379. Write Small Farmers. Green Planet. fund on the check.

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