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Case studies: Institutional and policy framework (Topic III)

The Use of Indigenous Animal Genetic Resources to Promote
Sustainable Rural Livelihoods in South Africa

Ellen M. Mahlase and Saliem Fakir
IUCN-SA (World Conservation Union, South Africa),
PO Box 11536, Hatfield, Pretoria 0028, South Africa


The World Conservation Union’s South Africa Office (IUCN-SA) has developed an agrobiodiversity programme aimed at generating an understanding of agrobiodiversity policy issues and experiences in South Africa, which has been a long neglected field. The objective was to try to find ways to ensure a better policy environment and examine the potential of agrobiodiversity to improve rural livelihoods. The implications and possibilities of commercializing indigenous breeds, which are currently overlooked, even at policy level, were also investigated. A number of case studies were conducted in different parts of South Africa. They demonstrated the constraints and opportunities that prevail in rural communities with regard to the use and conservation of agrobiodiversity. The studies revealed that the value of many indigenous breeds, e.g. marginalized and neglected livestock breeds, was still not recognized. Rural communities were losing interest in indigenous breeds and beginning to farm in the same way as white commercial farmers, i.e. using exotic breeds, which are perceived to be superior. The findings of the research were presented at a national workshop where representatives of government departments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), farmers, research institutions, and the banking and marketing sectors were present, together with community leaders. It was the first time that such a workshop, which brought together delegates from diverse sectors to discuss the promotion of indigenous breeds to strengthen rural livelihoods, had been held in South Africa. The discussion sessions produced various policy and marketing recommendations. It was recommended that new strategies be put in place to promote indigenous breeds from policy level to community level. For example, incentives, perhaps in the form of tax relief, could be employed to encourage farmers to continue farming with indigenous breeds.


IUCN’s South Africa Office is a recently established branch (January 1998) of the Regional Office in Harare. The Office’s work is guided by the IUCN Southern Africa Strategic Plan, which is developed by IUCN members based in southern Africa. The Mission of the IUCN in Southern Africa is "to facilitate and strengthen an integrated approach for the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources and the conservation of biological diversity". The Strategic Plan also sets out the following key objectives for the secretariat, members and partners:

Promote the conservation of biological diversity through the sustainable use of natural resources.

Develop the capacity to facilitate the resolution of resource-based conflicts and to advocate for policy changes.

Promote a participatory approach to community-based natural resource management.

Advocate for sustainable land use and the development of effective environmental management.

This paper briefly presents findings of the study conducted by IUCN-SA on the integration of agrobiodiversity into South Africa’s rural livelihoods, gives a brief overview of case studies, particularly the constraints and opportunities that exist in rural areas, and provides a summary of the recommendations made by a national workshop on agrobiodiversity.

The integration of agrobiodiversity into rural livelihoods in South Africa

In July 1999, IUCN-SA submitted a proposal to the Heinrich Boell Stiftung in Germany that was designed to generate an understanding of agrobiodiversity issues in South Africa, as this is a neglected field. This understanding was to be used to ensure a better policy environment and examine the potential of agrobiodiversity to improve rural livelihoods. The IUCN-SA study on agrobiodiversity and livelihoods also examined the implications and possibilities of commercializing indigenous breeds, which are currently neglected, even at policy level. A number of case studies were conducted across South Africa, and these demonstrated some of the constraints and opportunities that exist in rural communities regarding the use and conservation of agrobiodiversity.

Agrobiodiversity is the result of careful selection and inventive action by farmers, herders and fishers over millennia. It refers to the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are important for food and agriculture, which result from the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and the management systems and practices used by people. Agrobiodiversity is essential for food security, sustainable livelihoods, agricultural productivity and innovation concerning food. The important thing to note about agrobiodiversity is that it is very much intertwined with peoples’ cultures and practices. One could even argue that the two are mutually reinforcing. It is the authors’ experience that, as traditional cultures are eroded, so are the social norms and values attached to agrobiodiversity.

Socio-economic status of rural areas of South Africa

The agrobiodiversity programme entailed a case study review of rural areas in order to gain a better understanding of the prevailing constraints and identify opportunities that exist in such areas. It seems that the socio-economic circumstances in rural areas have in one way or another imposed constraints on the further promotion of agrobiodiversity. The main constraints are described here.

Food insecurity and poverty. The latest estimates are that 72 percent of the poor people live in rural areas and 70 percent of rural people are poor. Poverty is closely linked to food insecurity.

Land access. Legislation of the previous apartheid regime marginalized communities living in rural areas. In accordance with the Native Land Act of 1913, black people could legally farm only 8 percent of the country’s farmland reserves. However, land reform is aimed at redressing many of the land issues that have been inherited from the past.

No agricultural extension support. Rural communities received little or no agricultural extension support as legislation was skewed towards commercial farmers who were using exotic, homogenous breeds. Case studies revealed that the previous government supported and promoted the exotic Bonsmara cattle for commercial beef farming and the indigenous Nguni breeds were severely marginalized. Local farmers sometimes argued that the knowledge government extension workers had was too specialized, and the majority have been trained to deal with diseases and pest control associated with hybrid varieties. In addition, since agricultural research was geared towards white commercial farmers, funding to research the needs of small-scale and subsistence farmers was severely limited.

Lack of infrastructure. The majority of rural areas have limited access to good roads, telecommunication facilities and electricity. Lack of these basic resources exacerbates poverty and undermines the agricultural potential of rural farmers.

Perceived superiority of exotic breeds over indigenous ones. Because scientific research was not conducted on indigenous breeds until recently, there has been little or no improvement of these breeds. Therefore, they still appear inferior. In contrast, the exotic breeds have been improved to yield higher quantities (high-yielding dairy cows and high-yielding chickens are examples). Hence, exotic breeds appear superior and more productive than indigenous ones although they are more prone to diseases and thus require extensive inputs in the form of dipping, etc.

Indigenous breeds have adapted to harsh conditions such as drought and heat, which are prevalent in rural areas. For example, the Namaqua Afrikaner, which was kept by the Khoi Khoi, is exceptionally well adapted to hot, dry areas and is able to survive on poor-quality grazing. In addition, indigenous veldt goats are tolerant to internal and external parasites such as heart water. However, despite the lack of a coherent policy, agricultural research institutions, universities and some NGOs have demonstrated a growing interest in indigenous livestock and crops. In addition, South Africa’s national research foundation, which funds academic research, has made significant allocations to the study of indigenous foods and animals, and the use of indigenous knowledge.

Opportunities in rural areas

Some of the opportunities that exist in rural areas are outlined below.

Resource pool of genetic variability. Farmers in rural areas have had to depend on the variety and variability of genetic material to withstand severe agronomic conditions such as disease outbreaks, drought and poor soil fertility. For example, indigenous Nguni cattle are tick resistant and require little or no dipping. In fact, Nguni cattle, if dipped too often, lose their resistance. This breed is also heat tolerant and can be found grazing long after its exotic counterparts have left grazing land in search of shade. It also has exceptional fertility under harsh climatic conditions. Indigenous breeds may not necessarily figure in commercial agriculture but the majority will be found in the backyards of rural households. It is interesting to note that there is growing interest in indigenous livestock among white commercial farmers. There is a growing network of people who deal with early-domesticated animals.

Indigenous knowledge. Rural farmers still possess a great deal of indigenous knowledge with regard to rearing their indigenous breeds. In one case study, a farmer showed the study team the traditional herbs he burned inside the kraal when he wanted the cows and the bull to mate. In one area, a farmer spread special leaves inside his kraal of goats to prevent them from eating poisonous shrubs, which are the first to appear in the fields after the rainy season. To sceptics such as the authors, this may appear to be superstition, but before making hasty judgements, it would be wise to conduct research to validate or nullify such claims. Nonetheless, these practices work for these farmers.

Workshop on agrobiodiversity

The agrobiodiversity programme culminated in a national workshop, which involved key NGOs, government departments, farmers, rural community representatives, universities, parastatal organizations such as the Agricultural Research Council, the National Agricultural Marketing Council, and financing institutions. It was the first time in South Africa that a workshop had been held that brought together representatives of different sectors to discuss the promotion of indigenous breeds to improve rural livelihoods. Some of the objectives of the seminar were to:

Raise awareness of the value of indigenous resources in promoting rural livelihoods;

Examine the possibilities that may arise from commercializing such resources so that rural communities would be the beneficiaries;

Provide recommendations to policy-makers in South Africa regarding the incentives that are required to encourage rural farmers to recognize the value of their indigenous breeds.

The discussion session of the seminar produced some recommendations. Policy recommendations included the following:

Policies should have clear time frames for implementation;

There need to be clear incentives that will encourage farmers to continue farming with indigenous breeds, e.g. tax relief;

Policies should not be developed in a boardroom; instead, they need to be designed in consultation with all stakeholders;

Agricultural research on indigenous breeds should be financially supported by the government;

Extension officers need to be trained regarding the value of indigenous breeds;

Indigenous knowledge must be protected through intellectual property rights;

Interdepartmental coordination is required; e.g. the Department of Agriculture needs to cooperate with the Department of Trade and Industry with regard to fair trade and the marketing of indigenous resources;

Maintenance of gene banks that should include indigenous varieties is imperative;

Policies should have clear outcomes that need to be monitored and evaluated continuously.


The integration of agrobiodiversity into the national agenda is critical if agriculture in South Africa is to be sustainable. Regrettably, agrobiodiversity does not feature in the country’s agricultural and related policies. There is a continuous loss of crop genetic resources as a result of agricultural policies that are focused on a few European species. Indigenous resources are able to survive under harsh climatic conditions, thus resource-poor farmers should be encouraged to farm with these resources as they require low inputs. The authors believe that indigenous crops and livestock can contribute to sustainable livelihoods and ensure that poor, subsistence and small farmers have ways to manage risk and vulnerability.

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