Agriculture and nature conservation may seem unlikely bedfellows, but in South Africa’s stunningly beautiful winelands farmers and conservationists are working hand in hand to conserve some of the world’s most threatened floral ecosystems.
The vineyards that sprawl across the valleys and mountain slopes of South Africa’s western and southern Cape are the heart and soul of one of the country’s great agricultural and tourism hotspots. One doesn’t often think of agribusiness and tourism in the same breath, but the combination in spring and summer of rich green vines marching all over the land in their regimented rows against a backdrop of craggy peaks is rather pleasing to the eye. Add the product – fine wines – together with pretty towns and villages, good food, a rich cultural heritage and generally superb weather, and the combination becomes irresistible.
But, one can’t escape the fact that agriculture is one of the great land transforming activities on our planet – more than 40 per cent of our global terrestrial environment is already given over to food production. And South Africa’s vineyards, as picturesque as they may be, are part of that process. For example, nearly 95 per cent of South Africa’s wine-growing takes place in the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK), the richest and also the smallest plant kingdom on the planet. Recognised both as a global biodiversity hotspot and a World Heritage site, it has come under increasing threat from agriculture, urban development and invasive alien species.
Watch this short film on the Biodiversity and Wines Initiative. Click here.
But, thanks to a truly innovative action between the wine industry, the Botanical Society of South Africa, Conservation International and the WWF/ Green Trust partnership, the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative (BWI) was established in 2004 to protect and conserve the CFK, especially the critically threatened renosterveld, lowland fynbos and succulent karoo ecosystems. Since then more than 140,000 hectares of natural habitat have been conserved. This means that for every hectare of land under vines an additional hectare is given over to natural vegetation. An outstanding achievement by any measure.
Encouraging wine farmers to step beyond nature conservation and to incorporate broad based sustainability practices into their vineyard and wine making activities has always been integral to the BWI. But now, 10 years on, WWF South Africa will be moving away from its Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) label to embrace the industry-wide Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme’s ‘Sustainable Wines South Africa’ seal as the standard in environmental good practice.
“After a decade of providing extension support to the sector, we feel that the timing is right to reposition our conservation partnership with the wine industry so as to focus on new challenges facing the sector moving beyond an individual farm support model to address issues at a landscape level across catchments, conservancies and local wine regions. Following recent fires, floods and other key ecosystem indicators such as water quality issues and spread of alien invasive plants affecting landscapes, many BWI members have also been expressing the desire to coordinate their efforts towards collective management of their environmental risks,” says Inge Kotze, WWF Agricultural Programme Manager.
WWF will continue to support industry best practice and innovation through a ‘champion in conservation’ label which will retain the logo of the sugarbird on the protea. This logo will be a symbol of farms which are leading in environmental best practise and operating beyond their farm gates to collaboratively manage key environmental risks.
All 29 existing BWI Champions will remain key partners of WWF, and there is an open invitation to aspiring industry champions who are able to meet the rigorous best practice criteria. “WWF is extremely proud that during the tenure of BWI, more than a third of industry producers committed to reducing their overall environmental impact as demonstrated through effective management of their vineyards, cellars and surrounding natural areas,” says Morné du Plessis, CEO WWF South Africa.
BWI champions and members have committed to continued control of invasive alien plants, wetland and river restoration and rehabilitation, waste management, re-use and recycling, environmentally friendly methods of controlling damage-causing animals as well as collaborative fire management, participation in landowner conservancies and ecotourism ventures.
There has also been growing involvement and upliftment of local communities in skills development and training. In the last decade, the wine industry has achieved immense success in embedding responsible farming and environmental best practice with 88% of all producers accredited under the IPW scheme and now using the Sustainable Wines South Africa seal. BWI was key in developing the biodiversity management guidelines in the IPW as well as providing free extension support to members in order to implement these IPW environmental guidelines.
Since 2010, the IPW environmental sustainability assurance has been formally marketed through the ‘Sustainable Wines South Africa’ seal, easily recognised by wine drinkers as the ‘integrity & sustainability certified’ label on the bottle neck of all IPW-accredited producers. Says Inge Kotze in closing, “We recognise that change can seem daunting, but we are confident that the industry efforts provide a good platform for an even bolder vision and collaboration. This is needed to adapt our approach to tackle the often complex, and increasing environmental pressures that affect this sector, whilst whilst continuing to conserve and protect our unique natural heritage in the Cape winelands.”