“Everybody’s cup of tea” NGO of the Day: Environmental Monitoring Group

By Nicky Furniss

This year the rooibos tea farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld exported 18 tons of tea and quadrupled their income. From poverty and marginalisation to a successful co-operative and promises of a sustainable and eco-friendly livelihood, the Heiveld Co-operative is a success story not only for South Africa but for The Environmental Monitoring Group, which had an active part to play in its success.

Situated at the western edge of the South Africa’s Great Karoo plateau, the Suid Bokkeveld region with its winter rains and acid soils provides ideal conditions for the growth of rooibos tea. Despite being renowned for producing high-quality and flavoursome tea, the farmers have been discriminated against because of their skin colour, and poor access to markets has compounded the issue of severe poverty in the region.

In 1998 the Northern Cape department of agriculture forged a relationship with EMG, a Cape Town-based NGO that serves as a facilitator between policy decisions and the people affected by them: “Our work is orientated towards people. We ask where they want to get to, what they’ve got to get there and what their collective vision is,” says Noel Oettle, the manager of the EMG’s rural livelihoods programme of which the rooibos project forms part. According to Oettle, poverty is voiced as the community’s main concern and rooibos growing as one of its key resources.

The farmers however had poor access to land, markets, finance and support services and were being overcharged for processing costs.

With EMG’s help the community identified a number of opportunities for improvement, but was unsure how to go about realising them. An exchange visit to Wupperthal (a successful tea-growing community) and Namaqualand (where a number of successful community-based tourism businesses were being run) was organised to provide the farmers with examples of viable strategies. On their return the farmers collectively agreed to establish their own initiatives to enhance their incomes.

The Heiveld Co-operative was formed out of this and the farmers have been registered as organic rooibos tea producers (no chemicals are used and most of the harvesting and processing is done by hand) and fair trade links have been established with the Netherlands and Germany. The co-op has developed its own cloth bag packaging, which not only adds value to the raw product and saves on expensive packaging, but provides employment for women of the community who make the bags on hand-operated sewing machines.

Now that the co-op has had some success the community is building an environmentally friendly tea processing facility and is promoting the development of its members as ecofarmers.

Even though EMG has had a large part to play in the success of the co-op, Oettle emphasises that local community members have shaped each stage of the process: “This is the Suid Bokkeveld’s project, we might be facilitators but it’s not our project, it’s theirs.” This is a sentiment which seems to best exemplify EMG’s role in community empowerment.

The EMG was established in 1991, at a time when governmental changes appeared imminent and a change in environmental policies more probable. What started as an informal group of like-minded people has now grown into a fully-fledged NGO, which aims to encourage environmental policies and practices that address environmental injustice and promote sustainable development.

According to Stephen Law, the director of EMG: “The developmental path of any country is dependent on the resources nature makes available to them. Sustainability will never happen unless people understand their role in managing the environment.” EMG thus views its role as educative and facilitative to empower people to take charge of their own environment, so that the right to a healthy environment can be enjoyed by all.

EMG sees its role as building bridges between decision-makers and citizens. Because of the broad nature of its work, EMG is involved in a range of projects and deliberately strives not to focus exclusively on one area or issue: “They are all important, all parts of sustainable development. We get involved in the ones which we feel we can do some good,” says Law. Despite EMG’s broad focus, it has four key focus areas.

In addition to Oettle’s rural livelihoods programme, EMG’s trade and environment programme aims to build links between civil society and policymakers.

EMG runs a water justice programme to engage national and regional processes relating to the management of freshwater resources. EMG was recently involved in trying to act as a facilitator or switchboard between local communities and the World Commission on Dams. “We ran workshops and brought dam-affected communities from other parts of Africa together. We tried to build solidarity and networks.”

EMG has spent the last year encouraging other NGOs and organisations to attend the Global Forum: “We provided information on the issues and gave advice on how to prepare.” EMG organised the summit’s Stimela train to transport participants from Cape Town to Johannesburg and raised funds to provide accommodation and food for delegates.

For Law, it is too early to measure the consequences of the summit: “It’s not so much about the impact the Global Forum has on Sandton; the legacy is more about the contacts and plans people make together. What they take away with them, that’s the legacy of the Global Forum.”

And the expected impact of EMG: “We’re in it for the long term. We don’t expect overnight changes, but no amount of effort put into awareness building is ever lost. It might not be enough or aimed in the right direction, but it’s never wasted.” -- Witsnews

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August 2002