Project proposal:
Conservation Farming

Project description

Rationale and objectives

South Africa contains a remarkable physiographic diversity and an accompanying richness of plant and animal species. Although the country comprises less than 0.8% of the total land area of the world, it contains ca. 8% of the worlds vascular flora, as well as between 2% and 7% of the world's amphibian, reptile, avian and mammalian species. There are indications that poorly known groups such as insects and other invertebrates are also extraordinarily rich in species.

Despite a reserve network that covers ca. 6% of the land area, a significant proportion of South Africa's biological diversity (especially plants and invertebrates) exists only outside reserves. Even with new reserve selection criteria and an increased protected area network, any sustainable conservation strategy will have to include a substantial area outside of reserves (matrix). Land use will be particularly crucial in buffer areas surrounding reserves, in areas of high biodiversity where reserves are inadequate, and in areas with exceptional biodiversity where climate change is likely to result in species migrations across transformed landscapes. Identifying and promoting farming practices that benefit biodiversity in these areas will provide regional and global benefits for biodiversity conservation. Farming practices that promote biodiversity could also provide additional global benefits by contributing to carbon sequestration, as well as local benefits associated with increased resilience and/or stability in agroecosystems and a broader resource base for rural economic development, eg. ecotourism.

Farmers have argued that economic forces dictate how they use their land. Thus, the costs of environmentally sound farming practices (including those that are biodiversity-friendly) have outweighed the benefits. However, the recent rise of ecological economics where a value is placed on natural capital, the demise of farming subsidies, and the growing importance of ecotourism and game-farming as forms of land use, have changed the context for making decisions relating to land use. Against this background, there are some farming practices in use in areas of high biodiversity that apparently promote biological diversity and have a low impact on natural ecosystem processes. Farmers who have used these so-called "conservation farming" methods argue that they are more productive and sustainable because (a) they provide a buffer against the vagueries of the environment, (b) they generate income from alternative sources such as ecotourism, (c) they result in superior yields of animal products, and (d) they result in savings on capital costs and running expenses. These farms provide ideal test cases for evaluating the costs and benefits of conservation farming in areas with high biodiversity. It is essential that the experience of conservation farmers and their contribution to biodiversity conservation in South Africa is documented and placed in a dynamic economic-ecological framework so that successful models can be widely communicated and applied.

The proposed activity will focus on farms in four recognised areas of high biodiversity where the reserve network is inadequate (< 5% of the land area) and where at least one conservation farm exists and is producing tangible benefits, ie.: the Bokkeveld Plateau (Nieuwoudtville) which forms part of the Succulent Karoo Centre of plant diversity and is extraordinarily rich in geophytes; part of the Thicket biome in the Eastern Cape which falls within the Albany Centre of diversity; the Drakensberg sourveld which forms part of the Eastern Mountain Centre of diversity; and the Nama Karoo which covers an extensive area in the centre of South Africa.

The overall goal of the project is to evaluate conservation farming practices in the four selected regions so that biodiversity-friendly practices can be more widely applied as part of an overall strategy to conserve globally significant biodiversity. The project is consistent with the GEF operational programs "Biodiversity: Arid and semi-arid ecosystems; mountain ecosystems; and carbon sequestration". The project also strongly supports initiatives by the national Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism and provincial nature conservation departments to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable development, as well as the efforts of the national Department of Agriculture and provincial agricultural departments to promote a Landcare program as a basis for sustainable agriculture.


a) To identify and evaluate the economic and ecological costs and benefits (in terms of biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecosystem stability and resilience, and response to climate change) of apparently biodiversity-friendly farming practices compared with more widely used practices in the same region that do not take biodiversity into consideration.

(b) To develop and compare ecological economic models for land use and management practices included in objective (a).

(c) To synthesise information on conservation farming in South Africa and develop a database of information.

d) To evaluate the role of conservation farming as part of national and regional strategies to conserve biological diversity in South Africa.

e) To transfer information to targetted user groups (farmers, agricultural departments, nature conservation agencies).

Current situation

The status of biodiversity outside reserves is poorly known. However assessments of gaps in the protected area network provide a crude inverse estimate of priorities for conservation in the matrix outside reserves. More than 90% of the country's mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile species occur in reserves. The proportion of invertebrates in reserves is unknown but is assumed to be similar to vascular pIants where estimates of species in reserves vary between 34% and 74%. The reserve network is therefore hopelessly inadequate for plants and invertebrates and, in a few areas, is insufficient to conserve all vertebrates especially with the predictions of species movement in response to climate change. Analyses of South Africa's biomes show that species protection in reserves is extremely low in centres of diversity such as the Succulent Karoo (40% of plants and 75% of amphibians and reptiles) and in extensive areas such as the Nama Karoo (35% of plants) and that less than 5% of the land area is protected in four of the country's biomes, i.e. Nama Karoo (0.45%), Succulent Karoo (2.3%), Thicket (<5%), and Grassland (1.38%). The latter three biomes each incorporate a WWF-IUCN global centre of plant diversity.

No comprehensive attempt has been made to evaluate the costs and benefits (environmental and economic) of biodiversity-friendly land use practices in areas with globally significant biodiversity in South Africa. This is, in part, because the responsibility for conserving biodiversity has been a function of conservation agencies who have concentrated mainly on reserves, or only on specific threatened taxa, whereas farming has been the concern of agricultural departments who have focussed on productivity. The effects of grazing on vegetation structure and composition has been a major research focus of agricultural research institutes but the emphasis has been mostly on the dynamics of palatable species versus unpalatable ones and on output productivity. Farming with biodiversity per se has not received much attention. Increasing financial constraints and lack of capacity within these different departments has tended to compound the problem.

Conservation on private land has been boosted by a Natural Heritage Site program and the establishment of private reserves and conservancies. Conservation farming differs from these sites because it seeks to conserve biodiversity on productive farmland. Conservation farming has so far been developed and implemented by a few individual farmers. In some cases, the apparent benefits of these farming methods have influenced immediate neighbours.

Other initiatives underway include studies of the impacts of land use on biodiversity being undertaken by the National Botanical Institute, the University of Cape Town, the Cape Technikon, Stellenbosch University, University of Port Elizabeth, and institutes of the Agricultural Research Council.

Broad scale spatial analyses of land use and conservation planning outside reserves are being undertaken by the Institute of Climate Soil and Water with an initial focus on areas in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Northern Province. More detailed spatial analyses for conservation planning in the Succulent Karoo and Thicket biomes form part of proposed GEF-sponsored activities for a "Sustainable Protected Area Development for Namaqualand" and "Biodiversity Conservation, Global Change and Land Use in the Thicket Biome, Eastern Cape". These spatial analyses will identify areas of global conservation significance where land use poses a significant threat and where the alternative of conservation farming will be especially valuable.

Integrated Catchment Management Systems have been established in some areas and the Department of Agriculture is committed to the development of a Landcare program in South Africa. These are important initiatives which aim to integrate farming with natural ecosystem processes as a means of providing a sustainable system for agricultural productivity. They do not focus on promoting biodiversity with the associated global benefits. Nevertheless, these initiatives can provide a vital base for promoting conservation farming.

The Botanical Society of South Africa has set up a project looking at incentives for conservation on private land in the Western Cape. WWF-South Africa has been approached for sponsorship.

These activities all address important elements of conservation outside reserves, but they are not sufficient to conserve globally significant diversity in agricultural landscapes. Additional (incremental) activities are required to identify and evaluate the environmental, economic and social aspects of biodiversity-friendly farming practices. Only then will it be possible to convince farmers and policy makers of the value of conservation farming.

Expected project outcomes, with underlying assumptions and context

The main outcome of the project will be an objective assessment of conservation farming and the global benefits associated with conserving unique elements of biodiversity within agricultural landscapes. In terms of the stated objectives, a further outcome will be a database and knowledge management system on the impacts of selected forms of land use on biodiversity and the ecological costs and benefits of conservation farming. One of the main assumptions is that sufficient data can be obtained over a 3 yr period to support credible interpretations. Given that there is a range of land use in the focus areas, including land use that has been consistent over several decades, this assumption can be met by using retrospective data and by comparing existing land use practices.

A third outcome will be ecological economic models for different land use and management practices in each of the four areas. This outcome depends on the assumption that farmers can and will provide economic data for analysis. Farmers have indicated that they can provide data on inputs and products but they may be reluctant to divulge overall profits.

A fourth outcome will be a database on carbon sequestration related to various forms of land use. This will be subject to the same assumptions as above.

The fifth outcome will be at least one model farm in each region based on the economic and ecological profiles of these working farms. These farms can then be used for the further promotion and development of conservation farming.

The sixth outcome will be a greater capacity among agricultural extension officers and nature conservators to support conservation farming. This will be achieved through training existing staff and providing access to printed information and electronic databases. The program is not meant to create new work for extension services but rather to enable them to cope with conservation farming as part of their routine activities.

Finally, the fourth objective will result in an overall assessment of the value of conservation farming as part of an integrated strategy to conserve biodiversity in South Africa. This outcome will be especially important in areas where conservation farming can produce global environmental benefits but at an economic cost so that it becomes necessary to create the political will to provide incentives for farmers.

Project activities and financial inputs needed to enable changes

There are sufficient funds for ongoing small scale research projects on the impacts of land use on biodiversity. However, to promote conservation farming, studies must take place in several areas (nodes), and they must examine impacts and benefits across a spectrum of land use and/ or management practices. The biodiversity studies will vary between sites but will include plants, certain insect taxa (e.g. ants, carabid beetles, lepidoptera), soil invertebrates, and important functional groups. The study will also evaluate the role of conservation farming as part of an integrated conservation strategy. The incremental cost of funding these studies is US$ 408 600.

There are currently no comparitive studies of the economic costs and benefits of different land use practices. These studies need to be undertaken in the four areas identified for this study and must evaluate the inputs (e.g. water, fertilizers, pesticides, labour) and products across a spectrum of land use types. The incremental cost of funding these studies is US$ 36 400.

The impact of land use on carbon sequestration needs to be assessed and will require analysis of soil and biomass samples across different land use types. These results will be incorporated into a centralised database. The costs for collecting samples is included with biodiversity assessments but the incremental cost for soil analyses will be US$ 47 200.

Ecological economic models for each of the areas under consideration need to be developed as essential tools for integrating the environmental and economic costs and benefits of conservation farming. The incremental cost for developing these models is US$ 36 500.

An electronic database will be developed for information on conservation farming. Data will include addresses of conservation farming practitioners, information on biodiversity and landuse, information on carbon sequestration, and scientific references. The incremental cost for the database will be US$ 34 600.

An important obstacle for the implementation of conservation farming will be prevailing attitudes towards biodiversity among farmers, as well as a lack of awareness among farmers, policy makers and rural communities about the impacts of land use on biodiversity and the environmental and economic benefits of biodiversity-friendly farming practices. A social study is needed to identify prevailing attitudes and the extent of awareness among farmers and communities in the areas in which conservation farming needs to be implemented. The results of the study will be used to develop appropriate strategies to sell the concept of conservation farming to affected communities. The incremental cost of the social study is US$ 44 300.

The capacity of agricultural and conservation departments to support farmers in the development of conservation farming is constrained by a lack of information and appropriate training, as well as limited human resources. Institutional capacity and training will be developed as part of the government's Landcare program to be funded by the Department of Agriculture. GEF funding is needed to provide specific information and training materials for conservation farming. The incremental cost for information products, training and workshops will be US$ 42 000.

Finally, the project is multidiscipinary and will take place in four geographic areas. This will require considerable coordination of the inputs from all participants. The incremental cost for a project coordinator is US$ 100 400.

In summary the project activities and their incremental costs are the following.

  • Studies of the impacts of land use on biodiversity across land use gradients. US$ 408 600
  • Analysis of economic data from different land use types. US$ 36 400
  • Analysis of carbon sequestration. US$ 47 200
  • Development of ecological economic models related to land use. US$ 36 500
  • Social assessment of attitudes and awareness in the farming community. US$ 44 300
  • Development of a database on conservation farming. US$ 34 600
  • Information products and workshops. US$ 42 000
  • Co-ordination. US$ 100 400

Sustainability analysis and risk assessment

The sustainability of the project outcomes is built into the project through interaction with the Department of Agriculture's extension service and the newly developed Landcare program. The extension service has been in place for several decades with well developed infrastructure. No new staff are required to support the implementation of conservation farming as this can be incorporated into the service already offered by the extension service. The critical aspect will be to ensure that extension officers have access to information on conservation farming. The Landcare program is a new initiative modelled on the program in Australia. The Landcare program is an important conduit for spreading information on conservation farming and for using the is a permanent structure that will depend on the willingness and ability of farmers to adopt conservation farming practices. The risk that farmers will not change their land use practices will be influenced primarily by four factors: a) the actual benefits for farmers; b) the credibility of the results; c) the socio-economic context influencing decisions on land use; and d) the support farmers get from extension services and conservation agencies. The first risk would appear to be quite low since there are already farmers who are practicing conservation farming as a result of the economic benefits. The identification and evaluation of these and other benefits should further reduce this risk. The risk that evaluations will lack credibility needs to be accommodated in two ways. Firstly, scientific and economic evaluations must be done using rigorous and accepted methods and these phases of the project need to be carefully peer reviewed. Secondly, the implementation phase needs to emphasize that technology has been developed and tested by farmers so that technology transfer on conservation farming is from farmer to farmer and not from scientist to farmer. The risk associated with implementation within different social systems will need to be determined as part of the project. Finally, the lack of infrastructure and capacity within extension services and nature conservation agencies will need to addressed. The project will provide the necessary information for the support of conservation farming and will provide training and materials for extension officers. However, this assumes that the relevant departments have staff who can make use of these opportunities. The planned strategy for implementing conservation farming has been included specifically to address this need and to create the political will necessary to support staffing requirements and resource allocations.

Stakeholder involvement and social assessment

A range of stakeholders involved with land use, farming, and conservation, were identified during the development of this proposal. This includes farmers, farmers associations, government departments of agriculture and nature conservation, non-government organisations, professional and environmental societies, universities and research institutes. Representatives of these groups were invited to a workshop on Conservation Farming where they participated in a logframe process to develop this proposal. Part of the process was to identify additional stakeholders (see public participation plan).

A social assessment will form part of the project to determine the root cause of prevailing attitudes among farmers and to ensure that positive results from this study take hold in the farming community. The principal aim of the social studies will be to determine why farmers currently use particular landuses and farming practices and to determine under what circumstances these patterns of behaviour are likely to change. The social studies will comprise questionnaires and interviews with land users. Key questions will centre on the history of landuse, and the relative value of different interventions (financial, social, policy, educational) for changing current patterns of landuse. The assessment will also need to consider the influence of different land tenure systems on farmers attitudes towards implementing conservation farming practices.

Incremental cost assessment

The project activities are complementary in that they add to the baseline (some farms with biodiversity-friendly land use practices and a Landcare system for sustainable agriculture) without changing it. The matrix which follows shows that the incremental costs are associated with additional activities that are necessary to achieve global environmental benefits. The activities are required to provide an objective assessment of conservation farming practices and their global benefits.

Incremental cost matrix

Global environmental benefits Land use practices, research, and extension aimed at sustainable agricultural productivity and conservation of agricultural resources (soil, water, palatable species, crops) 1. Application of land use practices that sustain agricultural productivity (baseline) but also conserve globally significant biodiversity

2. Knowledge base on land use and carbon sequestration
1. Economic and ecological assessments and models, information, knowledge base and training to identify and promote land use practices that conserve globally significant biodiversity

2. Analysis of impacts of land use on carbon sequestration

3. Assessment of land use impacts on species migrations in response to climate change
Domestic benefits As above with focus on ensuring food security of the country 1. Greater value of agricultural landscapes in terms of: fulfilling government commitments to biodiversity policies and conventions; ecotourism opportunities; and potential for trade in carbon deficits

2. Data on role of biodiversity in contributing to resilience/ stability of agroecosystems
Assessments and models of sustainable land use that incorporate ecotourism, carbon sequestration and the role of biodiversity in ecosystem processes


Costs US$ US$ US$
Biodiversity assessments 194 000 602 600 408 600
Economic analyses - 36 400 36 400
Social assessments - 44 300 44 300
Carbon analyses - 47 200 47 200
Ecological economic models 10 000 46 500 36 00
Database   34 600 34 600
Information, training, institutional support 660 000 702 000 42 000
Co-ordination   100 400 100 400
TOTAL 864 000 1 614 000 750 000



Project Budget (US$)

Component GEF Other sources Project total
Project development 0 5 000 5 000
Personnel 260 500 104 500 365 000
Consultants 216 200 20 000 236 200
Training and institutional support 47 800 660 000 707 800
Equipment 41 800 20 000 61 800
Travel and accommodation 107 100 20 000 127 100
Evaluation mission(s) 28 300 0 28 300
Miscellaneous 48 300 35 000 83 300
Project total (PDF+project costs) 750 000 864 500 1 614 500



Project implementation plan

The project is designed to reach completion after three years.

Duration of Project (in months): 36 months
Activities Project-months
Completion of project activities 6 12 18 24 30 36
Impacts of land use on biodiversity X X X X X  
Management costs and economic benefits X X X X    
Social assessments X X        
Carbon sequestration X X X X    
Ecological economic models         X X
Strategic analysis   X X X X  
Information transfer and workshops           X


Public participation plan

Stakeholder identification

Key stakeholders were identified during a logframe process to develop this proposal. They include the affected farming communities near Nieuwoudtville, Beaufort West, the Drakensberg and Eastern Cape, the provincial departments of agriculture and nature conservation (Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape), the Holistic farmers network, Veldstock, farmers unions and conservation committees, the national Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism and Department of Agriculture, the National Botanical Institute, NGOs (Botanical Society of South Africa, LANDCARE South Africa), Museums, Universities and Technikons involved in biodiversity and economic assessments, i.e. SA Museum, UCT (Institute for Plant Conservation, Percy Fitzpatrick Institute), UPE (Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit), UNP, Stellenbosch University, and Cape Technikon, the Agricultural Research Council, and institutes involved in social evaluations.

Information dissemination and stakeholder participation

All stakeholders will be kept informed of project developments and progress via a newsletter. In the initial stages, it will be important for researchers to keep contact and exchange information. The project manager will be expected to continuously facilitate this process (e.g. via email) and to organise an annual workshop/ symposium where the research results and models will be discussed. The involvement of the farming community will need to increase as the project develops and a variety of media will be utilised to reach target stakeholders (e.g. farmers magazines, Landcare newsletters, radio programs). Landcare initiatives in Australia have shown that "on-farm" visits are the most successful way to illustrate specific land use practices and similar activities will be investigated. Dissemination of information to policy makers will be the responsibility of the project manager and the main participants in the project.

Social and participation issues

The involvement of farmers in the project will require special attention. In the early stages of the project, this will apply to farmers in the select areas who are willing to participate in research aspects of the project. In the later information transfer phases of the project, careful consideration must be given to the involvement of a broad range of farmers from different socio-economic and land tenure systems. Although most known conservation farms are on white commercial land, the aim of the project also applies to communal systems and other forms of tenure and management and it is essential that members of all farming communities are drawn into the project.

Monitoring and evaluation plan

A key role in monitoring and evaluation will be the reponsibility of the project Steering Committee comprising the Project Manager, a representative from NBI research management, the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism, and the Department of Agriculture, and four members to represent other stakeholders.

The research and modelling components (ecological and economic) will be reviewed by the Steering Committee on an annual basis to ensure that scientific standards are maintained and to monitor adherence to project deadlines. The information and training components will be evaluated in the final year of the project. Participants in the project will be required to supply written reports to the Steering Committee as part of the review process and the project manager will be responsible for collecting and reporting on performance indicators for the project. An independent reviewer will be contracted to provide an assessment of the scientific component of the project.

Part of the budget has been allocated to annual Steering Committee meetings and to the costs of an independent reviewer. Adherence to project deadlines and quality of results will be used as criteria for continued funding for participants in the various phases of the project.

Administrative issues

The project will be administered by the National Botanical Institute of South Africa. The administrative and financial procedures governing procurements, contracts, financial records, and audits will fall under the directorate of Personnel and Finance of the NBI.

Project checklist

Project activity categories
Buffer zone development
Combating desertification
Technical categories
Capacity building
Policy advice
Targeted research
Technical/management advice
Technology transfer
Mazda Wildlife Fund


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