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Mainstreaming Biodiversity And Wetland Rehabilitation Into The South African Wine Industry


South Africa’s Cape Floral Region (CFR) is one of the world’s great centres of terrestrial biodiversity. It is home to nearly 20% of Africa’s flora, while covering less than 0.5% of the continent’s area. The wetlands in this sensitive area face particular threats, including from development and agriculture, as the region is also home to farms growing around 95% of South Africa’s wine. On-farm conservation measures are therefore vital to protect the outstanding diversity, density and endemism of the biodiversity of the CFR. Over the last ten years conservation has become well established in the South African wine sector (for example, 144,000ha of land has been set aside for conservation). Action has been driven by industry-wide standards, marketing mechanisms that emphasise biodiversity. Other approaches are being led by individual farms, which are taking innovative conservation actions, looking at bringing new biodiversity assets to the wine estates, such as the Vergenoegd Estate. They are leading the Vergenoegd Waterbird Habitat and Water Conservation Project (VWH Project), which is creating wetland habitats on the farm, along with others in the Western Cape. Project partners include NNC Environmental Services (Pty) Ltd. and BirdLife South Africa (national BirdLife Partner in the country).

Problem, challenge or context: 

South Africa’s second NBSAP (covering 2015-2025) sets out six national strategic objectives, the third of which is on mainstreaming biodiversity into a range of sectors. This is broken down into outcomes and activities, including activity .6.4 to “Integrate biodiversity considerations into production sector codes of conduct and best practice guidelines”. The NBSAP goes on to highlight that “Biodiversity criteria have been successfully integrated into the production and marketing of wine” (p.51). The NBSAP reports that an ecosystem threat assessment found that wetlands are the most threatened ecosystems in South Africa (p.18). The NBSAP also emphasises the importance of the World Heritage sites and associated regulations. This is relevant to the CFR, where 13 protected area clusters form a World Heritage property covering . million ha. Conservation action both within and outside the CFR’s protected areas is line with Aichi Target 11 on protected areas and the connectivity of such areas.

Specific elements of components: 

The Cape Floral Region, covers 78,555 square kilometres of the country - represents 0,05% of the earth’s land area-, but contain roughly % of the world’s plant species. This means that the CFR is one of the world’s richest areas for plants, compared to any similar sized area, leading to it be named as one of the “hottest” of the Global Biodiversity hotspots. Some 69% of its estimated 9,600 plant species occur nowhere else on Earth, and so far 18% have been assessed as threatened. The main threats to the biodiversity of the CFR are habitat loss (including urban and agricultural expansion), invasive alien plant species, and habitat degradation (through fragmentation, overgrazing and inappropriate fire frequencies). Some ,736 plant species have been identified as threatened. Although wine production is not the activity that covers the largest production area within this Region, still, on-farm conservation measures are considered as key to protect the outstanding diversity, density and endemism of the biodiversity of this plant Kingdom. Wetland habitats in South Africa have undergone large-scale degradation due to agricultural expansion, urban development, water abstraction and pollution. Many ephemeral wetlands have been lost even before these habitats had been properly understood and identified. Threatened bird species affected by wetland loss include the African Marsh Harrier, Maccoa Duck, Lesser and Greater Flamingos and a number of rallid species. 

The action taken: 

This section describes sector-wide actions across the South African wine industry, and then, below, the VWH Project, which shows how individual farms continue to drive innovation for the sector.

  • In 1998 the South African wine industry established the voluntary Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) scheme. This produced best practice guidelines on managing soil, water, pests, nutrition and, from 2005, biodiversity. Since 2010, certified producers have been able to display the IPW ‘Integrity & Sustainability’ seal on their products.
  • In 2005 a partnership between industry bodies and conservation organisations, led by the Botanical Society of South Africa, launched the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) as a voluntary membership model. This aimed to minimise the further loss of threatened natural habitat within the Cape Winelands, and integrate guidelines on the management of biodiversity within the industry’s existing farm management practices.
  • WWF-South Africa housed the BWI, which from 2005 to 2015, provided free advisory support to wine producers, encouraging them to reach and surpass the IPW standards, including by committing land to conservation and developing environmental management plans. Wine from BWI Members displayed a striking logo of the native Cape sugarbird, making a selling point of action to conserve the CFR’s unique biodiversity.
  • Since 2006, the industry marketing body Wines of South Africa has run a strong conservation-focused marketing campaign in Europe and the USA. This builds on the IPW and BWI, in response to research showing consumer support for South Africa's eco-friendly wines.
  • In 2015, recognising that sustainability was increasingly mainstreamed across the sector, WWF-South Africa refocused its efforts onto supporting leading ‘Conservation Champion’ producers, who meet the most rigorous criteria and gain exclusive use of the sugarbird logo. The Vergenoed Estate is a member of the BWI and is IPW certified, so it already had a conservation-centred approach to farming, including using a herd of 800 non-native ducks to control snails and insect pests, and thus demonstrating a conservation-centred approach to farming. However, the Estate wanted to go beyond and to extend work by re-establishing and rehabilitating wetland habitat and bringing in indigenous waterfowl. The VWB Project is a three year pilot, including the following actions.
  • Installation of floating islands on farm irrigation dams, using locally indigenous wetlands plants to provide feeding, breeding and roosting habitat for birds. At the same time as being attractors to birds, these islands can work as water filters and should contribute to improved water quality.
  • BirdLife-South Africa and NCC are developing practical guidelines on how to rehabilitate farm dams through floating islands and wetland landscaping; this includes plant and bird identification lists. These guidelines will be shared with farms across the Western Cape, including to raise awareness of the benefits for water quality and biodiversity.
  • Pilot farms are testing the prototype islands, while also receiving training on bird and water quality monitoring.
Key lessons learned: 

The combination of the unique biodiversity of the CFR, the eagerness of wine producers to promote the conservation stories associated with their wines, consumer interest in eco-friendly wine, and lessons learnt in the 1990s on the integrated production of fruit for export, helped create the enabling conditions behind the widespread uptake of conservation action by South Africa’s wine producers. An initial concern was whether commitments, especially to set land aside, would be maintained over the long term. It became clear that strong market incentives is pivotal to keep conservation measures in place. Wine producers place great value on the sustainability certifications and seals of the IPW and Conservation Champions, as these create marketing advantages by increasing product differentiation - particularly important within this competitive industry. On another scale, innovative conservation actions help each wine producer create a niche that enhances their distinctive brand. The ‘Duck Parade’ of 800 runner ducks draws in visitors to Vergeneogd, and support for indigenous waterbirds further differentiates the estate’s brand for wine tours and sales. Producers are developing their tourism businesses, by offering birdwatching, mountain biking and tours around restored fynbos.

Impacts and outcomes: 

Sector-wide outcome: Since 2005, with BWI support, nearly 90% of South African wine producers embedded environmental practices into their business, and one third of the industry put environmental management plans in place. Producers set aside almost 144,000 ha of conservation-worthy land, well in excess of the industry’s vineyard footprint of almost 100,000 ha. Some of this is protected through the innovative Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, which allows full, legal proclamation of protected areas on private land. BWI Members and Champions commit to protecting and restoring highly endangered types of fynbos vegetation, through planting of endangered species, clearance of invasive plants, corridor creation, watercourse restoration, and the establishment of regional groups that, for example, set up protected areas spanning multiple properties.

On farm outcome: Through the VWH Project, five pilot farms have taken up the floating islands, which are being used by insects, amphibians and birds. One farm is developing a nursery to propagate plants for the floating islands, providing a local hub for farm dam rehabilitation. Initial results from the biodiversity monitoring at the pilot sites have been encouraging, with the floating islands acting as small ecological refugia in the agricultural landscape. The habitat improvements target 25 waterbird species, including the threatened African Marsh Harrier and Maccoa Duck, and endemic Cape Shoveller. If other wine producers take up the challenge to rehabilitate their own irrigation dams, this will create large-scale corridors for bird movement.

Contact details: 
Regional Conservation Manager: Western Cape, BirdLife South Africa,
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