The sun is scorching and the air thick with heat. There’s a mild smell of dust in the dry air from the gravel roads meandering throughout the small town of Wupperthal that sits modestly on a mountain slope in the Cederberg region. The smell is quickly undercut by the fragrant, aromatic rooibos plant upon entering the plant processing area. It is the last day of harvest and of witnessing the tea being naturally fermented under the stinging sun out on the tea court. The tea shimmers as sun rays bounce across its now red (previously green), dried and scattered leaves. The swooshing of brooms and starting of machinery by the labourers to level out the tea brings life to the processing of a wild, hardy plant enjoyed globally as a tea.
The Wupperthal people, descendants of the indigenous Khoisan who are said to have discovered the plant, commercialised rooibos and continue the tradition of using the tea for treating skin rashes and stomach ailments, as well as using the plant as a skincare solution. Globally increasing temperatures and the town’s extreme weather conditions suggest the uses of rooibos are threatened as supply is at risk, a consequence of climate change.
The town is located approximately 350km north of Cape Town, South Africa and has about 1000 people with a handful visible at a time. It is centred on a single elongated dirt road connecting the church, clinic, store, veldskoen (field shoe) shop, homes, as well as the temporary housing set up on a sports field after about 50 homes were burnt down in almost three years ago. Wupperthal, whose architecture consists solely of two-toned buildings; brown thatched roofs and white structure, sits on the border of the dry Northern Cape and close to the Western Cape Karoo - both semi-desert areas parched by the blistering sun.
A changing landscape
Years of climbing temperatures have brought about new challenges for rooibos farmer Barend Salomo.
“One of the problems which I have, and I don’t know how to handle, is climate change. We can see from the eastern part from Wupperthal, which is the drier part, to the western part. Even the wild animal population suffers because it is dry. When I was a kid, we could play in the bushes, but now there are no bushes because of the drought.”
He also reminisces of wetter days on the rooibos fields. These were days when he and his family would be stranded from the town, which sits across an overflowing river from his home, due to what the locals called the ‘Seven Days of Rain’. The term refers to seven days in the wintertime where it would rain continuously without ceasing. Today, the longest time Wupperthal will experience consecutive rain is for two to three days.
Whether this is a direct result of climate change or not - sustainable farming strategist Gerhard Pretorius of NaturaLibra Environmental Services says it may be too soon to tell, as separating nature’s genetics from climate change can be difficult.
“There are effects in rooibos that run parallel to climate change. You can’t take a five-year drought and say it’s climate change. But also, you can’t ignore anecdotal evidence from farmers whose fathers have farmed. They’ve been farmers since it started in the 1800s,” Pretorius said over a video call.
A rooibos farmer’s perspective
Salomo has been a rooibos farmer in the Wupperthal area where he was born and raised for more than 20 years. He refers to the town as the “epicentre of rooibos”. He is one of the 90% of the town’s people financially dependent on the plant.
The farmer tells of the journey of the Khoisan cultivating wild rooibos, how the group was stripped of their land and shed a tear when sharing how the land they plant rooibos on is still not under their ownership; up to this day it belongs to the Moravian church, which still governs the town.
“We didn’t have a lot when we grew up, so your cup of rooibos tea and your homemade bread was for us a balanced meal. Everything that your body needs is in the rooibos. So, you can’t even talk about someone from Wupperthal without mentioning rooibos. And that was part and parcel of our culture, our past. Rooibos was the basis of where we come from, the source of nature,” Salomo passionately recalls.
Rooibos is a drought-resistant plant that can withstand high temperatures, such as those in the Wupperthal area, which reach close to 50 degrees Celsius. Though farmers are at times challenged by nature itself, they try to keep up with Mother Nature by using farming methods aligned to the climate.
Previously, Wupperthal farmers would harvest rooibos plants each year because of more reliable rain. “Today we can’t do that,” Salomo said. “We can see the difference since harvesting every second year as of 2005. It has helped us a lot to become sustainable in our wild harvesting. We have to skip one year to allow our plants to grow back.”
Resilient as the crop is, it has faced several challenges over the years. Among them being that the plant could be harvested up to 10 years almost 20 years ago, Pretorius said. As of today, however, the plant lives up to six years before it has to be ploughed from the soil and brand new seeds planted again.
Though rooibos plants go into heat stress once temperatures start to climb, the root is prone to survival. In fact, its root can travel down to seven metres in search of underground water, according to Salomo.
“When we sense the change in weather, we don’t sense it immediately. As we grew up, we came to the conclusion: we have higher temperatures, longer summers and the winters are so short. There is a different kind of nature that we now experience,” Salomo added.
Irrigation seems like the closest solution to mitigating the effects of rooibos. Unfortunately, the rooibos Geographic Indicator states that rooibos should not be irrigated, especially two months before harvest.
Anecdotal evidence from a University of Cape Town (UCT) study shows that irrigating rooibos as a rainfall supplement resulted in “die-back and total crop failure”. The option of irrigation for a resource-strapped community like Wupperthal is in any case one that is out of reach, as local farmers are already struggling to protect their harvest.
A drought in 2016/17 dampened the supply of the town’s rooibos, as the 72 farmers of the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Co-operative lost almost 80% of their turnover. The whole rooibos industry experienced a 30% decline in supply, according to the BBC. Annually, members of the co-operative which include farmers from 15 surrounding towns, share profits amongst themselves and community initiatives. For these small-scale farmers, this is an income to continue farming and sustain themselves and their families but not enough to continuously combat climate change.
Salomo shares in a tone carrying heartbreak, how the co-operative farmers sought to lease land in Citrusdal, about 120km from the town, in order to keep up with demand during the drought. During this time, the co-operative was – instead of the usual twelve – only able to hire four workers and harvested until February as opposed to April. Only 20% of farmers could harvest at the time, which left many farmers and workers with no income and nothing to supplement with, in the remote town. The co-operative made about a quarter of their annual turnover through the drought period.
According to Salomo, increasing rains each year are helping to ease out of the drought as farmers return to their own farms. He notes however, that drought patterns seem to have changed over the years, with the drought period becoming shorter but more devastating.
“When there’s a drought for a protracted period of time, that makes a big impact. And that isn’t just the impact of no water in the system, but it has an impact also even later. That has social and economic impact on people that depend on the resource,” said Rhoda Malgas, a land ecologist associated with Stellenbosch University.
Malgas further believes that building a supply-driven business model is among the leading solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change on rooibos supply, perhaps even more so than leading solutions to sustainability.
“Is it the business model that must change to meet the ecological requirements of these plants rather than us tampering with the ecological parameters to meet demand,” the scholar said over a video call.
The future of rooibos under climate change
The UCT study of the rooibos plant shows that should the climate continue to change at its current rate rooibos is likely to experience less rainfall availability in the winter and longer sun exposure in the summer in future decades. The research furthermore suggests that under these circumstances about 50-90% of rooibos in the western and northern rooibos regions of the Cederberg area in northern Western Cape, could be wiped out by the year 2070. Wupperthal, however, is situated in the southern and eastern region of the rooibos area and remains protected from the wipe-out.
Farming methods that retain and maintain moisture in the soil, as well as organic farming methods have been implemented by farmers to mitigate the lack of moisture due to low rainfall. According to Salomo, these measures are taken to ensure the co-operative’s part in farming in alignment to nature’s needs. He emphasises the latter because it shows a continuation and practice of indigenous Khoisan farming methods of his and the community’s forefathers.
A sip down memory lane
Beyond the fond childhood memories, Salomo reminisces of harvesting, processing and preparing wild rooibos. He tells me of how his father taught him and his siblings to harvest the plant and his mother showed them how to process it. This included chopping up the thin plant into small pieces only with an axe and leaving it on a rock to dry and ferment under the sun; a process that would leave the rock with red stains.
Evidence of those good old days still exists far up in the mountains, he tells me. It is after this processing that the leaves would be used as either a drink, added to bath water to treat eczema or any skin conditions on infants, or even used as a replacement for a mother’s milk. “Rooibos was the miracle worker,” Salomo says with conviction.
For the farmers of Wupperthal, rooibos is more than just a cash crop; it is a continuation of culture and traditional knowledge, as well as being a way of life, perhaps one of the only ways of life in the small town.
Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the town has been experiencing climate change for years and it emerges that in order to preserve the livelihood of Wupperthal, more remains to be done. Perhaps building business models around supply could be a solution or continuing to harvest every second year to ensure sustainable farming. Temperatures in the blistering region are only going to climb higher than they already are, and the plant will continue to face challenges. Though the Wupperthal area remains protected from geographic relocation of the plant, the challenges that come with climate change will need to be addressed.