George Sekonya reflects on his recently completed Masters project. Mopane worm (Imbrasia belina larvae) harvest, trade and consumption are among the most important livelihood activities in rural households in the Limpopo Province, South Africa. With the increasing evidence of environmental change (such as deforestation, climate change and habitat loss) as well as overharvesting, the pressures on mopane worm populations may pose a significant threat to the livelihoods of harvesters and traders. This was the subject of my Masters research which was focused on determining the significance and contribution of mopane worm harvesting and trading to rural livelihoods; gauging the perceptions of harvesters and traders on forms of environmental change which have affected mopane worm availability; assessing access to and management of mopane resources under different tenure types; and, exploring mopane worm use in the context of the sustainable livelihoods framework.
Main findings indicate that the importance of mopane worms in households is threefold: it is an important source of food, a valuable trading commodity, and an intrinsic part of local cultural practices. This study also shows that the historical value placed on mopane worms as a food source and trading commodity has been passed down for generations. Trading was found to be an important form of employment for rural people who have limited prospects of formal employment, and had the potential to generate higher income levels than wage labour in rural contexts.
Environmental change and land tenure effects
The decline in mopane tree density, vegetation change, lower-than-normal precipitation, and higher-than-normal temperatures were the leading forms of environmental change identified by respondents. These changes have significantly affected mopane worm availability and outbreak events. Household consumption and trade patterns were altered as a result of the weather and climatic conditions arising from the El Niño phenomenon. Land tenure type was found to be the primary determinant of resource management and access regimes in the harvesting areas.
Challenges and opportunities
The limited availability of mopane worms presented a key constraint for households and traders. The high availability of labour from family members suggests human capital is strong. Furthermore, the strong social links and networks which resulted from family-level and community-wide participation strengthened opportunities for social capital enhancement. Physical and financial capital constraints were found to pose the greatest threat to the attainment of sustainable livelihoods, as households suffer poverty and are not easily able to access financial resources. This served as a hindrance for households and limited their income earning potential.