PhD candidate Sthembile Nwandwe and researcher Jaci van Niekerk reflect on a field trip seeking to uncover community voices involved in the honeybush trade.

Mid-way through January 2022 a small team led by Prof Rachel Wynberg travelled to honeybush-harvesting areas in the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces. Besides the Chair, Sthembile and Jaci, the team included Prof Neil Crouch from the South African National Biodiversity Institute and post-doc Dr Jessica Lavelle. In collaboration with local partners, they hosted conversations on benefit sharing as it relates to conservation and sustainable use in Zoar, Tsitsikamma, the Langkloof, and Haarlem. The focus was on engaging harvesters and community-based structures involved in the use of both wild and cultivated honeybush to better understand their role in ensuring that the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are incorporated into access and benefit-sharing (ABS) agreements.

The field trip provided useful information to support the development of national guidelines which aim to facilitate benefit sharing in the context of the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The guidelines are being developed under the “Benefit Sharing for Conservation and Sustainable Use” project, a joint initiative between the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and the German government funded BioInnovation Africa (BIA) programme.

Fruitful discussions were had all round, and the trip provided a highly valued opportunity to connect in person after close to two years of restricted contact imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of key messages emerged:

  • The term “conservation” is still a fraught concept in South Africa as it is often associated with repressive colonial conservation practices and legislation.
  • Landlessness is a challenge for harvesters and other community members involved in the honeybush industry. To this end, collaboration which promotes sustainable use of the resource between those who own land and those who need access to the resource was viewed as an important interim solution.
  • South Africa’s ABS legislation still invokes confusion and divisions around who is meant to benefit and who qualifies as a Traditional Knowledge holder.
  • Those on the ground expressed concerns about projects which tend to either raise expectations or fail to acknowledge the long-term work that is required to realise success.

At a community meeting in Thornham, Tsitsikamma, participants talked about the practices of sustainably harvesting honeybush which they have been utilising for generations, but they also mentioned that some people were poaching the plants – stripping them bare in an unsustainable manner. Community members raised concerns about a lack of access for wild harvesting to protected areas and timber plantations; these were relayed by the team to representatives of DFFE and BIA.

The team hopes that the January visit will be but one of many conversations to be held around benefit sharing for conservation and sustainable use in the honeybush sector.

A special thanks to Yolande Le Roux (Tsitsikamma and Kouga), Noel (Judah Square in Knysna), Liz Metcalfe and Matt Sephton (Living Lands in the Langkloof), Aunt Dos (Haarlem) and Oom Dennis (Zoar) for their insights and their advice and logistics assistance.

Photograph: Wild harvested honeybush tea (Credit: Sthembile Ndwandwe).