Visiting researcher Nick McClure shares reflections from his fieldwork on the governance of the mopane worm harvest in Limpopo Province.

Mopane worms have been an important source of food across southern Africa for thousands of years. These caterpillars, the larval form of the mopane emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina), thrive in semi-arid mopane woodlands from Zambia to South Africa. Aside from being a popular and nutritious food, mopane worms provide an important source of income for rural households. This income arrives in late December, a crucial time of year when households need cash to cover holiday expenses and pay fees for the upcoming school year.

Urbanisation over the last few decades has led to high demand for mopane worms in cities, driving up prices and incentivising a robust international trade. South Africa is the end market for a large volume of this trade, estimated to be worth between $22 and $84 million US annually. Despite the importance of mopane worms to harvesters, policy makers have paid little attention to the resource and its management.

Building on the Master’s thesis of George Sekonya, my research focuses on the relationship between land tenure systems and mopane worm management regimes. The goal is to understand whether, in practice, mopane worms are being treated as an open-access resource, where each harvester takes her or his fill without oversight. Or are the norms that communities developed over thousands of years strong enough to support the continued utilisation of this resource, despite changing social and ecological pressures?

Initial interviews with land managers and mopane worm harvesters indicate important differences between management systems. The national and provincial government play little role in the management of mopane worm harvesting on private or communal lands, but severely restrict harvesting on publicly owned lands – especially nature reserves and national parks. In communal areas, norms regulating the harvest of the mopane worm exist, but seem to be pervasively broken by harvesters. High prices and competition from harvesters outside the community lead community members to circumvent the rules and begin to harvest in secret before tribal authorities officially open the mopane worm season. On the other hand, private land managers are at liberty to regulate the number of mopane harvesters that have access to their land as well as the harvesting methods that are permissible there. Since the majority of private landowners fence their land, they can effectively ban the harvest of mopane worms by choosing not to grant harvesters rights to collect on their land.

While harvesters on both private and communal lands generally find the harvesting regulations to be fair, harvesters in communal areas have a higher degree of concern about the impacts of human activities on mopane worms. These concerns centred on the felling of mopane trees for timber and firewood, and overharvesting of mopane worms despite rules to the contrary. This casts doubt on the sustainability of this management regime; without sufficient enforcement, the existence of rules and norms can’t ensure a sustainable system.

Looking ahead, further interviews with harvesters collecting on public lands will be conducted in the early months of 2017 and the results should be completed later this year.