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POINTS OF VIEW:
"These beautiful grasslands are one of the oldest landscapes
in Africa around about 180 million years. They used
to cover as much as 60 percent of Africa and today they're
being threatened by all sorts of things. Perhaps the most
invasive are alien tree plantations to feed great big paper
and pulp mills for Japan and the U.S."
Allan Robertson, lumber mill owner
"It is vitally important that what we are doing here is first
and foremost giving us a living. We employee a number of fifty-two
people who work two shifts a day. And its just, I think an
indication of where we are at in terms of the economics and
the desperate need of folk in our province. Some of the men
actually said, 'You don't know how hungry we are. We have
folk who are dying of AIDS in the villages and we've come
to look for work and we desperately need food.'"
Wakkerstroom is a small village of 6,000 people. Most days it's
quiet, except on those occasions when the silence is broken by the
prayers of a spirit medium. Lizzy Ngwenya is a Sangoma a
traditional healer of the Zulu people. She communicates with her
ancestral spirits, asking for guidance to treat patients suffering
from asthma. At the end of the session she prescribes an herbal
remedy that often provides a measure of relief.
Lizzy Ngwenya is a Sangoma
traditional healer of the Zulu people
South Africa's central highlands may be the oldest grassland habitat on the planet.
Two or three times a week Lizzy searches the neighboring hillside. Like the other 20,000 traditional healers in South Africa, she is always searching for plants that have healing qualities. For centuries, Wakkerstroom has provided Sangomas like Lizzy Ngwenya with nearly a thousand different medicinal herbs and plants. This valley sits in the middle of one of the most unspoiled grassland ecosystems in the world the high veldt.
South Africa's central highlands are an environmental treasure. This may be the oldest grassland habitat on the planet so ancient that it existed before the Earth's original landmass broke up into continents over a hundred million years ago. Here, the word grassland is almost a misnomer only one in six plants are actually grasses. During the spring and summer months over eight hundred species of wild flowers carpet the landscape, turning it into a delicate mosaic of pastels.
The grasslands also act like a giant sponge a natural reservoir that soaks up water during the rainy season and slowly releases it during South Africa's long dry season. These wetlands are home to some 360 species of birds. A sanctuary for migrating flocks from North Africa and Europe. These highland pastures provide fertile and abundant grazing for animals both wild and domestic. Over-grazing and erosion have never been a problem.
While no one questions that the country needs jobs, economic development is slowly destroying the grasslands.
South Africa’s high veldt
Until recently, this was an ecosystem in almost perfect balance.
Today it represents a microcosm of a global debate how best
to balance badly needed economic development with the preservation
of nature. Not very far from Wakkerstroom hundreds of thousands
of acres of grassland have been turned into tree plantations. Logging
has become a major industry in South Africa. These trees being harvested
mostly pine and eucalyptus are not native to South
Africa, and they are beginning to take over parts of the veld. They
consume nearly 40% of any available rainwater water that
is necessary to maintain the delicate ecological balance of the
grasslands. But the timber industry also provides jobs and
South Africa is desperately poor. The timber industry is at the
center of an environmental dilemma. Rural South Africa's unemployment
rate is nearly 60% and the industry employs over 135,000 people.
While no one questions that the country needs jobs, economic development
is slowly destroying the grasslands. Here in South Africa as in Inner Mongolia it's still
too soon to say how widespread the damage will be.