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Wakkerstroom, South Africa

John McAllister

"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 — a traditional healer of the Zulu people

Lizzy Ngwenya is a Sangoma —
a 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.

Lizzy Ngwenya is a Sangoma — a traditional healer of the Zulu people

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.



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