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Commercial agriculture in the Central Lowveld, although somewhat limited in extent geographically, plays an important role as a generator of primary income and job creation. Within the greater Biosphere boundaries substantial exotic fruit production is undertaken.

Two irrigation districts fall in the Lowveld - the Olifants River system and the Blyde with its associated irrigation scheme - both of which are well suited to supporting the production of banana, mango, citrus, and vegetables. On the margins of the Biosphere is the Letaba area, surrounding the town of Tzaneen. This is one of the best agricultural areas in the country.

Irrigated agriculture areas (green) in the Biosphere region

It produces 75% of the countries mangoes, of which 40% is turned into atchar, 15% into juices and blends, 27% sold on the local markets and 18% exported. This area also produces 65% of South Africa’s papayas and tomatoes, 36% of the tea and 25% of its citrus, bananas and litchis. A total of 55% of the countries avocados are also produced in the region (Ryna, 1998). Permanent employment in agriculture provided livelihoods for some 4,600 people in 1999, with an additional 1,000 jobs created seasonally.

Plantings in ha. (1999) Turnover (1999)
Mangoes 2,832 184,660,000
Citrus 1,808 42,893,000
Horticulture 300
Other 1,289 15,000,000

Agricultural Activity In The Blyde Irrigation District

Brief History   

Half a century ago the foundations were laid for the establishment of a environmentally sensitive farming method by a man of remarkable foresight. Dr. Hans Merensky was a pioneer of ecological farming in the Lowveld and escarpment area and when he established the Merensky Foundation ecological farming principles were applied to commercial agriculture and farming in the area well in advance of most modern African agricultural enterprises. The Foundation and its Estates have established environmentally responsible protocols for the integrated production of some 2 million cartons of avocados each year along with 50,000 of mangoes. These norms have now been adopted as guidelines by most fruit growing businesses in the area.

The European Union (EU) is the major market for avocados, mangoes, citrus and litchis from the Lowveld area and buyers’ expectations have changed dramatically in the past few years. Products are expected to be produced in an environmentally sound manner, entailing correct use of soils, irrigation water, cultivars and chemicals. In addition hygiene factors and fair labour practices are included in EU requirements.

There are strong links between the economic activities of agriculture and surrounding communities. The estimated annual growth rate of the agriculture is 8%, which is above the Northern Province growth rate of 6% (CSIR, 1997). The importance of agriculture to the economy of the area is readily apparent from its contribution to the Gross Geographic Product and formal employment capacity. According to the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Lower Blyde River Irrigation Network, this represents a contribution by agriculture of the order of R242 million annually, which should be considered in relation to the estimated value of the investment in agriculture (infrastructure and crops) of R360 million.

Of major importance is the interaction of agriculture with the rest of the local/sub-regional economy. This interaction is reflected in agriculture being a supplier of primary food and raw materials, while at the same time being a user of manufactured inputs, consumer goods and labour. This is apart from its important role as user and custodian of scarce natural resources and its potential as a generator of foreign exchange. Agriculture makes extensive use of irrigation water which adds to the increasing stress is being placed on the major rivers and natural drainage systems of the subregion.

Blyde Irrigation Scheme   

For over thirty years water from the Blyde River has been distributed under the management of the Blyde River Irrigation Board through a 107-km network of earth-lined canals. The canals are inefficient for water distribution and their condition is now so bad that it is estimated that 60 percent of the water is being lost. The area of productive land under irrigation is decreasing and drastic action is required to service merely the short-term needs of existing agricultural activity. As a result of this loss, it is necessary to abstract the total volume of allocated water from the Blyde River, in order to deliver enough canal water to the 3,540ha of developed land currently under irrigation.

The high rate of seepage has rendered large areas of land unsuitable for agricultural purposes, while creating a health hazard from water related diseases such as Malaria and Bilharzia. The Board, with the backing of a large majority of the farmers, has done a detailed investigation and has recommended a project that, with no increase in water entitlement, can double the land under irrigation and in addition be capable of supplying over 200,000 people with primary water. The efficiency of the pipeline will do away with the need for two thirds of the present allocation for water loss from canals. As a result 10% or 8,100,000 square metres per year of the gross water allocation becomes available to be allocated for new purposes. In this regard DWAF has underwritten the provision of 800 hectares for farmers and an allocation for 60,000 primary water users.

Social Scenarios

The farmers in the irrigation district will bear the capital cost of the proposed pipe network. The cost will be in the vicinity of R990/ha per year (total cost per hectare R140 million). To be able to bear this capital cost, they will have to invest more in their properties, both infrastructurally and in terms of new orchard establishment. In May 1995 it was estimated that there were 1,810 permanent and 2,110 seasonal jobs for labourers in the Board’s area. With a secure water supply, investment would be in crop combinations of mango, citrus and cash crops, which sustain a higher proportion of permanent employment. The envisaged mature irrigation area (9,300 ha.) would be expected to require approxiamately 9,300 employees supporting in turn 64,000 dependents. The current informal trading in the area is predominantly the purchase by “hawkers” of around R10,000,000 of produce each year, for distribution and sale within a 100 km radius of Hoedspruit. It is estimated that this could at least double within five years and it would equate to a retail trade of R60,000,000 per year.

Enormous opportunities are emerging in the field of community agriculture. The need has been realised to diversify economic activity at a local level and a process of localisation be developed. This can be developed through "buy local" approaches to consumer demand. This not only helps keep money from flowing out of the local economy but also helps educates people about the role of farmers in our society and in particular that of black farmers in the Biosphere. With access to water for the first time in the history of the Lowveld, emerging farmers in neighbouring communities can mobilise these resources and invest in agricultural production.

This investment needs to happen with the understanding that a local economy exists which supports not only centrally managed, chemically-reliant agriculture designed to deliver a narrow range of transportable foods for the world market, but an economy which is also dependent on local culture, neighbours and the natural world around us.