Science - December 13, 2012

Cuppa vs Biodiversity

Cultivation of rooibos tea threatening biodiversity in S outh A frica. Professor sketches the dilemmas in Crown Jewels of the Cape.

The book is available for €29.95 from bookshops and via www.knnvuitgeverij.nl
'A godsend': that's how Wageningen Professor Joop Schaminée describes the prize for nature preservation that he received in 2009 from the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. As a result he was finally able to start a project he had long had in mind: a book about the flora of the Cape, and the region's exceptional biodiversity. Schaminée did not write the entire book himself, but drafted in journalist and photographer Liesbeth Sluiter. The result is Crown Jewels of the Cape, which was recently launched in Cape Town. The launch coincided with the completion of SynBiosSys Fynbos, a research programme led by Schaminée. This information system comprehensively maps out all the available geographical and ecological information about the Fynbos region. Fynbos is the international term for the shrubland of the South African Cape region, which grows on extremely acidic and poor soil. The Fynbos includes no fewer than 9000 species of plants, including 5000 endemic species which occur nowhere else. It is, therefore, a unique area: 'one of the hottest hotspots of biodiversity in the world', as Schaminée describes it categorically . 'This area, as big as the Benelux, encompasses one of the six floral kingdoms on earth.'
Rooibos
But this rich abundance is under threat. The unique biodiversity coexists in an uneasy tension with the area's rooibos cultivation; which is to say, the cup of tea we drink at home. Rooibos is a plant which only grows in the Fynbos area. According to Schaminée the local small-scale, largely coloured, farmers generally use sustainable production methods which have a minimal impact on the biodiversity. But the vast majority (95 percent) of rooibos cultivation is carried out by the large-scale, (usually) white farmers, and they have less of a stake in biodiversity. Botanist Nick Helme, one of the people interviewed in the book, indicates that a single farmer can wipe out an entire species in one afternoon's ploughing. Crown Jewels of the Cape was written as a supplement to the scientific SynBioSys research, in order to popularize knowledge about the nature and the people of the Cape. 'We wanted to make something lasting, which will be seen by a larger audience, and which tells the wider story of both the nature and the people in the Cape region.' The book was written in Dutch, but an English translation is almost ready. But that isn't to say Schaminée is done with South Africa; far from it. He is supervising two PhDs doing research in the Fynbos area. One of them is South African Rhoda Malgas, whose life is the subject of one of the book's chapters. She is researching how plants such as Rooibos can be harvested in sustainable ways in the Fynbos region. SynBioSys will also be extended further in the coming years.  

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