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South Africa sustainable herb cultivation project now underway

Based on the remarkable first-year success of Herb Research Foundation's Malian hibiscus-growing project, a similar venture has been initiated in South Africa. The project combines the resources and expertise of HRF, the Agricultural Research Council of the South African Ministry of Agriculture (ARC), and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), who have teamed up to develop agribusiness opportunities in South Africa for crops for which an established market already exists.

The explosive growth in the worldwide botanicals market, coupled with the changing political atmosphere and favorable growing conditions in South Africa, lay the groundwork for a cultivation project that promises to mutually benefit the people and economies of both South Africa and the United States. As with the Malian hibiscus project and other work HRF has carried out in collaboration with USAID, the ultimate goal is to help develop sustainable businesses throught the environmentally and socially conscious production of herbs.

On a recent trip to South Africa, HRF President Rob McCaleb and representatives from ARC and USAID visited the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape Provinces and the KwaZuluNatal Province to identify appropriate regions for growing specific crops. "This is a vast country with an astonishing range of climates, from hot and arid to humid and rainy," said McCaleb. Test crops will be planted in September, at the start of the growing season in South Africa.

At present, there is little or no cultivation of medicinal herbs in South Africa. Sustainable herb cultivation offers small farmers in South Africa the opportunity to create a profitable niche for themselves in a highly competitive market. Small farmers are currently at a disadvantage, as they lack the resources to compete in the well-established fruit, flower, and vegetable markets now dominated by large producers. Sustainable herb cultivation can bolster local rural economies and improve quality of life for thousands of disadvantaged families. Because of its location in the southern hemisphere, South Africa also has a rare opportunity to become one of the only producers of off-season herbal raw materials, which would be available at a time when world market prices are at their peak.

An additional project goal is to protect and preserve native South African plants and the traditional healing system of South Africa by identifying and cultivating regional medical plants now endangered by overcollection. Currently, at least 60% of the South African population relies exclusively on traditional plant-based medicine for primary health care. Most, if not all, of these plant medicines are gathered from the wild. Now, displaced rural people who are emigrating to urban areas such as Cape Town and Johannesburg no longer have access to the traditional folk medicines which have formed much of the basis of their self-care.

At the same time, the increasing demand for wild South African medicinal plants for export and domestic use has created great environmental pressure on local plant populations. This situation has forced the closing of some areas to collection, further increasing the pressure on other areas. Exhaustion of botanical resources presents a threat not only to the environmental well-being and biodiversity of South Africa, but would result in the elimination of the traditional medicinal system on which such a large proportion of the population depends. Identification and cultivation of threatened plants will reduce demand on wild populations and help preserve the South African traditional healing system by ensuring a continued supply of native medicinal botanicals.-- Evelyn Leigh, HRF

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