Rural communities in South Africa use Google Earth to guide ecological restoration

By Dylan Weyer and Alta De Vos, Rhodes University

The Mzimvubu Catchment in early autumn; an area that would be inundated should the Ntabelanga Dam be built. Photo: Dylan Weyer

Driving through the hills of South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape, you’d be forgiven for feeling conflicted. Its beauty is undeniable, and almost romantic: grassy rolling hills, green after the rain, waterfalls, vast spaces sprinkled with rustic, sometimes colourful villages — landscapes that inspired Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. Yet, upon closer inspection, it is impossible to ignore the deep cracks in the soil, the poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the thin cattle. In many ways, this landscape tells the story of South Africa, its heartbreak and hope. It is not, however, a story that people who live here have ever told, themselves. Until now. Thanks to an innovative restoration project, and Google Earth.

A few years ago, in 2014, the Government of South Africa announced the Mzimvubu Water Project (MWP), a large-scale hydropower development in the largest untapped water source area in the country. The development was meant to bring prosperity to the struggling region: irrigation for agriculture, jobs, and hydropower. People who knew the area were sceptical though: not only would the resultant dams potentially flood nearby fields and houses, but the combination of extreme land degradation and erosive soils could mean that the proposed reservoirs would soon silt up. Unexpectedly, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) stepped in. If this project had any chance of success (and they had their doubts), things would need to be done differently. Restoration of the landscape needed to happen before construction began, not after. And it couldn’t just be an ecological restoration project. Those cracks in the landscapes were symptomatic of deeper societal cracks, and these needed addressing too. Not long after the initial announcement of the MWP, the Ntabelanga and Lalini Ecological Infrastructure Project (NLEIP), was launched.

Taking a social-ecological approach to restoration means that NLEIP had to understand the story of the landscape, understand people’s relationships with the land, government, and each other. This time, the story of the landscape needed to be told by people who lived here. And that’s where Google Earth comes in.

A volunteer from among the group of workshop participants points out his home on Google Earth in the initial process of getting the group familiar with the technology. Photo: Kyra Lunderstedt

Aside from a computer and a projector, nothing about our workshops shouted hi-tech. A town hall, a chief’s house, a school, or a church. Plastic chairs, concrete floors, sheets on the windows to keep it dark enough. A generator on stand-by, just in case the electricity cut out. The premise was simple too: fly participants to their homes, and then ask them to point out places important to them, and to tell us why. But the stories that came out (once the shock and awe of seeing their homes on a television screen had worn off), were eye-opening, and the process potentially transformative. Young and old joined into the workshop, the youth guiding their elders in finding important locations on Google Earth, the elders teaching the youth about their history. Local experts in crop cultivation, animal husbandry, the harvesting of natural resources and traditional healers helped to paint a picture of how the landscape was used, and why. Together, they defined tribal boundaries (after tremendous debate), and helped us to understand how livelihood activities had shaped and responded to land degradation over time.

The workshops surprised us. Not only were we amazed that participants of all ages were able to engage with such an unfamiliar technology, but also that their stories illustrated a deep knowledge and connection with the landscape. Why did this surprise us? During the Apartheid years, black Africans (80% of the country’s population) were marginalised by being confined, relocated and organised into independent ‘homelands’ where education and employment were restricted, and constituted only 13% of the country’s total land. Despite this discrimination, The AmaXhosa nation maintained their way of life by drawing on their Ubuntu (a Bantu term for humanity), relying on kinship ties, reciprocity and cohesion wrought through traditional cultural practices. The natural environment was also a critical safety-net, allowing them opportunity to secure their livelihoods. But since democracy in 1994, things had changed. Some of these changes were good: better services, more infrastructure, the right to leave for the city, and the right to better education. However, development was slow, and urbanisation and reliance on social grants brought with it an erosion of soil and social capital, alike. After more than two decades of democracy, the rural AmaXhosa’s ties to the land and with that their cultural and livelihood resilience, had seemingly diminished.

Residents of Sinxako Village in the Tsitsa Catchment stroll along one of the gaping erosion dongas that intersect their landscape. Photo: Dylan Weyer

But this was clearly not so. Yes, people are no longer as dependent on the environment to meet their basic needs, but the AmaXhosa’s connection to the land remains strong through the permanence of their cultural practices across generations. Although their societal scars run as deep as the gullies on their communal farms, there is much hope in the restorative agency their narratives of the landscape could bring. Funny that it should take a (possibly magic) picture of the earth on a television screen to finally tell the story of the landscape through the eyes of the people who live there.

Two members of a particularly large household in Shukunxa Village comprised of ten members of which seven were children. Despite three additional family members seeking work in the urban areas around South Africa, the household’s only regular monetary income comes from government social grants received on a monthly basis. For this reason they cultivate maize and potatoes in a home garden, raise livestock including goats and sheep and harvest a range of natural resources including a certain grass to make traditional brooms which they sell to members of the community. Photo: Dylan Weyer