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International Programs News & Views Volume 18

Feb. 2000



The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a worldwide reputation in developing and implementing policies and procedures for the conservation of natural resources.

NRCS’ involvement with the conservation efforts in South Africa dates back to 1944 when our first Chief, Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett, spent a period of just over two months in South Africa. The purpose of his visit was to advise the Government on matters of policy and organization as it pertained to addressing existing soil erosion and land use concerns. Dr. Bennett described resource concerns in the publication "Soil Erosion and Land Use in the Union of South Africa", published in 1945 by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Pretoria, South Africa. Chief Bennett identified severe soil erosion, poor crop production practices, overgrazing, brush encroachment, sedimentation of lakes/reservoirs, and degradation of wildlife habitat.


The U.S.-South Africa Bi-National Commission (BNC) was established in 1995. Among the various committees was one on Agriculture, under which four working groups were identified. Pearlie Reed, then Assistant Secretary for Administration, was selected as co-convenor of the Working Group on Sustainable Natural Resource Use. The South African co-convenor was Dr. Mishack Molope.  When Pearlie Reed became Chief, the baton was passed to Lawrence Clark, Deputy Chief for Programs.

Building upon the NRCS reputation fell upon the shoulders of selected agency employees as they worked with South African colleagues of the National Department of Agriculture (NDA) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to implement a deliverable of the BNC. The U.S. team members shared their knowledge and expertise of the NRCS Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG) with natural resource conservationists and specialists in South Africa.

Officials of the NDA were first made aware of the FOTG when they visited the U.S. in 1996. They saw, first hand, how professional conservationists in the field of conservation planning and practice implementation used the technical guide.

The BNC identified the FOTG as a subject of joint interest. South Africa identified a need for such a working tool for conservationists and the U.S. had the expertise. This culminated in the U.S. sending a team to South Africa to assist them in developing a framework for a technical guide. The team consisted of members that had expertise in soils, agronomy, conservation planning, range management, engineering and economics, and were joined by their South African counterparts in their respective disciplines. 

Bobby Ward, Soil Scientist, Ft. Worth, Texas, led the U.S. team. Other team members included Art Brate, State Conservation Engineer, Ohio; Rick Cantu, Area Resource Conservationist, Kansas; Harvey Mack, Resource Conservationist, California; Shirley Merritt, Assistant State Conservationist, Georgia; and Jerry Namken, Senior Resource Economist, NHQ. The South African team members were from the NDA and the ARC.

The joint U.S.-South African team worked from early July 1999 through the latter part of August 1999 to provide guidance in developing a FOTG for use in South Africa. When completed, the guide will be called the Sustainable Use of Resources Technical Guide (SURTG) and used by land use planners in providing technical assistance for production agriculture, resources planning and implementing sustainability of South Africa resources. It will also be used to provide technical data, conservation practices and standards for use in implementing Land Care projects around the country.

The team discussed the Field Office Technical Guide, (FOTG), the nine steps to NRCS conservation planning, and how the guide is used to address natural resource concerns. Field visits were taken to observe conservation projects underway, as well as site visits with South African conservation planners, extension agents and other technical experts. The team conducted literature searches, studied agricultural enterprises, natural resource concerns, reviewed conservation practices, and conservation management systems used in South Africa. The framework and basic structure for the SURTG was developed; and ways to make components of the NRCS FOTG adaptable to South African conditions--technically and culturally--were discussed.

A View of South Africa Resources

South Africa is indeed a country of much natural beauty and cultural diversity--occupying the southern most part of the African continent and bordered to the north by Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. The Kingdom of Lesotho lies within South Africa. The country is made up of nine provinces. They range in size from 18,810 square kilometers (7,263 sq. miles) such as the Gauteng Province with about 17 percent of the total population to 361,800 square kilometers (139,690 sq. miles) in the Northern Cape Province with about two percent of the total population.

South Africa’s precipitation averages approximately 470 millimeters (18.5 inches) and is seasonal, and mainly as winter and summer rains, depending on where you are. According to the South Africa National Land Cover Database map, about 12 percent of the country's total 121,907,789 hectares (301,112,238.8 acres) are considered cultivated land, eight percent is forest/woodland, and 73 percent are grassland and shrub-land. About 36 percent of the cultivated land are used for corn production, wheat is the most important grain crop, and South Africa is the world's tenth largest producer of sunflower seed.

Other crops grown in South Africa are grapes, sugarcane, tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes and citrus fruits. Cattle, sheep, and goats can be seen throughout the country. With its many nature preserves and game parks, wildlife and tourism are very important to South Africans. The diverse culture of South Africa can be seen everywhere. The population consists mainly of people from the Zulu tribe and various other black tribes of South Africa, Indians, Afrikaner, English, and others who immigrated from The Netherlands, France, Portugal, Italy, Europe, Asia and other parts of Africa.


The U.S. and South Africa team members identified numerous challenges during the time they spent working together.


As on most foreign assignments, where English is not the language of choice, language barriers and differences in terminology are bound to exist. Fortunately for the U.S. team members, in spite of South Africa having 11 official languages, the South African team members were fluent in English. However, one of the issues emphasized during developing the SURTG was that it would have to be written very clearly, and in some cases, translated into one or more of the 11 native languages. There were a few differences in terminology (i.e. standards –Vs- norms, practices –Vs- components) that had to be worked out between the team members.


The conservation planners and extension agents that will utilize the SURTG to provide technical assistance to land users in South Africa have various degrees of education and training. With this in mind, the guide would have to be very user friendly so that it is easily utilized and understood.


In order to remain current with changes to standards, specifications, and technical advancements, there must be a procedure for keeping the SURTG updated and maintained. The NRCS team members discussed how this is accomplished in the U.S. and encouraged that a similar model be adopted in South Africa.

Literature Search and Analysis

The U.S. team members spent considerable time with their counterparts identifying what resource information was available. They found there were considerable amounts of research pertaining to natural resource conservation on different land uses that had been completed and published in South Africa. Along with this research information, several manuals on soil conservation exist that are used by engineering technicians in planning, design and layout of engineering practices. The challenge lies in sorting through all the available information, determining what and where it is applicable, and compiling it into a technical guide format.

Farming Enterprises

The agriculture in South Africa can be seen as two distinct sizes of enterprises--the larger commercial farming and ranching operations and the smaller emerging-farmer enterprises. In the past, the larger commercial farms received the bulk of technical assistance from professional conservation planners and technicians. They also received government cost share, similar to U.S. producers, for the installation of conservation measures. Very little technical assistance and cost share have been provided to the smaller emerging farmers.

Since about 1992, South Africa has been making an effort to provide technical assistance in conservation planning and practice installation on small farms in the former homeland areas. In many cases, both groups share similar resource concerns. In other cases, what may be identified as a concern to one group is not a concern to the other. When they both share a similar resource concern, their approach to addressing these concerns may be different. There are many differences between the larger commercial farmer and the emerging farmer who is subsistence oriented. Differences in equipment, available resources, education, language barriers, levels of trust, land tenure, and others all add up to pose new challenges for the professional conservation planners and technicians in South Africa.

Conservation Planning

Conservation technical assistance had generally been provided to the commercial land users on an individual basis. Providing technical assistance to the emerging farmers in the homeland areas on a one-on-one basis may be more difficult due to the smaller size of the land unit and possible lack of resources, lack of land tenure and/or decision making authority. In many cases, the best approach to conservation planning on the homeland areas is to inventory and develop a conservation plan for a particular catchment basin (watershed). The challenge lies in inventorying resource concerns on a larger scale and involving more people in the decision making process. This concept of developing conservation plans on a watershed basis is not new to conservation planners in the United States. The challenges faced by the South African conservation planners are similar, maybe a little more complex, to the same ones faced by their U.S. counterparts when developing resource conservation plans for any watershed.

USDA-NRCS Team Member's Observations

In a general sense, the U.S. team members observed the same resource concerns that Dr. Bennett identified during his visit 55 years earlier, in 1944.

They further observed that their South African counterparts, provincial representatives, extension officers, and others expressed an urgent need for a system such as the FOTG. Scientific and technical information and data in a uniform and consistent data delivery format is especially needed. This would help to insure consistency in interpreting data, application of practices and standards and to have a comprehensive reference system of natural resource conservation information for use in the provincial, regional, district and ward offices of South Africa.

It was noted there was no institutionalized mechanism to capture and share knowledge of voluntarily separated NDA employee; therefore, newly hired employees as well as experienced specialists and others will use the SURTG as a training tool and a technical reference tool. It will be used by government agencies with regulatory functions, non-government organizations and others as a primary source of sound technical and science-based data relative to conserving and improving the natural resources of South Africa.

SURTG Development

The joint team proposed recommendations to include in the report to the South African Ministries and Members of Executive Councils (MINMEC). It was felt that adoption of these recommendations would facilitate development of the SURTG. The South Africans developed a schedule of follow up actions needed in order to make the guide a success; and identified needs for assistance from NRCS to facilitate its completion. A goal to have the guide completely developed and ready for use was set for December 30, 2002.

Current Activities

The South African SURTG team is currently in the process of gathering and compiling resource data to add to the SURTG framework. After a draft is compiled, it will be presented to MINMEC for review and approval. It is anticipated that workshops will be held in the spring of 2000 to introduce the SURTG to the Provincial Departments of Agriculture. The NRCS and South African counterparts are actively corresponding with each other. The South African team members have developed several draft sections of the SURTG document, which have been reviewed by the NRCS team members. The NRCS staff will continue to provide assistance in meeting the goals in developing a SURTG for use in South Africa.


The NRCS-South African team feels that the objectives of the first phase of the project have been accomplished. The South African team members have some tremendous challenges ahead of them in making the guide a reality. It was exciting to be part of a very professional group of individuals getting together to develop the SURTG. In the opinion of the South Africa team members, this instrument may very well become the most important tool used by professional conservationists in promoting sustainability of the natural resources of South Africa.

Lifetime friendships and lasting memories were made between members of the team. For most of the NRCS team members, this was their first time on an overseas assignment. They hope it will not be their last.

Authors:  Rick Cantu, Area Resource Conservationist, USDA-NRCS, Hayes Kansas, and Bobby Ward, Soil Scientist, Oversight and Evaluation, OMOD, USDA-NRCS, Ft. Worth Texas

Editor:  Gail C. Roane (retired), International Programs Division