Suurbraak to remain true to its heritage farming roots

An affidavit from Matt and Sasha of Niche Unity, and a follow-up letter to the Western Cape Department of Agriculture (WCDOA) not to spray Roundup or 2,4-D Amine herbicide on 2 large fields being prepared for World Food Day, first fractured and then became the catalyst resulting in the small mission village of Suurbraak returning to its heritage agricultural roots. This is the story.
News broke on Thursday afternoon 14 August 2014 that the giftrekker (tractor leading a large motorised sprayer) was spraying poison in a field near to small, off-grid, agroecology farming operations. A member of the community alerted the sprayers to the fact that the neighboring farmers would be very unhappy that they were spraying. In the meantime he rounded up and locked a small herd of free-roaming goats in a field out of direct danger.

After it was confirmed that Roundup had been sprayed as part of the Suurbraak Women’s Agricultural Project, run in partnership with WCDOA, who were acting as project advisers an affidavit to prevent further spraying was delivered first thing next morning to SAPS (South African Police Services). One farming couple parked their car across the road to prevent the sprayer returning to spray the field directly across from us.

Unopened containers of 2,4-D Amine herb
Unopened containers of 2,4-D Amine herb

Apparently the affidavit had the desired effect because the tractor and sprayer didn’t return on Friday to finish the job. Instead there was a call to meet officials of WCDOA who shared that only wetting agent had been sprayed. They then showed the unopened containers of 2,4-D Amine.

Human error, human inefficiency and/or divine intervention meant that the two fields were still unscathed – but only for the time being, because late afternoon, the very next day (Saturday 16th) a mass meeting of the Women’s Group, concerned citizens of Suurbraak and members of the WCDOA was convened where we learnt that the participants were most unhappy about the affidavit because it turned them all into criminals, and why, therefore, hadn’t we first spoken to them, and that because reciprocal respect was required we would simply have to accept that they would resume spraying the following week – but with the necessary legal precautionary measures in place.

The letter

A small number of agroecology farmers also opposed to the spraying of Roundup met that evening after the meeting and drew up an urgent letter that was to reach the Head WCDOA, 08:00 Monday 18 August 2014. Copies of the letter were also mailed to the Premier of the Western Cape, the Western Cape Minister of Agriculture, the mayor of Swellendam, the local counsellor and other municipal managers.

The letter, acknowledging WCDOA’s role as agricultural advisors to the Suurbraak Women’s Project, urged WCDOA to send a clear directive to the Women’s Group not to spray Roundup or 2,4-D Amine herbicide as part of their World Food Day project but, instead, for the WCDOA to use the opportunity offered it in Suurbraak rather to reframe the project in terms of Suurbraak’s heritage status by adopting an agroecology approach to their World food Day project.

Fallout

Where the affidavit split the community with the Ladies Agricultural Group feeling they had been criminalised by the agroecology farmers across the river, the letter shattered the small group of agroecology farmers initially opposed to spraying, some of whom, after it had been sent, publically distanced themselves from a process that they felt had been non-consultative and/or had been coercive.

Meanwhile the affidavit and letter had immediate effect with the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture requested the Head of Agriculture to initiate processes to deal with issues contained therein thus culminating in the WCDOA convening a meeting of stakeholders to discuss the letter. Stakeholders included the manager of the Transformation Desk in Suurbraak, ladies of Suurbraak Ladies Agricultural Project, a member of Council of Stakeholder: Paradise Paradigm) and, in their private capacity, two agroecology farmers each opposed to the spraying of chemical herbicides.

The meeting ends in a miracle

At its commencement there was an acknowledged that the letter had caused unhappiness and that 3 agroecology farmers had requested to have their names removed as signatories, and a 4th wanted it to be known that she had not given permission to have her name included and that, consequently, he would be tabling the letter as coming exclusively from him.

After a confrontational start it soon became clear that a miracle was in the making that ended with the decision to honour Suurbraak’s heritage and not to spray Roundup or 2,4-D Amine and, additionally, to work towards Suurbraak becoming an eco-village. In turn, it was agreed that all recipients of the original letter would be informed about this decision and that we would reciprocate by withdrawing the affidavit.

What caused this change of heart?

Perhaps it was suggestion from one of the agroecology farmers that the meeting commences with prayer and her prayer itself that helped to remind all present that the preferred outcome of the gathering should be to find one another in the celebration and in the service of mother earth.

Possibly it was our courage and determination to press through with the process despite criticism and defections. Perhaps it was also being prepared to be vulnerable by being honest and transparent – thus enabling those at the meeting to feel empathy rather than antagonism.

Perhaps it was the two agroecology farmers’ argued position in support of organic and their equally insistent rejection of Roundup (and 2,4-D Amine), coupled with their undertaking to assist where they could were the Ladies Group prepared to do it the hard way by physically weeding the plots in question.

Perhaps it was the head of the Suurbraak Transformation Desk seeing in the proposals made in the letter, a golden opportunity to protect Suurbraak’s unique position as an unspoilt heritage mission village.

Perhaps it was the cautious manner in which the meeting was managed by the WCDOA officials and their endorsement that organic is the best way forward.

Perhaps it was the non-confrontational attitude of the ladies representing the Women’s Agricultural Group.

Perhaps it was the outspokenness of the head of the Council of Stakeholder: Paradise Paradigm.

Perhaps it was the invisible forces of nature that initially prevented 2,4-D Amine not being sprayed through human error – still working for the greater good of the valley.

Perhaps it was all the above working in concert coupled with spadework in the run-up to the meeting where various attempts were made to find common ground between individuals.

Whatever weight each of the above influences might have had, it is clear that the decision to take immediate action by lodging the affidavit and doing everything in our power to prevent further alleged spraying of Roundup or 2,4-D Amine were correct, thus reinforcing our conviction that all of us concerned with the future of our planet must continually take on the agrichemical industry and farmers who unthinkingly and/or shortsightedly use their chemicals.

Our thanks

In closing we want to thank those agroecology farmers who were prepared also to take a stand. Our gratitude to the head of the Suurbraak Women’s Group and the head of the SuurbraakTransformation Desk for the difficult task of steering their respective constituents into a new direction. Credit must also go to the Western Cape Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture for responding quickly to our requests, and the Thembisa Trust for funds to create and put up signs advertising the intention of Suurbraak to remain poison free and to initiate a training process among small household farmers. Lastly we say than you to the women themselves of the Suurbraak Agricultural Group who now have to weed by hand rather than rely on the agrochemical industry.

Birds of Paradise women captured in the featured image at the head of this report:

  • Back row: Essie, Lena, Lomie, Rina, Lee-Anne, Christene, Lilie, Christeen
  • Front: Elzette, Elizabeth, Liza, Coba (Taloes), Sheralene