On 18 September 2019, the Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries had a meeting with the Namibian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources to discuss how South Africa deals with the poison leaf which is scientifically known as Dichapetalum Cymosum. The leader of the delegation explained that a motion was tabled in Parliament. This motion was in connection with the poisonous plant which grows especially in two regions of Namibia, the eastern and north east. The delegation was in South Africa today to learn from South Africa.
In the presentation, the Chairperson explained that, based on the research conduct, this plant occurs in Southern Africa and, generally, in the Southern Hemisphere. In the African context, the areas affected in particular are Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. A total of 70% of fatal cases occur in Limpopo, with 10% each in North West, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. It is a major cause of acute livestock deaths. For this Committee, this problem is more agricultural than environmental, forestry and fisheries.
In the discussion, a number of key concerns were raised. In the Namibian context, the plant has caused farmers to demand more land and to be moved to where this problem does not exist. How does South Africa manage this situation? Furthermore, concerning the fencing, who provides funding for this fencing, the farmers or the government? In Namibia, the farmers want the government to fund them in terms of fencing. Furthermore, in the South African context, have people ever come from the community and reported this problem to the government?
In the final analysis, in the South African context, both commercial and smallholder farmers are affected by this problem, except that commercial farmers have the resources to address this problem, unlike small scale farmers. Moreover, we have not received any reports by communities with regards to this problem. Most of the issues raised are based in South Africa in the Department of Agriculture and Land Reform. There is, however, a link with agriculture. The departments must work together. Given that the delegation is leaving tomorrow, there is not enough time to arrange a meeting with the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture and Land Reform. The Committee committed to meet with the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture and Land Reform to share and compare notes on poison leaf
The Chairperson welcomed everyone to the meeting, especially the Namibian delegation represented by the Namibian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources, to discuss how South Africa deals with the poison leaf which is scientifically known as Dichapetalum Cymosum.
Opening remarks by the Namibian delegation
Ms Sophia Swartz-Fischer, leader of the delegation, explained the Namibian delegation is here today because South Africans are Namibia’s brothers and sisters. The countries share historical bilateral relations dating back to its independence. The two nations together fought together the liberation struggle against the Apartheid regime. The delegation is here today to learn from each other.
Two years ago, Ms Swartz-Fischer continued, a motion was tabled in Parliament. This motion was in connection with the poisonous plant which grows especially in two regions of Namibia, the east and north east. Namibia is here to learn from South Africa and has gone out on an outreach programme to have consultative meetings with the people to find out why this plant is killing the animals. This area of the country is very lush. A report has been tabled in Parliament in Namibia. It was debated, approved and then it became a public document. Then, the line-Minister within agriculture and forestry asked the Committee to go to and learn from other countries so that the line ministry can implement the recommendations.
Ms Swartz-Fischer stressed that this is why the Namibian delegation is in South African because South Africa does experience some of these problems. While it is very dry in Namibia at this point, when it is raining again, the poison leaf grows and spreads in the country. The animals that eat it and drink water actually die. It is having a serious impact upon our economy because these are the riches that contribute a lot to the Namibian economy.
After a few opening remarks, the Chairperson raised one specific issue. He said agriculture has its own committee and this might be a slight challenge. He said toxic compound-containing plants grow worldwide and cause sudden death in livestock. The Southern continents of Africa, Australia and South America are the common locations of these plants.
Distribution and Economic Impact of Poison Leaf
The Chairperson explained that, based on the research conduct, this plant occurs in Southern Africa and, generally, in the Southern Hemisphere. In the African context, the areas affected are Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. A total of 70% of fatal cases occur in Limpopo, with 10% each in North West, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. It is a major cause of acute livestock deaths. For this Committee, this problem is more agricultural than environmental, forestry and fisheries.
The Chairperson indicated that there is no treatment that is known. However, attempts can be made to deal with it. It is vital to ensure that animals that are infected do not come close to water. If they drink water, they will die almost immediately. If they have consumed this plant, they must also be removed from this the infected camp, but without exciting them.
Generally, the Chairperson continued, it affects smallholding farmers. The Commercial farmers are able to deal with it. It affects those who do not have large tracts of land. One they discover there is a problem in a particular area, that area is usually fenced off so that livestock do not graze there. In terms of our history, commercial farmers, mostly white, are very good at dealing with these kinds of challenges. They ensure that they keep their animals far away from this plant. Animals have also adapted and seem to know that this is a poisonous plant and avoid it. One animal that is able to sense this is a goat.
The Commercial farmers, the Chairperson elaborated, know that you need to feed the animals and that there must be care taken to the kind of feed given to them to avoid the gifblaar. The plant is controlled by spraying herbicide, sometimes fencing off patches where it grows or keeping cattle away during the early growth season. Animal house studies have demonstrated in principle that rumen bacteria engineered to hydrolyse the toxin could prevent toxicity, but approvals for the release of these organisms into the environment are unlikely due to current government regulatory restrictions (in Australia).
The Chairperson concluded that farming is a big project in South Africa and farming needs to be everyone’s business. It is going to take, but South Africa can also learn from Namibia too. From Namibia’s side this is an area of focus. For commercial farmers in South Africa, this is not a problem. Smallholders are, however, affected.
Ms S Mbatha (ANC) explained that this is not environmentally an issue. We have indigenous species and other species that must be protected. It is one of the natural plants that have been there for years. In research, this plant has affected the cattle and in certain circumstances the sheep because they more often graze. You need to know what this plant contains, namely, sodium fluoroacetate. One of the things the farmers look at is what the plant looks like and the symptoms the animals get by eating this plant. When there is such a plant, farmers have to become aware. They must be able to identify it. Then they need to know the symptoms. The research suggests that, although expensive, there should be fencing as part of the control measures. You need to also do supplementary feeding. The farmers need to understand the environmental conditions and the interactions between plant species that effects plant management. In most cases, it is seasonal. The farmers have to be alerted to the dangers of this plant for livestock. Some of the control measure can be implemented through support systems. Big farmers this may not be a problem because they have financial resources. Awareness should be there for up and coming farmers. Labourers should also be educated because they are onsite with the livestock.
Ms T Tongwane (ANC) explained that the chances of survival once the plant is ingested are very limited. In the event that the plant has survived, it must not drink water for at least 48 hours.
The Chairperson expressed that the Committee is keen to learn from the delegation. The smallholder farmers have a problem in our context. We are not as advanced in terms of experiencing this problem as you are. You are the ones that are the pathfinders.
A Namibian delegate asked two questions. In our context, the plant has caused farmers to demand more land and to be moved to where this problem does not exist. How does South Africa manage this situation? It appears that there are no similar demands as a result of this plant here in South Africa. Furthermore, concerning the fencing, who provides funding for this fencing, the farmers or the government? In Namibia, the farmers want the government to fund them in terms of fencing.
Another Namibian delegation member asked whether people ever come from the community and reported this problem to the government? Are you aware of communities struggling with these problems?
Ms N Gantsho (ANC) stressed that both commercial and smallholder farmers are affected by this problem, except that commercial farmers have the resources to address this problem, unlike small scale farmers. Moreover, we have not received any reports by communities with regards to this problem. We are a bit handicapped as we are the Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. The Committee on Agriculture may be better placed to answer questions of land.
Ms T Mchunu (ANC) explained that, when it comes to the control of livestock, the Portfolio Committee of Agriculture and Land Reform comes into play. We have not heard of communities who want to be moved away from their area because of this problem. When it comes to indigenous plants, the indigenous farmers would normally know this plant and that they would just need to avoid this plant. Commercial farmers, however, utilise fencing. The research indicates that there is chemical treatment to address this problem but it is not something that is guaranteed to work. The plant is able to grow elsewhere in spite of the work that is done. On-going studies are trying to determine if there are herbicides that can be used effectively. We would not like to see this plant removed completely. It must be controlled however and to protect the livestock to that our economy is not affected. We would still want to keep it as a species that exists in South Africa. In terms of our economy, it is not greatly affected because commercial farmers have a means of addressing this problem.
The Chairperson stressed that there is no attention been drawn to this problem in Limpopo by communities. We still have commercial farmers in Limpopo, North West, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. It is not a big problem in South Africa. There is no action plan yet. Furthermore, the demand for more land is understandable. You can only control this problem when you have more land and can practice rotational grazing. Moreover, in terms of the demand for support, this is a trend in South Africa, but not necessarily to deal with gifblaar but to deal with issues of farming. During Apartheid, people were pushed to the peripheries in terms of homelands. These areas now are overpopulated. Those who are farming want to take their animals to better places. Government is dealing with this problem. We want to help farmers and there is this programme, which Agriculture can talk to. The relevant portfolio committee can speak to that. They do ask for support. People in the rural areas ask for their land to be fenced. They expect government to do so. The problem are, firstly, to acquire land and, secondly, to ensure that the land is productive through fencing, equipment to work on the land etc.
A Namibian delegation representative asked if it is possible to have a report by the Committee on Agriculture on this issue?
Ms Swartz-Fischer explained that while the delegation was in the field to visit the farmers, they also met with the agricultural sector. Among others, the agricultural sector requested that more funding be channelled towards research on this issue. The hardest affected are the small-scale farmers, however, because they lack the resources to survive in the wake of this issue. In terms of awareness raising, while the commercial farmers have the resources to tackle this issue, small-scale farmers struggle a lot. Government must go, interact with them, advise them as government is very involved with farming and everything around agriculture. People want to move from the place where they are staying because they are experiencing a loss. There are cases where farmers have resettled. We meet up with communities on a regular basis to raise awareness. Many of the measures that are being employed by these communities to address this matter (e.g. digging, chemical treatment etc.) do not work.
A Namibian delegate gave a word of thanks to the Committee for the warm welcome and the concern showed by the Committee, requesting the Chairperson to connect the delegation with the relevant Portfolio Committee on Agriculture. They also request that the background paper kindly be forwarded to them.
Mr P Modise (ANC) extended a word of thanks to the Namibian delegation on behalf of the government of South Africa. Most of the issues raised are based in South Africa in the Department of Agriculture and Land Reform. In this Department, we are responsible for Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries. There is, however, a link with Agriculture. The departments must work together and should visit Namibia. Given that the delegation is leaving tomorrow, there is not sufficient time to arrange a meeting with the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture and Land Reform, but the Committee will make it its business to meet with the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture and Land Reform to share and compare notes on the gifblaar.
The Chairperson also concluded the meeting with a word of thanks.
The meeting was adjourned