Rural development is vital to South Africa’s sustainable economic future. The agricultural sector is perhaps the most important in our country, because food security and poverty reduction depend on it. But, inequality and high unemployment mean that many people in rural areas lack income and secure livelihoods.
At the same time, a third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from food, agriculture and land use. This means that the rural economy must mitigate and adapt to climate change and environmental degradation. This while ensuring more sustainable livelihoods for rural communities.
A Just Rural Transition
Rural development is the process of improving the quality of life and the economic, social and environmental well-being of people living in rural areas. A just transition is needed to guide this progress while ensuring more inclusive and equitable rural communities.
The consequences of climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss are among a growing list of complex challenges facing our food producers and rural communities. Additionally, rural areas in South Africa face additional challenges, including significant inequities in land and resource rights, as well as the legacy of widespread mining pollution.
Overall, poverty is predominantly rural. Agricultural workers and their dependents represent two-thirds of people facing extreme poverty. But research has shown that development measures in food and agriculture are up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. This means that investing in rural communities should be a priority, both for poverty reduction and for food security.
Due to the opportunities and challenges that rural communities will face in the years and decades to come, the Just Rural Transition (JRT) Initiative was launched at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019.
The aim is to combat the growing social inequality between urban and rural populations, ensuring that farmers and rural communities derive a secure income from the production of affordable and nutritious food and other materials from a way that protects our natural world.
At the heart of a just rural transition are equitable land and resource rights for indigenous and local communities.
Land reform is essential for a just rural transition
Centuries of colonialism and apartheid dispossessed Africans of their land. As a result, wealth and entrepreneurial skills have been drained from rural areas, undermining rural and agricultural development.
The loss of essential livelihoods, impoverishment and mass unemployment for a large proportion of black South African citizens continues to perpetuate poverty and inequality today.
Land restitution is fundamental to a just and equitable outcome for the sustainable development of South Africa. It is also mandated by the Constitution. But, despite efforts over the previous decades, South Africa has yet to restore the land rights of the South African people.
A proposed “Agrarian Reform and Agricultural Development Agency,” announced by President Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation address last year, is designed to remove the current political and bureaucratic barriers that block land reform. redistributive.
Rural environmental challenges
Rural areas and communities in South Africa also face significant environmental challenges. Land degradation affects nearly 60% of South Africa’s land, and more than 90% is subject to desertification. The country also suffers from water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Climate change is increasing temperatures and affecting rainfall, which can severely affect agricultural productivity.
In addition, South Africa has thousands of abandoned mines, which contaminate water, soil and air.
The resulting pollution has significant environmental and economic impacts and ultimately impoverishes communities. Dangerous air pollution, especially from coal-fired power plants, also means respiratory illnesses.
Other health problems are also prevalent in communities in rural communities, especially coal and industrial areas.
The legacy of apartheid and environmental degradation have left some groups particularly vulnerable in rural areas of South Africa. This is concerning, as deadly weather events are increasingly likely due to climate change.
“Disasters such as the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal remind us that it is the poorest communities, women and youth, the unemployed and those living in informal settlements, who are most vulnerable to climate change,” Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said in May.
Opportunities for sustainable rural development
In addition to land reform and restitution, a sustainable, diverse and climate-resilient agricultural sector is also critical to rural development and strong communities.
For example, opportunities in agroecology provide secure livelihoods, food sovereignty, and access to nutritious and affordable food for small-scale producers. Infrastructure such as transport and sustainable housing, as well as access to education and health care, are also essential for a good quality of life for people in rural areas.
In addition, climate disaster planning that protects people, livelihoods and property from events such as drought and floods, is also crucial for sustainable and secure rural communities.
The empowerment of women – socially and economically – is also fundamental. For example, in the agricultural sector, women make up 60-80% of smallholder farmers, but only 15-20% of landowners. Projects such as “The Women Farmers Programme” are working to solve this problem.
Making agriculture more accessible and profitable for women would bring significant benefits to women and their families and to South Africa’s development in general.
“If women had access to the same resources as men, they would increase their production by 30%,” said Anne Githuku-Shongwe of UN Women South Africa.
Restoring degraded lands would also improve agricultural productivity and livelihood opportunities. In particular, mine rehabilitation would help regions transition from a mining to an agricultural economy.
The NGO Business for Development works on such projects, ensuring that mining companies return land to the community. The economic opportunities are substantial, he says.
In addition to agricultural benefits, nature and ecosystem restoration can strengthen and revitalize South Africa’s tourism industry. Job creation, livelihood opportunities, improved food security, greater diversity and healthier ecosystems are all additional benefits of land restoration for sustainable rural development.
This article was first published in the Green Economy Journal.
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