With thanks to David Bristow for the title of this essay, borrowed from a chapter heading in his book Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists – one of the best books I have read all year.
Well, we made it. Finally, 2020 is behind us. A tumultuous year in which we have borne the collective anxiety of the unknown, lost loved ones, endured economic hardships and found our once-comfortable way of life rattled to the core.
If humanity had not yet experienced its wake-up call, it certainly has now.
“No man is an island”. The words I shared this time last year seem more prescient than ever. John Donne’s famous phrase has taken on new meaning in the context of a global pandemic. As evidence mounts that human intrusion into natural ecosystems exacerbates the threat of deadly zoonotic pathogens, so we have come to realise that the health of people and the planet are one and indivisible.
The Blood of the Earth has been spilled, and in a manner that we can no longer ignore. The age of the Anthropocene is well and truly upon us – both mind-numbing tragedy for the planet and devastating exercise in self-destruction. No doubt remains – we have to change our ways. If we fail to, Nature may yet survive, but our way of life will not.
To those of us in the environmental space, 2020 was heralded as the start of a hopeful “final decade for action”. The years leading up to 2030 provide our last chance to stem biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse and prevent catastrophic climate change. To say that 2020 has failed to reach its potential is quite the understatement. But this year marred by a global health crisis (and other crises besides) has nevertheless provided humanity with space and time to reflect. Perhaps most important of all, we have learnt in no uncertain terms that individual actions have collective consequences.
We owe it to all those who will inherit this planet to transform this realisation into concrete action. No corporation, no politician and no individual can abdicate responsibility any longer. Time is running out. Far-reaching government and corporate action is required to address our global crises, yet individuals can and must find their voice and their power. Every one of us can make an impact in our own context.
It was this philosophy that guided Samara’s response to the tumultuous events of 2020. As the world shut down, we focused inwards, identifying where and how we could make a difference in our own sphere of influence.
We started with our staff, our Samara family. As one of the harshest lockdowns in the world was imposed by the South African government, businesses were mothballed and redundancies came thick and fast. We did our best to help our team weather the storm, keeping all our staff employed, applying for relief funding on their behalf and sending food and sanitizing supplies to their families in local communities.
Once the metaphorical dust of lockdown had settled, we turned our attention to our soil, to birthing new life from bare ground. We tended herb gardens, planted vegetable patches and redoubled our soil erosion control efforts. Perhaps it was a way of escaping the pandemic, of growing beauty and bounty amidst the chaos and uncertainty. Whatever the reason, it was a much-needed tonic – a reminder that, although the modern world had ground to a standstill, Nature would never stop.
Searching for alternative revenue streams to keep Samara alive as ecotourism collapsed, we breathed life into a new project. It was an idea that had long lain dormant within us, much like a seed waiting for rain, but we had always found ourselves too busy with other projects. Well, once lockdown hit, we had nothing but time. And so our regenerative agriculture operation was born.
We started by acquiring cattle and sheep on a small section of land that sits outside the main reserve area, with the initial aim of feeding our staff and local communities, and the ultimate goal of creating a holistic farm that would produce the vast majority of the meat, eggs and fresh produce served in our lodges, whilst regenerating our landscape, returning carbon to the soil and creating jobs.
Our farming model is twofold – as well as producing healthy, nutrient-rich, organic food on-site, the operation functions as an ecological tool to rehabilitate the land through planned grazing management. The livestock is rotated from area to area, mimicking the migrations of old when antelope were herded by predators into tight bunches, consuming and trampling vegetation, breaking open the hard-capped soil and fertilising through their dung and urine, before moving on and returning only months later once the land had recovered. In this manner, the evidence shows, farming can avoid the overgrazing problem so common to arid rangelands. To ensure the scientific validity of the operation, we have partnered with Nelson Mandela University to study key markers for soil health, ecosystem function and carbon sequestration. We look forward to sharing more on this exciting project in the months to come.
With the introduction of regenerative farming and the redoubling of our Spekboom planting efforts, 2020 was the year our restoration work took on new urgency. The United Nations has declared the years 2021-2030 to be the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global rallying cry to halt the degradation of ecosystems and promote their rehabilitation, for the benefit of people and Nature. Conserving our environment is no longer enough – we must actively restore, rewild and regenerate our natural spaces.
According to eminent botanist Jan Vlok, Samara comprises 6,000 hectares that can be restored through planting Spekboom – a miracle plant and carbon sequestrator of note. We have set ourselves the ambitious goal of restoring 400 of these hectares in 2021 – a target of 1 million Spekboom to be planted. We will share the details of this initiative in due course and hope you will join us in making it a reality.
Though a difficult year financially, we were blessed by the big-heartedness of so many that know and love Samara. A generous Friend of Samara sponsored the pilot project for the aforementioned Spekboom planting initiative, restoring 4 hectares of degraded land and providing work for community SMMEs. Another generous guest funded soil erosion control through ‘ponding’, whilst many more sponsored important wildlife work, including an invaluable donation for our anti-poaching unit. Several kind-hearted supporters have chosen to assist us with ongoing community projects, from sponsoring staff members to funding Christmas gifts for the children of the Vuyani Safe Haven.
Of course, COVID-19 and the government lockdowns have laid bare the stark inequalities that still pervade society, in particular the desperate poverty in our rural regions. We cannot purport to fix every problem, but we can share the burden. Graaff-Reinet’s unsung local hero, Samara’s very own Anneley Gradwell, implemented a feeding scheme amongst our poorest local communities, running stew kitchens for 1,560 people in September, assisted by SANParks. Our annual Heritage Day Sports Tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic, so we launched a Poetry Competition titled “Hope in difficult times”, assisted again by a wonderful Friend of Samara. Partnering with Ubuntu Pathways, the Kolisi Foundation and SPAR Camdeboo, we were able to offer R82,000 in food vouchers as prizes – a small drop in the ocean of need.
To formalise our commitment to sustainable, regenerative tourism principles, and to hold ourselves accountable to the highest of standards, we joined The Long Run as a Fellow Member in June. The Long Run is a collection of tourism businesses striving towards excellence in conservation, community development, cultural preservation and commercial sustainability. We have been humbled and inspired by our peers within The Long Run group, and we feel proud and privileged to campaign for a responsible tourism recovery alongside them.
What else did 2020 bring? We sang songs of hope, we danced in the long-awaited rain, we marvelled at the birth of not one but three litters of cheetah cubs on the reserve. We spent time in Nature, we held our family close, and we slowly began to welcome guests back to Samara. Our lodges shine with the love and maintenance heaped on them during lockdown. Our land retains an irresistible pull on the hearts and souls of those who know her.
We cannot expect 2021 to signal a magical reset to a world pre-pandemic. The virus remains at large, our healthcare systems continue to suffer enormous strain, and a vaccine will not be a cure-all panacea.
Yet, in the midst of this terrible time, like a Breath from Heaven, we have hope for the future. People the world over have returned to Nature and reflected on what is important – what is worth fighting for.
- SARAH TOMPKINS & THE SAMARA TEAM