A few weeks ago I was fortunate to spend a couple of days on a search and rescue project transplanting rare plants from quarry sites and along the road verges between Paleisheuwel and Graafwater up the West Coast. This area is in the heart of the sandveld, a very special fynbos area that is the second most threatened ecosystem in South Africa. The sandveld is home to some 58 rare and threatened plant species of which at least 30 are endemic (found nowhere else).
The main reason for this high number of rare and threatened plant species is the clearing of natural vegetation for potato farming. Potato farming is the core economic activity and employer in the sandveld producing an annual turnover of some R400 million and employing over 3200 people. Certainly a lot higher than any tourism or other more sustainable economic activity related to the regions special flora! The five year rotation cycle required to combat the impacts of soil-borne diseases means that the industry footprint is very large and growing.
However with every new circular field cleared for planting potatoes more and more of the regions unique natural heritage is lost. While I have previously read and heard people talk about the threats posed by the potato to the strandveld, my few days working along the Paleisheuwel road really brought the reality of the situation home. All along the road are huge circular fields full of yummy potatoes, surrounded by natural sandveld which in early September was full of amazing flowering bulbs, annuals, succulents and shrubs.
One of these rare species that I came across was Leucadendron brunioides var. flumenlupinum. While it may have a long and rather elegant name, it is very rare! According to the Sasol Proteas field guide it is known from a single population of about 100 plants at Jakkals River near Graafwater. I encountered 50 plants perched precariously above one of the gravel borrow pits. The plants have their roots in some high quality road making material and were thus in the path of the proposed borrow pit extension and a pretty serious looking bulldozer. Fortunately we were able to change the direction of the quarry extension and save them from being flattened for now. But the issue is that unlike the environmental regulations required for road making, a lot of ploughing for new potato fields is still happening in the sandveld without specialist botanical input.
So that evening while I enjoyed a cold Windhoek Lager and ribs at a harbour restaurant overlooking the cold Atlantic Ocean at Lamberts Bay, I could not help wondering where did my chips come from.