PROFILE: Odette Curtis-Scott – Protecting the last 5% of Renosterveld

[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 25 MARCH 2022]


When founder and director Odette Curtis-Scott started the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust (ORCT) in 2012, saving one of the country’s most threatened ecosystems was “a dream that seemed impossible”. Renosterveld was already 95% lost, mostly due to agricultural development. In celebration of the ORCT's tenth birthday, Anri Matthee asked Curtis-Scott about her work and her legacy.

 
A male leopard on the mountains between Bredasdorp and Napier. A sliver of undeveloped land outside Bredasdorp holds the key to the survival of a small leap of leopards that roam the Agulhas Plain. Photo: Supplied / Landmark Foundation

Odette Curtis-Scott, founder and director of the Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust.

Photos: Supplied / Odette Curtis-Scott


“I still can’t quite believe it and have to pinch myself to remember this is real,” says Curtis-Scott. “We have made major inroads to protect Renosterveld over this time.”

Despite its reputation as the “ugly sister to fynbos”, Renosterveld is the richest bulb habitat on the planet and is home to “incredible diversity and life”. In the effort to protect the severely fragmented 5% of Renosterveld that remains, her work is more important than ever.


SN: Where did you grow up and how did you end up here?

OCS: I grew up in Cape Town – in the City Bowl, in Tamboerskloof. At first, I was doing fieldwork out here on Black Harriers and spending a lot of time here. I just absolutely fell in love with it. So, 15 years ago, I decided to move here.

How and why did you become involved in nature conservation?

Because I had this pull towards doing it. I can’t really explain exactly why… I didn’t grow up in the bush or have all that exposure when I was a child. I just watched documentaries of David Attenborough… nothing romantic, like, “Oh, I grew up doing this!” I was moved to do something about what’s going on on the planet.

What exactly is Renosterveld, and where can it be found?

Renosterveld is part of the fynbos biome. It’s like a vegetation type of fynbos, but it’s also being recognised more and more as its own biome. Basically, what makes it different from fynbos is that it’s found in clay soil – relatively rich soil – compared to fynbos, which is found on the mountains and on the coastal sites, which are sandy and poor soil. It’s basically the clay, rich, fertile lowlands of the Western Cape. That’s Lowland Renosterveld. So, where you see the Overberg and Swartland wheatbelts, those are what would have been Renosterveld.

What makes Renosterveld so special to found the ORCT?

It’s incredibly unique, but also very overlooked because it’s not as attractive as fynbos throughout the year. It’s been horribly neglected because of how unattractive it is to landowners. So, it’s this incredibly diverse system which is severely fragmented and severely threatened, but also very, very rich and not receiving the attention that it needs.

What work does the ORCT do; what do you hope to achieve?

The most important work we do is working with farmers across the wheatbelt in the Overberg to change attitudes. There is a misconception that Renosterveld is just a wasteland.

The idea is to change that perception first. We mostly do that by exploring the sites that we visit and putting together a detailed inventory of everything we find – a biodiversity report – which we then print out as a nice glossy report for landowners to share with them what they have on their own farms.

Most of them don’t like Renosterveld, because they don’t know what’s in it and how special it is. So, that’s the first step towards changing attitudes: sharing and showing people what they have, and getting them excited about what they have.

The next thing is to establish partnerships with landowners that are willing and concerned about their Renosterveld and conserving it in the long term.

That’s where the easement programme comes in where we offer landowners with enough Renosterveld an opportunity to sign a title deed restriction – a conservation servitude that is put onto their title deed, which keeps their Renosterveld safe in perpetuity.

In return, this enables us to assist them with managing it. Then we put resources into managing it for them and with them so that it doesn’t cost them money to conserve it.

Odette Curtis-Scott's four-year-old daughter, Molly, often accompanies her mother in the field and shares her new-found interest in spiders. "She knows what a crab spider is versus a jumping spider, and such things, just from being in the veld enough,” says Curtis-Scott.


What is your proudest accomplishment with the ORCT?

It’s definitely the 4 000 hectares of Renosterveld that we’ve secured – 6 000 hectares altogether of other vegetation types, but over 4 000 hectares of Renosterveld secured through easements. I would say that’s our biggest achievement.

What keeps you up at night?

Definitely the illegal ploughing, and the ignorance about it and therefore the abuse that happens. The ploughing, overgrazing, degradation and all the stuff that is based mostly on ignorance – to a lesser extent, also the arrogance of “This is my land. I can do with this whatever I want.” Lack of awareness and concern go together. And the fact that we only have 5% of Renosterveld left. So every piece that is removed or degraded has an impact on the future conservation potential of this landscape.

And what gives you hope?

The fact that we’ve seen so many landowners change their attitudes and their undertaking to conserve instead of take and abuse; and landowners who have changed their minds once they’ve seen what they have, turned around and said, “Geez, I had no idea”.

And the fact that there are landowners who are willing to commit at such a high level that they’ll put a conservation servitude on their title deed. What gives me hope is that there is still a willingness to change and, even beyond that, a willingness to commit.

How can the local community help make a difference?

There are various things. Obviously, we’re a nonprofit, so we always need funding. So, if anybody would like to get involved in fundraising for us, there are various ways this can be done. We’ve just launched the bequest programme – that’s of course for longer term stuff. We’ve put out a call in our last newsletter to ask people to consider becoming fundraisers for us, or hosting a dinner or something like that, to raise funds.

And then the awareness – spreading the word about the book and the specialness, our video – all those things that help people to see the other side.

How can Suidernuus and other newspapers contribute to what you’re trying to achieve?

I think by keeping awareness going, especially amongst the farmers and the community around why this is so important – and getting this message across that while you may be the landowner now, you are not the landowner in perpetuity.

What you do on the land now affects everything in the future and the little time that you are the landowner can determine the fate of this vegetation, of this habitat for these natural systems and everything that lives in them.

So, awareness – keeping that going – and the positive news, the positive message. A lot of times we only hear “This guy got nailed for illegal ploughing,” and then the farmers start to feel resentful, like, “Why can’t I do on my farm whatever I please?”

But the thing is, you are the custodian of the land. You are a steward, and you’re only a steward for a very small amount of time in the bigger scheme of things. So, the idea is to respect what’s around you and to work with it, learn about it and grow to love it rather than despising it because you can’t plough it. I think that's an important message and a positive side of it. There’s a lot of negativity in the news and sharing positive stories is important.

You co-authored the Field Guide to the Renosterveld of the Overberg. Why was its publication so important?

A lot of farmers – and other people just interested in the veld and the fynbos – had been asking for a book for so long because there was nothing yet that filled that niche. There were books that covered parts of it, but not specifically the Renosterveld.

I think it has brought attention to the incredible diversity that we have and also kind of made it sexy, you know. Here’s all this vegetation type that looks so drab if you don’t look properly and then, when you look closer, this is what you could find if you just spend some time there, in the right time of year, with enough patience. It’s kind of put it on the map.