KAMIESKROON, South Africa — At first, Rosy Fortuin wasn’t worried when the rains did not come. 

Here in the semi-arid shrubland of Namaqualand, dry conditions are a cycle of life. Each summer along the west coast of South Africa, the dry season brings muted colors to the landscape, as dormant succulents and shrubs patiently await a turn of the season.
Winter rains bring fields of blooming wildflowers in shades of purple, cream and gold. 

This is the Succulent Karoo, one of the world’s
only arid regions designated as a biodiversity hotspot. It
boasts well over 6,000 plant species, with 40 percent found
nowhere else on the planet.

For the people of Namaqualand, resilience is part of daily life. Surviving here means withstanding the extremes of a climate that fluctuates constantly. But Fortuin, a shepherd and conservationist from the village of Nourivier, began to worry when the
drought stretched from one year into two, and then a third. Eventually, seven years passed with almost no rainfall. 

“There was not water enough. There was not food enough. The winters were long and very cold and dry, and the summers brutally hot,” Fortuin said. “And then when the drought finally broke, we were hit by a cyclone. That had never happened
before in my lifetime — ever.”

“Ask anyone in the village today and they will tell you: climate change is here now.”

Thousands of species are uniquely adapted to thrive in this desert-like ecosystem. © Piotr Naskrecki

Shrublands and semi-arid deserts, which cover 41 percent of the Earth’s surface and are home to more than 2 billion people, are projected to be among the first places permanently altered by climate
change. As temperatures surge, these once-thriving areas are quickly transforming into parched wastelands.

For two decades, Conservation South Africa, the local affiliate of Conservation International, has partnered with Namaqualand communities to improve their resilience to climate change by conserving and restoring nature. Initiatives designed to prepare
for the future are being put to the test now as extreme weather disrupts life here.

Collected here are snapshots of a community on the front lines of climate change. Confronted with a crisis not of their making, people here are drawing from their past to secure their future — preserving their home and their traditions by protecting
the nature they need to survive.

These are their stories.

Ancient shepherds

Shepherding is a way of life in Namaqualand. Over generations, farmers have perfected their skills raising sheep and goats in this region defined by extremes. 

“Nature tells you everything — my ancestors read the stars, the moon and the swarming termites to predict the weather,” said Jacobus T. Brandt, an elderly shepherd and local historian. “But now, nature has changed. The rain no
longer comes on time.”

Jacobus T. Brandt describes the history of his ancestors, the Nama people. © Emily Nyrop

In this new era of climate uncertainty, sudden frost can devastate flocks, rainless spells disrupt the lambing season and intensified droughts exacerbate erosion caused by overgrazing. 

Conservation South Africa urged the community to look to its past.

As early as 200 CE, the
Nama people, ancestors of today’s inhabitants, raised breeds of
sheep and goats uniquely adapted to survive in arid Namaqualand: the Namaqua Afrikaner and the Cape speckled goat

Over the centuries, these heritage breeds were gradually replaced by commercial varieties, as local farmers sought to meet the demands of growing markets. But commercial breeds, like the Dorper sheep, did not thrive: Their grazing instincts, adapted to
abundant plains, proved ill-suited for a semi-arid desert.

“One winter, I lost almost all of my Dorper sheep,” Fortuin recalled. “That’s when Conservation South Africa came to me with an idea.”

Fortuin became part of the first pilot program in 2017 to bring these heritage breeds back to the landscape. She received five ewes from a hybrid breed called the “meat master,” which combines the hardiness of the Afrikaner sheep with the superior meat potential of commercial sheep. Today, she proudly tends a herd of 50 meat master sheep. 

“My old sheep would never have climbed a mountain,” she laughed. “But the meat master climbs like a mountain goat to reach plants that haven’t been grazed in ages. This makes it healthier; it grows quickly and it gets fat faster.” 

Today, about 40 percent of farmers who have signed conservation agreements in the region have switched to the meat master and the Cape speckled goat.

The Cape speckled goat is uniquely adapted to survive in desert-like conditions. © Emily Nyrop

“The meat master bites here and bites there,” Brandt said. “This is how it saves the veld. It takes a mouthful of the bush, and then walks forward to another one. So, tomorrow, you can return to the same place to graze, because it didn’t
eat up the field like the Dorper would have. It’s the same with the speckled goat. If you let it climb the mountain, it won’t erode the pasture.”

Soil and rain

In 2023, the seven-year drought broke with a crash of thunder. 

“We used to believe that in winter, you had seven days of rain, then you had sunshine for two or three weeks, and then it would rain again,” said Haarith Arnolds, a young livestock farmer. 

But what came was not the usual soft rain that fell gradually throughout the season; this was a sudden, deadly deluge that flooded fields and washed away roads. As floodwaters rushed against a crust of drought-hardened soil, dormant seeds weren’t revived; they were swept downstream. Instead of breathing life
into the fields, the floods left them even more desolate.

“Our job now is to stop this land from going extinct,” Fortuin said. 

Rosy Fortuin oversees a team of local youth working to revive the natural ecosystem. © Emily Nyrop

After her experience working with Conservation South Africa to revive her sheep herd, Fortuin was keen to partner with its experts again, this time to ensure that the community would be better equipped to handle future floods.

Today, Fortuin works as a team supervisor with Youth Employment Services, a nonprofit partnering with Conservation South Africa to teach skills to young people in the country
to prepare them for a career, with a focus on the green economy. In total, 585 youth have passed through the program since 2020. 

“We don’t need expensive machinery; we don’t need expensive stuff — here we do nature,” Fortuin said. The steady employment, along with her successful farm, has allowed Fortuin to begin building a new house — a dream she once thought
was beyond her means. 

Fortuin stood in a field of hardpacked earth, tucked into the mountain near her hometown of Nourivier. Young workers were packing shallow trenches with brush and carefully layering stones in the ground to build gabions — a barrier designed to control
erosion and manage water flow to prevent flooding and stabilize the soil.

“These stone gates and packed brush slow down the storm water to allow it to drain into the soil,” Fortuin explained. “Next time there is a flood, the water won’t run away.” 

Young workers carefully layer stones in the ground to build erosion control barriers. © Emily Nyrop

This process gives plants a better chance of survival, even when faced with heavy rainfall. The first signs of success are the emergence of quick-growing annual plants, called pioneers. These are followed by shrubs that offer shade and aid in soil stabilization,
facilitating the regrowth of perennial species. This, in turn, attracts pollinators and other creatures, ensuring the cycle continues. 

“It works. It works 100 percent,” Brandt remarked about the project. “After we had two more storms, I saw that the trenches that were once deep were now actually flush with the gabion.” 

The desert wetlands

Despite being a semi-arid desert, the Succulent Karoo is home to wetlands.

Namaqualand sits on a unique solid substrate of calcrete, bedrock and clay that allows rainfall to collect
in lush wetlands. These marshy areas can remain persistently wet for years, providing habitat for a range of birds and amphibians, and fresh water for the community and their livestock.

“It was wet, very wet, when I was a young child. There were many types of plants, yellow lilies and white lilies. But now they are gone,” said Jennifer Cloete, a member of the village of Leliefontein, named for those lilies. 

It is estimated that more than half of the region’s wetlands have disappeared, heightening concerns
about water scarcity.

“We didn’t look after our wetlands,” said George Michael Smith, a livestock owner from Leliefontein. “People used to be able to just dig a hole to get drinking water. Today it is not like that anymore. The wetland must serve as
a source of water.” 

George Michael Smith has seen native plants disappear during his lifetime. © Matthew Robinson – Trevendy Films

In these communal lands without fences or borders, farmers graze their livestock wherever the grass appears most abundant, even in the wetlands. But if done repeatedly, this can lead to overgrazing, making these fragile ecosystems more vulnerable to climate

To solve this, Conservation South Africa helped farmers establish cooperatives — formal organizations that help them sell their sheep and goats, provide crucial livestock vaccinations and guarantee fair prices. But joining the group comes with requirements.
Farmers must sign an agreement committing to practices that prevent overgrazing — and assuring that they will not graze in the wetlands. 

So far, through the agreements, farmers have protected more than 118,000 hectares (290,000 acres), including wetlands.

“These are the reasons why we move our livestock — to keep the field healthy and to keep the water flowing,” Cloete said. “Now, when I drive out to look at the wetlands, it is a real joy to see that it worked. The plants came back,
and the water also came back.”


Fields of flowers 

Nestled near the summit of the Kamiesburg mountains lies Leliefontein. This hilltop town of stone houses provides an ideal vantage point to behold the seemingly endless array of seasonal wildflowers during spring — a spectacle that draws 100,000
visitors to the region every year. 

The only problem: Almost no one was stopping in Leliefontein. 

“Our village is so poor and there are no opportunities for young people. So, every season, I would sit and see the tourists driving through our town, and think to myself, ‘What can we do to make them stop?’”  said Vera Engelbrecht.

Seasonal rains bring blooms of perennial
wildflowers. © Catherine Withers-Clarke

Beginning in 2007, Engelbrecht got together four of her friends and built a small roadside eatery with local cuisine — including bread cooked over coals and lamb sausages from locally grazed sheep. Conservation South Africa provided funding to help
her launch the business and properly register the business.

“On the face of it, it might seem odd for a conservation group to be involved in tourism,” said Ronald Newman, who leads Conservation South Africa’s work in Namaqualand. “However, sustainable, community-led tourism establishes
a direct connection between thriving lands and thriving communities — bringing new jobs and opportunities that are inherently linked to nature. That’s the whole idea behind our Jobs for Nature program, which is bringing new jobs and environmental

The Succulent Karoo is home to one-third of the world’s succulents. © Matthew Robinson – Trevendy Films

It was working. Tourists began including Leliefontein on their wildflower road trip route. Engelbrecht said there were even a few guests from Japan. But her fledgling business could only survive if nature remained healthy. 

“Last season we didn’t have flowers because the flood took all our seeds away,” Fortuin said. “It just looked barren on the ground because of climate change.”

Fortuin reflected on the rapid changes sweeping through their home and the hard work the community had put in to prepare. Would it be enough to withstand the new normal? Would the gabions hold during the next flood? And could the farmers stay united protecting
the shrublands? For Fortuin, the only way forward was optimism.

“We have climate change here, so the best I can do is deal with climate change here,” Fortuin said. “With these two hands of mine, I can make a difference.”

Rosy Fortuin: “I’ve lived here forever. This is where I belong.” © Matthew Robinson – Trevendy Films

Further reading: Can an ancient tradition save an African grassland?

Will McCarry is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.

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