South African Olive Farmers Feel the Heat as Wildfires Take Their Toll

South Africa's olive industry is set to take a blow from recent wildfires that have plagued the Western Cape region, an area home to most of the country's olive farms.

Working on Fire International
Feb. 14, 2017
By Mary Hernandez
Working on Fire International

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For a long time, South Africa has been a small but ener­getic player in the inter­na­tional olive oil mar­ket. Recent con­di­tions might soon seri­ously impact the indus­try, as olive pro­duc­tion in the country’s olive oil-mak­ing cap­i­tal (the Western Cape) begins to suf­fer from the worst drought in over three decades bring­ing with it severe water short­ages and deadly wild­fires.

The Western Cape is home to over more than 90 per­cent of the esti­mated 1.6 mil­lion olive trees in South Africa, with many of the country’s 140 pro­duc­ers set­ting up shop in the region to tak­ing advan­tage of the area’s Mediterranean cli­mate of cold and wet win­ters and hot, dry sum­mers.

Recent months have seen sum­mer tem­per­a­tures soar in the area, and with lit­tle respite from rain to be expected, many dams in the area have dropped to less than half full and are still drop­ping. It is esti­mated that res­i­dents of the City of Cape Town could run out of water in a mat­ter of months, and strict water restric­tions have been put in place by the gov­ern­ment.

According to non-profit orga­ni­za­tion GreenCape’s 2016 Water Market Intelligence Report, most of South Africa’s water is used to irri­gate the country’s agri­cul­tural land. While the Western Cape region’s 11.5 mil­lion agri­cul­tural hectares only account for about 12 per­cent of the avail­able farm­land in South Africa, it is respon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing up to 60 per­cent of the country’s agri­cul­tural exports, which means that for­eign trade will be most affected by the drought.

Not only do farm­ers have to deal with water short­ages, but with the increased hot and dry con­di­tions fires have become another con­cern. With extreme dry heat and strong winds, even the small­est of fires can spread rapidly and with lit­tle warn­ing.

Since the begin­ning of last month, over a thou­sand fire­fight­ers, vol­un­teers and mem­bers of the South African National Defence Force have bat­tled dozens of fires, spread out over thou­sands of hectares of veg­e­ta­tion. With water scarce, fire­fight­ing air­craft are using ocean water as an extreme mea­sure to bat­tle the flames.

The fires have caused emer­gency evac­u­a­tions in many res­i­den­tial areas of the Cape, also severely impact­ing the area’s native envi­ron­ment. Many indige­nous plants, trees, and insects were destroyed, as well as baboons, tor­toises, and snakes resid­ing in and around the moun­tain ranges in the Cape Peninsula.

In terms of olive farm­ing, even the small­est loss in one of the larger estates is likely to have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on South Africa’s total olive har­vest, as the total amount of land ded­i­cated to olive pro­duc­tion on a national scale is only about 2,600 hectares, says Karien Bezuidenhout, man­ager of SA Olive and Cape Flora SA.

Currently, two major Cape estates (the Buffet Olive Estate and Morgenster Estate) have reported sig­nif­i­cant losses, with Buffet los­ing over one third of their orchards to the fires.



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