The Financial Costs of Ecologically Nonsustainable Farming Practices in a Semiarid System


Nonsustainable ostrich farming practices have degraded large areas of the Little Karoo, a semiarid region in South Africa. The Little Karoo lies within the Succulent Karoo biome, a recognized biodiversity hotspot. A financial feasibility analysis was undertaken from a private landowner’s perspective to examine the costs and benefits of rehabilitating degraded areas thereby allowing farmers to shift their production focus from ostrich to sheep farming, a financially stable and relatively conservation-compatible land use. Our aim was to raise awareness, at a private landowner level, to the opportunity costs incurred through unsustainable land use practices. We calculated and contrasted net present values for rehabilitation and no rehabilitation scenarios and investigated model sensitivities relating to seed costs, seedling survival and ostrich product prices. Rehabilitation was not found to be financially feasible for private landholders over 20 years. Seedling survival and associated seed costs were found to have strong controlling effects. Third parties need to contribute both financially and in terms of research outputs if sustainable land use practices are to be achieved in this area. This study elucidates the true costs associated with the unsustainable practice of ostrich farming and sounds a cautionary warning.


Land use practices generating products closely linked to fashion and tastes often require rapid shifts as the demand for these goods changes. However, many human activities including agriculture reduce the capacity of ecosystems to benefit people by degrading ecosystems (Webb 1996; Matson et al. 1997). Management actions including restoration and rehabilitation are often required to reestablish a productive state and facilitate this shift in production focus (Hobbs & Norton 1996; Webb 1996; McDonald 2000; Hobbs & Harris 2001). Logically, the costs associated with rehabilitation and restoration strategies should influence land use practice decisions. In reality, these costs are poorly estimated and recorded and are rarely factored into production decisions (Milton 2001; Choi 2004). Case studies, which highlight local-level rehabilitation costs associated with production shifts, are needed in order to expedite the move toward sustainable land use. This is particularly important in arid areas, where costs and risks associated with rehabilitation are believed to be greater than in more mesic environments, as well as in areas of conservation importance (Milton 2001).

Our study explored the restoration costs associated with shifting production focus from ostrich production, an unsustainable degrading land use practice, to sheep production, a relatively conservation-compatible land use. The study took place in the Little Karoo region of South
Africa, which falls within the Succulent Karoo biome (Milton et al. 1997). This biome is internationally recognized as being one of only two biodiversity hotspots found in arid regions (Mittermeier et al. 2004) due to its high lev- els of plant endemism and its extensive transformation, estimated as at least 70% (Myers et al. 2000).

Ostrich farming as it has been practiced here, with large concentrations of birds confined to relatively small camps averaging around 300 ha, has caused severe transformation and degradation of the vegetation of this region (Hoffman 1996; Cupido 2005). Much of this degradation is attributable to the active, territorial behavior and trampling effects of ostriches that lead to soil compaction, the removal of the biological soil crust (Cupido 2005), which increases the risk of soil erosion by wind (Belnap 2001), destruction of sensitive plants, and loss of biodiversity (Lombard & Wolf 2004; Cupido 2005). Ostriches receive full rations of supplementary feed, predominantly lucerne, which sustains these high numbers. Farmers are therefore only dependent on the space component of the carrier or habitat function of ecosystems, as defined by De Groot (2006), and are not dependent on the natural vegetation or related goods and services for ostrich production. Ostrich farming has been practiced in the region for more than 150 years, but in the 2000 years prior to this, sheep and cattle production was the dominant agricultural activity (Pollock 1974; Burman 1981; Shearing & Van Heerden 1994). The ostrich industry has experienced much volatility attributable to changes in fashion and tastes. The collapse of the feather industry in the early 1900s demonstrated this association. Recent volatility within the industry is attributable to outbreaks of Crimea Congo Fever, Newcastles disease, and Avian flu resulting export bans, as well as increased local and international competition. Agriculture is still the single largest employer in the region, employing 27% of the labor force, most of which are workers in the ostrich industry (Anonymous 2002, 2003).

It was the intention of this study to create awareness around true costs or opportunity costs of keeping ostriches and the time taken to recover financial costs associated with a rehabilitation exercise required for a shift in land use activities. Rehabilitation of the natural vegetation from a degraded ostrich farming state to a condition where it could support mammalian livestock is seen as the most feasible and less financially volatile, alternative land use that would have both conservation and social welfare benefits. Our findings indicate that rehabilitation was prohibitively expensive for an individual over the medium term of 20 years, only becoming feasible over a longer time period.