Background image of Mpumi reading a monument honoring his grandfather.


The Land of The Blue Crane

A region's special qualities of people and place differentiates it from others and bestows a natural competitive advantage.

Eastern Cape, South Africa — South Africa’s national symbol is a tall, elegant blue-gray bird with a rolling guttural call. Standing four feet tall with six-foot wing span and a leaden-colored tail, the endemic and endangered blue crane breeds in rolling open grass and wetlands in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountain escarpment in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.

In the southern range of the blue crane is a vast grassland and arid shrub descending gradually towards the Indian Ocean. This is traditional homeland of the amaXhosa people, many of them herders on horseback. Mpumelelo Ncwadi is the grandson of an amaXhosa chief, himself descended from a line of chiefs whose territory once stretched north of the muddy Fish River and included numerous small villages, thousands of residents and thousands of acres of abundant pastures.

About this time last year I received an email from Mpumelelo saying he had been following Ecotrust for a decade and would like to start Ecotrust South Africa. Imagine my surprise; also my ignorance about the man, his culture and the land of his ancestors and of the blue crane nearby.

I don’t believe the best way to advance the principles and practices underlying a more natural model of development is to replicate Ecotrust as an organization nation by nation around the world. I did start Ecotrust to work at bioregional scale with potentially universal application. Ecotrust Canada was an early effort to enhance resources available to our work in that part of the coastal temperate rain forest that lies in British Columbia. Ecotrust Australia started more recently as residents of the grasslands of north Australia searched for an institutional framework for addressing the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of that distant part of the world. And it was fortuitous that Ian Gill, the man who built Ecotrust Canada, was himself Australian and prepared to bring some of his experience and his growing family home.

But each part of the world has its own unique cultural, political and institutional circumstances, and enduring solutions to local challenges might best grow from the ground up. It is region’s special qualities of people and place that differentiate it from others and bestow a natural competitive advantage. That very particular advantage should not be squandered by the missionary zeal of people from the other side of the world.

But Mpumelelo’s appeal rang true enough that we wanted to help him on his journey. We invited him to join gathering of fifty other regional leaders from eight continents in Portland last September to explore the idea of resilient regions and a model of development that integrated the needs of both people and place. And learning more about his story compelled me and my wife Janie to come for a visit.

He calls himself “Mpumi,” which was helpful to others with challenged linguistic sensibilities. Mpumelelo himself speaks eight languages. That was important to survival while he worked for six years in gold mines, where other young black men came to find work from scattered ethnic and language groups across South Africa. Misunderstanding someone more than two miles underground could mean dying in stultifying heat and darkness.

Mpumelelo and his sister grew up poor on the south banks of the Fish River. His father was too proud to accept an offer of land from his father-in-law, the chief, and labored as a tenant farmer on a small tract of his traditional land that was given to a white colonial commercial farmer by the apartheid government. Mpumelelo’s family was required to walk past the clean water pumped from a windmill near their mud and thatch house, to fetch pales of water from muddy Fish River almost a mile away. Windmill water was reserved by the white farmer for cattle. His family hunted impala with dogs and spears, and raised chickens, corn, beans, and other vegetables in their yard. He and his sister walked several miles through the forest and thorny scrub to and from school.

Mpumelelo eventually earned degrees in civil engineering from the University of Texas, Austin, a master’s in engineering for sustainable development at Cambridge University, where he was a Nelson Mandela scholar, and an MBA from his hometown University of Cape Town. He is an sustainability advisor focusing on rural agricultural development. Although he’s worked throughout Africa, he has a deep commitment to improve the lives and environments of people who have fewer opportunities than he.

Today, Mpumelelo lives in a comfortable home in Cape Town, with a successful consulting business, an adoring wife who’s an HR manager with a local company, two school-age daughters, and an older son, and he would like to restore both the land and economic prospects of Xhosa herding and farming families in the land of the blue crane.

Mpumelelo knew from an early age that his role in life would be a facilitator of change. He thinks there are four key foundational initiatives to develop holistic livestock management on his ancestral land: connection, conversation, community, and context.

Connection. By this he means the potential connections between people with knowledge, experience, technology and resources that village farmers don’t have. They have deep indigenous knowledge and technology that has evolved over thousands of years of living in their homeland. Mpumelelo believes he can improve the quality of the grasslands and water resources and reverse soil erosion through rotational grazing for sheep and Nguni cattle, which more closely mimics the natural movements of native herding animals. I was able to connect Mpumelelo with wool buyers at Patagonia, Pendleton Woolen Mills and the clothiers Nau to explore long-term, strategic buyer-seller relationships for some of the finest wool in the world.

Conversation. The second key initiative involves a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship that represents the interests of both buyers and sellers. For example, villagers with deep local knowledge engage in conversation about economic prospects with other resource experts, in a respectful give- and-take interaction.

Community. Mpumelelo recognizes that development must go far beyond individual initiative and ultimately embrace a larger community of interest; a more broadly held cultural commitment to exploring new opportunities that emerge from a diversity of community elements.

And finally, Mpumelelo describes the critical nature of context. That even the most progressive adaptations to change, those that have transformational potential, must take place in relation to the larger regional or even global condition; that the disruptive effects of colonialism, apartheid, industrial development, population growth or climate change can easily disrupt the most valiant and ingenious local adaptations. It is a powerful expression of the need for resilience, the ability to adapt across scales of both time and geography.

To hear an interview with Mpumelelo Ncwadi about opportunities to design a more natural model of development, listen here:[mp3j track=”″ flip=”y”] (or download the mp3: Mpumelelo Ncwadi interview)

Editor’s note: In 2012, Ecotrust founder Spencer Beebe is travelling the globe to discover stories of resilience. Join him and those he meets along the way in shaping —  in new and unimagined ways — resilient communities, economies and ecosystems.