Philippi farmer Achmat Brinkhuis does not sleep most nights, but stands guard over his vegetable crops, pump-house and irrigation pipes.
He resorted to this after thieves stole farming equipment from his small-holding 17 times in the space of 12 months. "Sometimes in the morning, I can't stay awake," Brinkhuis said.
Brinkhuis was one of a group of farmers briefed by the provincial government on Tuesday on the findings of a socio-economic study, commissioned by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, to investigate the significance of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA). The study, led by Indego Consulting, had a stark warning: If urgent action is not taken to protect the PHA soon, it will be lost.
The loss of the Philippi farmlands would result in the loss of thousands of jobs, millions of rands to the regional economy, cause a spike in the local price of vegetables, and make a dent in Cape Town's food security, according to the study. Karen Harrison, who led the study, said the special growing conditions of the PHA were "irreplaceable" within a 120km radius.
Because it was cooler than the other big vegetable-growing areas of Ceres and Malmesbury, Philippi could produce vegetables in summer when those regions could not, giving it a competitive edge.
Farmers used water from the Cape Flats Aquifer beneath the area, which has made it resilient during drought. While drought has caused a 20% reduction in vegetable production in the Western Cape, there has been no production loss in Philippi. It produced three to four crops with a turnover of R400,000 to R800,000 per hectare annually.
The area created 3,000 direct and 30,000 indirect jobs, and contributed R484 million to the regional economy in direct turnover and R938 million in indirect. There was a spread of markets for Philippi's produce, which made the area critical for food security across all income groups. Large commercial farmers dominated the retail market, while small commercial farmers focused on supplying the Cape Town market, bakkie traders and middlemen.
The study surveyed 90% of Philippi farmers. There was general agreement the area should be kept for farming. However, there was no guarantee that this would happen.
"The farmers are under huge pressure from many sides," Harrison said. This included a failure by government to manage and regulate the area; the massive problem of crime; land occupations in the east and illegal dumping.
The farmland was constantly being eroded, and had shrunk from 3,000 hectares in the 1960s to 1,884 hectares today. This was further eroded when the city council altered the urban edge to exclude a big piece of farmland, making Philippi's footprint even smaller. This and the rezoning of land from agriculture to mixed use to make way for housing developments had placed "severe stress" on the PHA.
Philippi farmland was valuable for recharging the underlying Cape Flats Aquifer by allowing rainwater to seep through the soil. If farmland were paved over with housing, it would reduce the recharge.
The study recommended that the farmland had to be protected with legislation. The aquifer has to be managed and monitored, and crime needs to be addressed. "There is a real sense of urgency," Harrison said.
MEC for Agriculture Alan Winde said the study had given the agricultural department clear direction. "It shows the competitive edge of these farmers, which says to the department: 'Yes we must have a focus of protection.' Food security will become much more of a concern for any city," Winde said. He said the provincial department of agriculture would lead an intergovernmental team with other stakeholders to implement the recommendations. "We went to provincial cabinet with this and it was tough. Human settlements looks and sees space for housing. But now we have all the role players in one place," Winde said.
The PHA Food and Farming Campaign have been fighting to stop two major housing development proposals for the southern sections of the farming area, which it says is some of the best farming land.
In the south-east the City and the provincial government have granted rights paving the way for developers to build the massive Oakland City with 30,000 houses, schools, and a light industrial zone. There is a second housing development, Uvest, proposed in the south west.
Asked how he would prevent more of this, Winde said government could not pass a law to say one could not sell one's land to developers. "But we will try to find ways to make agriculture the viable choice here."
Nazeer Sonday, spokesperson for the PHA campaign, said they were challenging nine City and provincial government decisions in court relating to Oaklands, Uvest and mining developments. Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille and Environmental and Development Planning MEC Anton Bredell are opposing the court application.
"We love the study, but if Winde is serious about protecting Philippi, he must get his colleagues Bredell and De Lille not to oppose this court action, but to abide by the court decision," Sonday said. "Then we would not have to fight all the City and provincial advocates, only the developers. Our funding will not survive that."
Asked to comment, Winde said Sonday was welcome to put his request in writing. "I will take it under consideration and request legal advice as to the possibility around this. As it is a legal matter, we would need to investigate all avenues thoroughly."