By Niel Stander
I set out for a habitual morning run around the Ashridge estate and beautiful surrounding areas. It is an area that I have had the privilege to explore often over the past couple of years. I have seen the area in every season. But today it is in October and I am aware of a nip in the air and that the leaves are turning all shades of glorious. The grass is wet and I feel the softness of wet earth under foot. I can smell damp, and earth and grass – nature fills my mind.
Today my route takes me through the always-beautiful gardens of the Ashridge Business School towards the Golden Valley. I go sharply down and steeply up again, turning right into a segment of wooded hill. I am guided by something on the periphery of my consciousness. I find that I have turned after the fact. I am mindful of the birds, the deer, the insects and the conversation between creaking trees. And I think “I love these spaces and feel at home here. It reminds me of a time growing up on a farm and respecting the nature around us”. Suddenly I become aware of working hard to get up a hill and through some tall, thick grass. The lushness and abundance of the grass strikes a chord somewhere in my mind. I feel myself being pulled somewhere into my mind.
I almost collide with the cow standing in front of me. So sudden is her appearance that I am startled for a second. Instinctively I reach out and touch her head – she likes it and comes closer. Tug, tug, tug – something in my mind is tugging at my attention. I am in the middle of a herd of cattle. Some are looking at me while others are eating away at the lushness. Tug, tug, tug. My bovine friend walks off, and I continue my run through the pasture. And then it happens…
…I am in the Khomas Hochland (highland) in Namibia on the farm of my wife’s family. The farm Moria. The mountains dominate the skyline while the landscape has very little green. Like sleeping dragons, the mountains show their rocky scales through the very sparse vegetation. I am aware of standing amongst a heard of cattle in the midst of a morning run. Deep in me I am aware that farming with livestock is one of few means to make a living here and it is not sustainable. The cattle and goats eat more than what nature can provide in this semi-dessert landscape. This means that the herds can’t get bigger which means that inflation eats away at the investment. The breathtaking beauty around me is viscous and unforgiving. Here the fit survive and the weak die. Draught, the unforgiving landscape, predators (including poachers), disease, brackish water, and the remoteness of the location all contribute to the unsustainability of farming in this region. The dried out carcasses found here and there tell the story of how each one of these elements make their presence known.
Rooikat (Caracal), Leopard, Jackal etc. roam free and take their share from domestic and wild animals alike. The herd of mountain zebra take their share of grass. The graceful Oryx and Kudu take their share too. And the farmer tries to manage what is left. The alternative to farming is the lucrative wildlife hunting industry. On balance, the occasional hunt is carried out on this particular farm to provide something for the pot or to get rid of a ‘problematic animal’. Building a hunting lodge on the farm would provide a steady income and the possibility to move away from farming. But commercial hunting is not an option here because neither my family in law, nor I think that it is the ‘responsible’ thing to do.
I notice that I just ran 2 miles on autopilot and I decide to sit on a bench in a clearing in order to continue my reverie without the risk of injuring myself.
The sunset over a small piece of Moria
And so, during a discussion with my father in law – while looking at the sunset – about the sustainability of farming, I remembered my time at Schumacher College in the UK (https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk). We visited the college as part of a workshop on ecological perspectives while participating on the Ashridge Masters in Organisational Change. My time at the college really touched me deeply and I wrote in my journal that “I really want to be part of something like this”. You have to visit the college to understand what I meant.
During our conversation I mused what it would take to start an eco venture to experiment with sustainable living in this beautiful yet desolate landscape. The objective would be to move away from farming with livestock and yet be able to provide 1) a sustainable source of food, 2) an income, and 3) a positive contribution to the ecology. And just like that we agreed that my wife and I would buy the rights to develop an initial 10 hectares (24.7 acres) as an experiment to search for sustainable solutions and to run ecology-centred educational courses. And that is exactly what we did! The land is set aside and waiting for us to decide how best to develop it. As the concept takes form, additional land can be purchased by the Moria Eco Venture (the name of the 10 hectare site and home to this wonderful adventure) until large areas of the farm can be used as a conservancy and ecological laboratory. How awesome would it be if we can find a way to sustain existence in this territory while contributing to the healing and eventual flourishing of the environment? Imagine what it would mean for people all over the world living in equally hostile places.
Being drawn back to my position on the bench in the green UK by a slight drizzle, I now wonder how we can make a concept become a reality. I get up, and continue the run with a deep sense of knowing that we will find a way.
If you are interested to talk more about the concept of the Moria Eco Venture or want to find out more about what else I do, please get in touch at email@example.com.