Reuters -- From the air, sections of South Africa's sugar country resemble a vast green carpet that has been gently rolled across the landscape.
But environmentalists say this bucolic scene is deceptive and masks an ugly truth: Much of the sugar industry has laid waste to fragile ecosystems, its tentacles reaching deep into valleys and destroying vital wetlands.
"You can see from here how the sugar can just blanket everything, choking other things out," shouts Vaughan Koopman, a wetland ecologist, as a four-seater Cessna banks over sugar fields in the KwaZulu-Natal province, the heart of the sugar belt.
Environmentalists say the industry is a thirsty one that not only sucks up a lot of water but also spews dirty water back through erosion, fouling river systems and damaging habitats.
Conservation group WWF International says that in South Africa, 68 to 114 gallons of water are used to produce just
one pound of sugar.
It is hoping to change this through its Sustainable Sugar Initiative, aimed at encouraging both commercial and peasant farmers to adopt more ecologically friendly methods of working.
A number of sugar farmers in South Africa -- the world's 11th largest producer if the
European Union is viewed as one -- are starting to clean up their act and hoping to market their sugar as a "green product."
Colin Hohls is at the cutting edge of "green sugar."
When he bought his farm in the Eshowe district, north along the coast from Durban, he found it was heavily degraded with much of the soil stripped from the hills.
"I had to go to the lower parts of the farm and drag up tons of soil that had been eroded and washed away," he said.
The previous owners had removed all of the natural vegetation from a river system running through his property but he is allowing native trees to reclaim it.
Hohls also plowed up "contour banks" -- raised ridges of soil across his fields -- which channel the water down natural courses as well as grassed channels he built himself.
"If you don't do this the water will take the shortest route through your field and take the soil out," he said.
The changes are costly and the work hard -- at a time when margins are narrow -- but Hohls said they make the farm more efficient.
"You are less wasteful with your water and you don't lose your soil," he said.
It's not just good for farmers. The benefits of ecologically friendly farming can be glimpsed in the Dlinza forest, one of the last fragments of coastal scarp forest left in South Africa.
Coastal scarp is a particularly rare forest type that grows on plateaus near the sea. Moisture rolls in from the coast and up escarpments, making the forest rich in plant and animal life.
Good rainfalls and soil also explain why so much has been cleared for agriculture and commercial timber plantations.
A walk along the aerial boardwalk suspended above the forest floor at Dlinza takes you briefly back to an era before the region was transformed by modern agriculture and urbanization.
Trumpeter hornbills, striking birds with massive beaks, sit atop ancient hardwoods like sentinels of the forest.
From a lookout in the canopy one can see purple-crested loeries glide through the trees, their scarlet wings a vivid contrast with the surrounding foliage of dark green.
In the distance, one can see the sugar fields that have radically altered the local landscape.
Erosion from farming practices and deforestation is a huge problem across Africa, with much of the continent's scarce top soil muddying rivers and flowing out to sea.
The effects can be seen throughout rural KwaZulu-Natal, where sugar cane is often grown on steep hills which are being stripped bare of their soil because water runs rapidly off.
Commercial forest plantations -- many farmers have diversified into both sugar and timber -- compound many of these problems as they are often planted straight into wetlands.
KwaZulu-Natal farmer Lotar Schulz points to an emerging wetland in a valley on his property.
"This was all commercial eucalyptus trees and there had been serious erosion from the previous farmer. There was a gully so deep here you could fit two buses in it," he said.
He pulled the trees out, filled in the gully, and laid down grass, allowing the wetland and native plants to recover.
The association he belongs to -- Noodsberg Canegrowers -- is encouraging green practices among its members. Such methods could prevent tough regulations from being slapped on the industry because of its water use.
The growers would also like to market their sugar as a "green" product but that is not easy.
"The biggest problem is traceability," said Schulz.
Sugar could wind up on the counter in a bag or it could be used in the manufacture of soft drinks or chocolate.
Plans being mooted include certifying that a certain percentage of a shipment or the raw product being refined at a mill come from growers using "green methods."
Back in Eshowe, Hohls says such an approach is the only way to maintain the land and the farming way of life.
"Farming is a privilege. You mustn't abuse it. I want to preserve this farm for future generations," he said.
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