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South Africa’s wine industry: a horror story


FILED IN: Endangered Species and Habitats · Issue 12

Our wine industry is responsible not only for the dreadful consequences of the ‘dop system’ but also for the massacre of a wide variety of animals, insects and reptiles which are killed, mashed up and their blood spilled into the wine.

Since the late nineties mechanical harvesters have been introduced to replace the traditional method of hand picking grapes. In South Africa these machines were initially imported as a strike-breaking tool and since their implementation hundreds of thousands of previously disadvantaged workers have lost their employment and housing.

The South African Wine Industry is responsible for the dreadful consequences of the ‘dop system’. The industry does not presently carry any responsibility towards addressing the problems created by this system. These problems include the Grape-pickers of the Western Cape having the highest rate of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world.

This social devastation is not the only consequence of using these machines though, as through the process of harvesting a wide variety of animals, insects and reptiles are killed, mashed up and their blood spilled into the wine.

One species that is frequently included in the South African wine harvest is the Cape Dwarf Chameleon. This Chameleon is a C.I.T.E.S protected species. South African law states that it is Illegal to produce a product with a part of a protected species. Thus those South African wines that use mechanical harvesting are not only unethical but illegal.

Social Perspective
South Africa is one of the largest global producers of wine with a total of 100 000 hectares of land being used for grape cultivation. The Wine Industry was initially created using slave labour and the same exploitative cruelty was used to force people into work during the system of apartheid. Since the miracle transition of power in 1994 the Grape-pickers of the Western Cape have been driven into further poverty.

At the time when mechanical harvesters were first imported into South Africa a female grape picker would earn as little as R95 per week of work. Each one of these machines only requires one driver and thus deprives 200 people of their jobs. Not only have these people lost the meager means to live, many have been evicted from the farms their families have been living on for centuries and forced into squatter camps.

In May of 1999 the Environmental Evaluation Unit (EEU) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) conducted research concerning the South African Wine Industry. This report sates that: Hand harvesting has the positive result of providing employment. The employment created through using hand harvesting is significant in the local economy.

During the last few centuries the extensively used ‘dop system’ meant that many of these workers were paid with wine. Although this practice is now illegal the reality is that many Wine Estates still provide workers with cheap flagons of wine on premise. This has led to the Grape-pickers of the Western Cape having the highest rate of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world. Combined with this disease are the problems of insufficient sate provided education opportunities, a high rate of unemployment, homelessness and associated social disruption.

The hard labour of these people has built the South African Wine Industry into the successful industry that it is today. Yet despite their contribution towards one of South Africa’s most commercially productive industries these oppressed people have only been further oppressed during the New South Africa.

The South African Wine Industry is responsible for the ‘dop system’ and yet has failed to address the problems created by this system. There is an urgent need for a long-term rehabilitation program that includes providing clinics, schools, housing and alcohol rehabilitation programs amongst the Grape-pickers of the Western Cape.

Environmental Perspective
This temperate environment in which grapes grow means that a large number of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects naturally occur in regions that are used for grape growing. A wide diversity of species lives in the grape vines growing in the Western cape. Through the process of destalking an indefinite number of skinks, snakes, mice, kittens, locusts, birds eggs, caterpillars, spiders and chameleons are killed. Some of them are torn into pieces and blood and debris mix with the grape juice.

These species are symbiotic role players in the vine canopy and provide an organic means of controlling infestations occurring on the vine. Considering the large-scale grape farming that happens across the world it is vitally important to protect the organisms that find a home on the vines.

The Law
One of the species of chameleon that is often included in the harvest is the Cape Dwarf Chameleon. This chameleon is a C.I.T.E.S. appendix II protected species. According to Ordinance 19 of 1974, 44.1C of South African law it is illegal to produce a product with a part of a protected species without the necessary permit. To date no such permits have been granted by the Department of Cape Nature Conservation for the sale of any product produced with Cape Dwarf Chameleons. As a result a large quantity of the wine produced in South Africa is illegal.

The Machines
The Environmental Evaluation Unit (EEU) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) reports that: “Hand harvesting is more environmentally sound method of harvesting that mechanical harvesting. Mechanical harvesters use vibration to shake the grapes from their stalks. This action dislodges insects and reptiles, which are then included in the harvest. Of particular concern is the killing of indeterminate numbers of Cape Dwarf Chameleons by mechanical harvesting.”

The Mechanical Grape Harvester is a tractor like machine that operates by straddling the vine and beating the grapes off the vine withe metal rods. These machines use a vacuum to suck bunches of grapes into large containers. These containers can then be removed from the machine and replaced with empty ones. This process is far faster than hand harvesting and employs far less people.

Once the containers are full they are transported to a factory where they pass through a metal destalking screw, this separates the grape bunches into individual grapes and the stalks. This screw also separates large foreign material from the grapes. It is during this process that the majority of the wildlife living on the vine is killed although some will already have been killed during harvesting.

As a Wine Consumer
By insisting that the wine you drink has been harvested by hand you protect yourself as well as helping to conserve our fragile ecology for future generations. If you are drinking handpicked South African wine you can also help improve the appalling conditions and poverty which the Grape-pickers of the Western Cape currently endure.

Ultimately we would like to see that all wine blended or produced with mechanically harvested grapes be withdrawn from the market.


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