For the past 26 years, Willie Engel has worked to restore landscapes across the Overberg – irrespective of whether the land belongs to other farmers, or whether it’s his own farm.
As a contractor, he creates employment for a team of seven people – mostly women. Many of his team members were unemployed before joining Willie, coming from Overberg farms where their husbands work as farmworkers. His team has also become the ORCT’s go-to for restoration work on renosterveld conservation easement sites.
Willie says, “Most of my team members come from Napier and from farms close to town. Some have been with me over the course of 23 years. They stay because we treat our team well.”
Learning new skills
The 53-year-old small business owner says that working with the ORCT has taught him a lot. “We get to see different places. I enjoy it very much. And we do a variety of work. So while Grant (Forbes, ORCT Conservation Manager) has taught me a lot, I’ve also been able to teach him some things too along the way.”
In fact, Willie’s role stretches beyond the traditional invasive alien clearing. While his team cleared 595 hectares of invasive plants on ORCT easement sites in the past year alone, they’ve also undertaken erosion control in more degraded habitat. This includes experimental work such fixing erosion sausages in degraded watercourses, and sowing a pioneer seedling mix, covered by biodegradable soil blankets.
Most of Willie’s skills were learnt in the veld. “I left school when I was 13 years old. So I learnt early to make gardens and to support my family.” His father passed away in 1999, and his mom very recently, in 2022. “My mom was always active – she picked flowers and enjoyed the outdoors.”
“Standing on my own feet”
He says his parents were also his role models. “They taught me to be independent and to do things on my own and stand on my own feet.” Today he employs these philosophies in his day-to-day work. “It’s a tough job, and I push my team to work hard. But it’s worthwhile, because if they work hard, then they are awarded a bonus.”
Willie has also adopted this attitude when work is scarce. While he has worked for the Overstrand Municipality and in the Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative Alien Clearing Programme over the course of his career, there have also been quiet times. “When there’s no income, then I weave baskets. These are used in the fishing industry to carry bait. I learnt this trade from my parents. Today I think I’m the only person who still knows how to make these baskets.”
While there are still some periods where employment is scarce, working with the ORCT has introduced him to new landowners, who now make use of his skills independently. Willie says of his current work situation, “We’re very grateful to WWF South Africa, who has made the funding available for our restoration work on renosterveld easement sites, to help my team earn an income. Now we’re ready to take on even more work.”
A sixth-generation farmer
For Willie, it’s not only his job that revolves around his love of nature. He lives on his own farm outside Napier, where he gets to enjoy the natural world around him. This 256-hectare property has been in his family since 1864, making him the sixth generation to live here. The farm is part of the Blinkwater Conservancy. His farm has also been under a Biodiversity Agreement with CapeNature since 2002.
He says, “I love nature, I wouldn’t be able to live in a town. I’m used to the farm and the nature around me. And my team and I see and learn different things when working out in the veld; so we know we’re doing good for nature.”