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I was recently contacted by a German TV crew to film a water-related environmental issue in South Africa. I suggested a story on WWF’s efforts to eradicate alien plants. I had to explain that if we don’t weed out pesky herbs rather how exciting it is to watch a chainsaw-wielding crew, together with massive tree chippers, decimate a 10 metre tree in 30 seconds.
It reminded me that there are environmental issues the world over, but we all understand and tackle them with locally relevant solutions. As South Africans, we have a big alien issue – and we are still evolving our very own ways to deal with it.
How the aliens invaded
It started over a century ago, when some enterprising colonial ancestors shipped a multitude of tree and shrub species to South Africa. They wanted fast growing timber, fodder, shade, tanning material and pretty things for their gardens. As well-meaning as this might have been back then, they were seeding an epic environmental headache for future generations.
Where the aliens invaded
Today, alien plants extend over 8% of South Africa’s landscape. They push out natural vegetation, degrade soil and pose fire risks. But above that – they are like straws in the landscape, sucking our water much faster than local plants ever would. If we could rid ourselves of them, we would have 4% more freshwater to use.
Having 4% more water sure seems like a good idea, especially in the Western Cape which is full of alien plants such as wattle, hakea, eucalypts and pines.
On weekend drives my poor husband despairs at my relentless alien tree spotting. It turns his leisurely landscape admiring into an uncomfortable reminder of reality: more alien trees = less water = water restrictions = buckets.
Addressing unruly aliens
The South African government started to address alien vegetation as early as 1995, when a national programme called “Working for Water” generated local employment by chopping alien trees. This remains the largest publically-funded programme in our country – creating over 180 000 jobs. Sadly, this is still not enough to stop the onslaught. With every chop and roar of a chainsaw, a small army of seedlings continues to invade our landscapes, covering it like hair on a dog’s back.
The government programme has since become more strategic and retreated to the river trenches, felling water-thirsty aliens nearest to our precious surface water.
But other allies are needed. Landowners have been called upon by law to keep their land clear of alien vegetation. Alas, it requires only one non-cleared farm amid a sea of cleared ones to provide seeds to start the invasion all over again.
A homegrown solution
From interactions with Breede catchment farmers in the Western Cape, my WWF colleagues and I learnt that success requires three things. Firstly, everyone has to be on board. That includes the average fruit or wine farmer, the grumpy and broke Oom Jan from four doors down, and the ex-urbanite hippy up the road who loves all trees.
Secondly, it needs big money – for multiple years – more than farmers can give themselves. Funds can come from government, or they could potentially come from the private sector. Whichever way, big funds come with strings and administration.
A solution to this is to employ a full-time person to co-ordinate clearing of a critical catchment area.
This person needs to have great social skills to get everyone on board from fruit farmers to grumpy Ooms, lofty hippies to reluctant government officials. The person then needs to apply for big outside funding and negotiate farmer contributions, and these funds need to be administered. Plus, this person must strategically place and co-ordinate the chain-saw wielding teams.
Lastly, there is an opportunity for a third ally – the private sector – a sector that thrives in urban areas, but directly depends on healthy landscapes and functioning agricultural areas for their business.
A small contribution with big impact
Funding the salary of a coordinator position in a critical clearing area is a way for the private sector to ensure that they do their part in keeping the doors of business open. It is a relatively small monetary contribution that helps to put the pieces of this puzzle into place. We are seeing evidence that this recipe works, and that it is replicable.
Triple success with the tri-ally model
Two years ago a co-ordinator post was created in Wolseley, funded by Woolworths and housed by the Wolseley Water User Association. It took only a few months before the neighbourhood and co-ordinating government departments lauded this “Ryno” model, named after the co-ordinator. The model has since been replicated in Riviersonderend and George, funded by Nedbank and SAB respectively.
We would love to see more of the Ryno model pop up in the landscape. It brings three allies together around a common goal: fighting the water-thirsty aliens to ensure the health of our South African water source areas which is where our water really comes from.