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Partnering to support healthy riverbanks and livelihoods in Ceres

Mention the name “Ceres”, and most people will immediately think about fruit or fruit juice. That’s because the Ceres area in the Western Cape’s farmlands is one of the major producers of deciduous fruits in South Africa. But this region is also infested with water-consuming invasive alien plants.

Ryno Pienaar has been involved in the clearing of alien vegetation in this part of the province for nearly seven years. He works for the Wolseley Water Users Association, and his job has been supported by Woolworths through WWF since 2017. He tells me about his most recent Hilton Hotels-funded clearing and restoration project along the Dwars River just outside Ceres. Within a year they have completed the clearing of woody invasives from a 25 hectare stretch of river-flanked land – and they have restored the riverbank area with indigenous trees.

Ceres farm aliens
© Ryno Pienaar
Pictured: The invasive poplar trees that infested the riverbanks of Dwars River before they were removed.

In 2020 I had met Ryno in person, and witnessed his team in action, slaying other alien trees in Wolseley, near to the mighty Breede River which is a major supplier of water in this farming region. Although I could not visit the Dwars River project near Ceres this year, Ryno paints a great picture as he told me all about it. I feel as if I was there to meet the team on the ground! The clearing and restoration work, which was funded by Hilton Hotels through WWF, took place on a pear and apple farm called Klein Pruise Farm and also known as Crispy Farm.

The Dwars River, which is one of the tributaries of the Breede River runs through this farm.  It was wonderful that the owners of the farm welcomed the idea of alien clearing and long-term restoration of indigenous trees along the river with open arms. It was a great opportunity for the farmers to become the new stewards, maintaining the rehabilitated area, irrigating saplings in the early stages and keeping it clear from resprouting aliens.

Removing problematic woody trees

“Both sides of the river were wall to wall with alien trees such as the black wattle, red river gum, poplar and Port Jackson willow among others, before the clearing work began,” shares Ryno. “This prevented the indigenous plants from getting enough light and growing,” he adds.

From hearing this, I imagine young and old, short and tall trees as they grow freely, grabbing all the sunlight for themselves, gobbling the water from the river and taking over the space of the local plants.

He told me how many of the majestic indigenous trees that first populated the forested banks of the Dwars River have since disappeared due to the infestation of opportunistic alien trees. These include the Breede River yellow wood, wild olive and wild almond. Ryno confirms my thoughts of alien plants crowding out the slow growth of the smaller indigenous ones. The story sounds worrying, especially in a water-scarce country like ours where local plants are climate-adapted and hence use less water. Even more worrying is that this rampant spread of alien vegetation is happening in a region of significant water-producing landscape – the Groot Winterhoek Water Source Area, which is the origin of the Breede River. The Breede River flows past Worcester and Robertson and through key agricultural areas of the Western Cape. Strategically removing water-thirsty alien plants upstream, will allow more water to reach lower catchment areas.

The comforting part of Ryno’s story, however, is that these problematic trees are being removed through a coordinated landscape approach and indigenous ones are being planted in their place. The Dwars River project is a wonderful example of this.

Ceres farm
© Ryno Pienaar
Pictured: Grey poplar trees after they were cut down. The trees will be chipped and used as mulch amongst the orchards to reduce irrigation needs.

Working together for the goodness of nature and people

Ryno speaks very passionately and proudly of the Dwars River project.  One of the things that he is grateful for is the successful collaboration and the continuous support from the owners of Crispy Farm throughout the project. Ryno also shared how he loves his job and the various projects that he coordinates in the wider Ceres area because it provides the opportunity to create employment for local community members, many of whom are unemployed.

Crispy farm blog
© Ryno Pienaar
The rehabilitation site along the Dwars River, with young yellowwood trees that were planted after the clearing of alien trees.

He tells me how Crispy farm owners were hands-on in the project, providing support all the way. They made a financial contribution to the work, provided drip irrigation for the rehabilitation site, and they were Ryno’s eyes on the ground when he was not around.

The farmer, Jacques Visser, told Ryno the project helped their cause as they can show their commitment to improving the natural environment where people are employed. The investment also helps their corporate image in the market.

In the video below, one of  Crispy Farm’s staff members shows the beauty of the place after the clearing and planting of indigenous trees:

Creating livelihood opportunities

As I am listening attentively to this wonderful story, Ryno also tells me about Peter Rooi whose humbling beginnings remind me how projects that are meant to improve the well-being of nature can also benefit people. For Peter, as Ryno shares, this focused clearing project was an opportunity to create jobs for his community. Peter had been working as a seasonal fruit picker in the Ceres area for most of his life, and had never imagined himself having a business. Since he got training through a LandCare programme to become an alien clearing contractor a few years back, he was able to start a business and he had been getting opportunities like the Dwars River Hilton-funded project to carry out alien clearing work and provide work for others. For this project, Ryno tells me, Peter was able to employ 25 local people whose job was to remove the alien trees as well as planting indigenous ones in their place. This provided a year’s income for himself and his team.

“Many of the people I employed told me they would not have been able to find employment elsewhere because of their past bad choices and that I was their only hope. I helped them to become reliable hard workers who can put food on the table and look forward to their future”, he told Ryno.

Crispy farm
© Ryno Pienaar
Pictured: One of the 25 contractors removing alien trees along the Dwars River.

Cultivating plants for nature and livelihoods

While I am still touched by Peter’s story, Ryno tells me another positive outcome. He shared how three staff members of nearby Kluitjieskraal nursery, in Wolseley, also got the opportunity to be part of the project. Their work was to grow the trees for rehabilitation of the cleared area, which in turn helps them to put food on the table for their families.

“All the nursery staff had lost their jobs because the nursery had scaled down dramatically and we kept the three people employed to cultivate the plants specifically for the Hilton project rehabilitation site”, adds Ryno.

At my last visit, I remember meeting the nursery team leader Jeanet Filander. She was very passionate and dedicated. Ryno tells me she’s so passionate about her work that she even talks to the plants! I was so happy to learn that she was one of three who were able to benefit from this recent project. She and her team carried out the tasks of harvesting the seeds, making cuttings, and looking after the plants that they were growing. Over a year, they established approximately 1 800 cuttings of various indigenous trees.

Nursery
© Dimpho Lephaila/ WWF South Africa
Jeanet Filander, the team leader at Kluitjieskraal nursery in Wolseley, with young yellowwood trees for the Dwars River rehabilitation site.

Although a lot of work still needs to be done in getting rid of alien vegetation in the wider Ceres area, hearing about projects like this brings great hope. Plus, knowing that Ryno is placed in the Breede River landscape to continue – and coordinate – this much-needed clearing work to enable the water flow in this region. From Ryno’s story of Crispy Farm, two things stood out for me – the power of collaboration across funders, farmers, coordinators, and community members and second, the immense environmental and social benefits from well-coordinated clearing and restoration work. And this of course goes hand in hand with WWF’s bigger goal of securing a water-safe future for people and nature.

Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila , Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and possibly change their behaviour.

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