22 July 2005
Nobel Peace laureate and ecology activist Wangari Maathai got down on her knees with with Environmental Affairs Deputy Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi to plant an indigenous tree in the forest below Table Mountain in Cape Town on Thursday.
Professor Maathai was visiting the Working for Water programme in Newlands forest on the side of the city’s mountain.
The programme combines poverty alleviation with environmental restoration by employing people to remove alien plants, which drain water from the soil, increase fire risks and outcompete indigenous plants.
Initiated in 1995 by former minister of water affairs Kader Asmal with a start-up grant of R25-million, the programme has become an important part of government’s Expanded Public Works Programme, employing 32 000 people nationwide.
Paddy Gordon of South African National Parks and Guy Preston, chair of the Working for Water, explained the dynamics of the project to Maathai, Mabudafhasi, Kenyan High Commissioner to SA Tabitha Seii and Maathai’s daughter, Wajira Mathai, who is the international liaison officer for Kenya’s Green Belt Movement.
The alien threat
Table Mountain has some 2 300 plant types, more species than in the whole of Britain or New Zealand. But this wealth of biodiversity is threatened by invasive vegetation brought to South Africa in colonial times from places such as Australia.
The fast-growing alien plants take up far more water from the soil, reducing the amount available for indigenous vegetation. Their burning substantially increases the temperature of veld fires, killing the seeds of indigenous plants that would otherwise survive a fire.
A computer simulation showing the invasion of alien vegetation (green shaded areas) into a fire-prone mountain area in the Western Cape. The first picture shows the current situation, while the second and third show the area after three and six fires respectively. Given that fires can be 10 years apart, almost the whole area could be invaded within 50 to 60 years, with serious consequences for water and biodiversity.(Photo: CSIR)
Invasive aliens also increase soil erosion and undermine the productive use of South Africa’s land. Some 7%, or 10.1 million hectares, of the country’s land is currently under the plants, according to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.
Alien plants cost the South African economy billions of rands. They are the greatest threat to the country’s biodiversity.
Creating jobs, creating businesses
An important part of the Working for Water programme is teaching skills in the labour-intensive methods needed to destroy alien vegetation. Unemployed people are not only given work; they also receive training in plants, in ecosystems, and in business skills such as how to tender for a project.
Gordon said the Table Mountain project employs 500 to 800 people. Most of the work is handled by independent contractors, former labourers in the project who picked up business skills and then tendered privately to clear plots of alien-covered land.
The programme therefore not only provides jobs, it also allows people to become independent entrepreneurs.
South Africa is a world leader in this approach to environmental restoration, according to Gordon. This has allowed the project to attract millions of dollars in funding from the World Bank.
In terms of the programme, 60% of Working for Water labourers have to be women. Studies have shown that money is better distributed, for example to children, by women workers than by men.
The labourers are equipped with protective clothing against the elements and the poison used to kill the roots of invasive trees such as silver wattle and hakea.
Working for Water has initiated two more projects based on similar principles. Working for Wetlands restores wetland habitats, while Working on Fire works to prevent and control wildfires.
Mabudafhasi pointed out that several other African countries have been hard hit by the alien invasion. In Benin, invasive water hyacinth have drastically cut down fishing yields, reducing people’s income.
She said Nepad, the African Union’s socio-economic development plan, has a special programme, endorsed by African governments, to deal with invasive vegetation. “But there is still enormous work to be done.”
‘A vision unfolding before your eyes’
Maathai is the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace in Kenya. She said she was impressed with the vision and implementation of environmental projects in South Africa, especially the way they provided young people with knowledge, awareness and skills.
“To see a vision unfolding before your eyes must be satisfying,” she told those assembled at Newlands forest, saying South Africa had a bright future ahead.
She too was inspiring as she eagerly and effortlessly danced and sang with workers, questioned officials and planted indigenous trees.
“Each one of us needs 10 trees just to absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale,” she said. “For many interlinked reasons, just planting a tree can change your life for the better.”
Maathai, an assistant minister in the Kenyan government, said she has worked to teach Kenyan peasants how trees are connected to ecosystems, how they prevent soil erosion, and their role in sustaining people’s environments and, so, their livelihoods.
She said she would be returning to Kenya with greater confidence in a pilot project to remove the invasive eucalyptus that are slowly destroying Kenya’s tea-growing mountain areas.
On debt relief and Africa’s future, she said that G8 leaders were mobilising support for Africa. “We want to ask them to help us by cancelling debt, removing agricultural subsidies and increasing financial aid.”
But, she said, it is “important for Africans to understand that the burden of alleviating poverty in this region is our burden.
“The greatest responsibility falls on us Africans.”