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Australia Buys Back Gum Trees And Improves SA’s Water Saving

  • 6 min read

The first massive eucalyptus trees have been felled in the mid-Breede River area in a bold ‘value-adding chain’ project that will return 7 million litres of water per hectare cleared per year to the river system, and will sell much of the gum tree wood back to Australia where it came from.

The win-win-win project represents a collaboration between the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s (WC DOA) LandCare Areawide Planning initiative, Inhlabathi Environmental Services, the farming community, private enterprise, and local SMMEs, which will benefit from training and development by Avocado Vision to ensure their sustainability and increased job creation. LandCare Areawide Planning is a comprehensive problem-solving process that integrates social, economic and ecological concerns over defined geographical areas to sustain environmental health through a natural resource management approach incorporating locally driven initiatives.

Western Cape Minister of Agriculture, Dr Ivan Meyer, says, “At the heart of our commitment to sustainably manage our biodiversity lie partnerships with organisations such as Inhlabathi, Avocado Vision, the farming community and local SMMEs. Together we must ‘bend the curve’ of biodiversity loss and take steps to mitigate the negative impact of unsustainable farming practices and climate change on our biological diversity.”

He adds that not protecting our ecological infrastructure will lead to the collapse of our natural ecosystem. “Higher pollution incidents and an increase in invasive alien plant (IAP) infestations will decrease the availability and quality of water, creating perfect conditions for soil erosion, land degradation and loss of biodiversity.”

The removal of IAP species has been shown to be the least expensive and most effective means of avoiding another ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town and surrounds. According to Louise Stafford, Director of Water Funds at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), research by TNC in 2019 showed that IAP removal was significantly the most cost-effective intervention, delivering the highest potential water saving.

InterventionCost per 1000 litresof water savedPotential water saving in litres in 6 years
IAP removal in 7 priority sub-catchment areasR1.2055.6 billion
DesalinationR15.3055 billion
Waste water re-useR11.4039.2 billion
Groundwater suppliesR7.0536.5 billion

The mid-Breede project is taking the removal of IAPs along 25km of the Bree River frontage near Bonnievale to a new level of adding value to biomass – and, with a hint of poetic justice – is selling much of the harvested eucalyptus wood to global markets that include Australia and Vietnam.

Rudolph Röscher, LandCare District Manager in the Cape Winelands District, for the WC DOA, says, “In implementing the LandCare Areawide Plan and working together with the farming community, we identified the IAPs along this specific riparian zone as one of the primary causes of the natural resource decline. The farmers agreed that the healthy state of the river through alien clearing and active restoration should be their number one priority.”

The WC DOA invested funds to complete a numeration study to calculate the volume of biomass within the floodplains of the river that pose a risk during flooding. Röscher adds, “We shared the findings with the farmers who shared it with Inhlabathi, which is heading the team that’s harvesting these IAPs. As a result, a potential saving of millions of rand of government funding has taken place due to private investment to harvest the wood, while also delivering benefits of water saving, land restoration, job creation and SMME development.”

David Gardner, Director of Inhlabathi, says the first felling of the IAP trees in December represents an important milestone in the Western Cape’s sustainable water-saving journey. “This is the start of our virtuous cycle-based approach that incorporates 100% clearing of eucalyptus from river areas, ensuring that maximum value is extracted from the felled trees, and that a certified programme of aftercare is implemented to return the river ecosystem to its original state.”

The Inhlabathi model is founded on the intense IAP clearing that has been taking place in the upper Breede Valley area for about 15 years, spearheaded by the WC DOA’s LandCare programme, which has cleared thousands of hectares of invasive vegetation, and more importantly, is keeping the area clear through LandCare’s strong relationships with and commitment from local farmers.

Gardner notes that to ensure sustainability, Inhlabathi is also working with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and CMO to set up a Resource Management Unit that is assessing the IAP species and sizes of the trees; their potential for high-value commercial use, such as decking, furniture, arts and crafts, or for use in charcoal, chip production for soil reinvigoration, and firewood; and full restoration of the cleared land.

Gardner says, “The project started with five farmers whose land is being certified by the FSC and as we access the feedstock and sell it into appropriate local and international markets, we can continue funding the IAP harvesting.” Clearing the IAPs will be total. “In the past, we’ve seen the devastation where invasive trees have been cherry-picked for their value-add potential. We’re making sure that all the IAPs are being cleared, which means developing a wide range of markets for the biomass.”

This also means that a key aspect of the mid-Breede model is small business development and job creation. A major wood harvester has been contracted to clear the big trees, then to clear the smaller IAPs, small businesses are being trained and equipped to do the job efficiently and become suppliers to markets that have been sourced and developed.

Avocado Vision, an Inhlabathi affiliate and parent company of the Green Business Value chain that developed the virtuous cycle concepts being applied here, is implementing a training incubator where small businesses with potential will be trained to run sustainable businesses that go beyond clearing the biomass, but possibly also into charcoal or chip production.

The mid-Breede ‘virtuous cycle’ IAP biomass project ticks several boxes in the Western Cape’s Climate Change Response and Implementation Plan for the agricultural sector, known as the SmartAgri Plan, developed by the provincial departments of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning and the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative, and embraced by the LandCare programme.

The comprehensive SmartAgri Plan calls for the WC government and other relevant stakeholders ‘to lead the way to a climate-resilient agricultural future for the Western Cape’, with a goal to optimise the sustainable use of water and land resources to increase climate-smart agricultural production.

Dr Meyer states that agriculture is an essential contributor to food security in the province and for the entire country. “The agricultural sector in the Western Cape depends on the health of the available natural resources. Any impact on natural resources may affect the sustainability of a viable and vibrant agricultural industry.”

Adds Röscher, “The mid-Breede IAP biomass project addresses SmartAgri’s priorities and has the potential to be a replicable model in the growing biomass economy. This project requires intense and careful management, but every successful step forward will mean more water in our taps, more jobs created sustainably, and smarter agricultural practices.”

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