An innovative project to replant one of the world’s most efficient carbon dioxide busters in the poverty stricken Klein Karoo is set to tackle environmental and socio-economic setbacks in an extraordinary way.

WORDS Tisha Steyn PHOTOGRAPHS Hans van der Veen

The usually quiet slopes of the hills outside Van Wyksdorp in the Klein Karoo are alive with movement as 60 men and women move about with bundles of spekboom cuttings in their arms. The bare grey stems are individually laid in previously prepared holes before being covered with earth, leaving 30cm of glossy, fat leaves above the surface.

“Something new is happening in Van Wyksdorp,” says team assistant supervisor Rimon Wanie. “The whole community benefits. For the first time in a long time there is work for us, and we are learning new skills too.”

The community is participating in the Jobs for Carbon project, an initiative aimed at rehabilitating spekboomveld to the Klein Karoo while uplifting communities through job creation and support programmes.

Often referred to as a ‘miracle plant’, spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is a succulent with the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a much higher rate than other plants in semi-arid areas. It stores the carbon in the biomass under the tree. In recent years this unique ability alerted environmentalists to the spekboom’s potential for carbon sequestration and the related potential income for impoverished communities where the plant is indigenous.

“Spekboom and associated thicket once dominated large parts of the Klein Karoo, but years of overgrazing by goats and ostriches left the bare earth exposed, undernourished and vulnerable to erosion. Only the most tenacious trees and pioneer plants remained,” says Wendy Crane, project developer and a founding member of the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR), which launched the initiative.

Incorporating the coastal region from the Breede River to the Great Brak River and the entire Klein Karoo, the GCBR aims to ensure the sustainable utilisation of the region’s unique biodiversity through projects that create new socio-economic opportunities for people living within the biosphere reserve.

Wendy’s experience working with development agencies addressing poverty and inequality in Third World countries brings valuable knowledge to the GCBR. “The principle behind the GCBR is to demonstrate that protecting our natural resources and promoting human progress and development, are not mutually exclusive. While Jobs for Carbon is currently providing employment to more than 10% of the town’s tiny population, there is a longer term goal of raising awareness of the benefits of healthy ecosystems, the value of spekboom for ecosystem restoration and the potential economic opportunities associated with restoration. Should this project be successful, we would love to extend it to other suitable sites in the Klein Karoo,” Wendy says.

Dr Steve du Toit, Western Cape head of conservation for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), which administers the project as a partner of the GCBR, is the project manager. “Jobs for Carbon is an excellent example of organisations working together. The partnership between the GCBR and Wessa was instrumental in securing R7.6 million in funding from the European Union and R2.7 million from the national Department of Environmental Affairs to restore the first 300 hectares of spekboomveld. The 32-month project started early in 2014 with the identification and recruitment of suitable project participants – unemployed people interested in working in the environmental sector – and the response was overwhelming.” The workers underwent training in first aid and health and safety, botanical and environmental awareness, and spekboom harvesting and planting.

Van Wyksdorp farmer and project activity coordinator André Britz says the region was once a flourishing agricultural community. “Dairy farming, wheat and vegetables, mohair and even harvesting wild flowers provided a secure income.”

But a series of disasters – including the Laingsburg floods in 1981, followed by severe drought and then torrential rains – devastated already overgrazed land and irreparably stacked the losses. Post-1994 political changes brought about a dramatic change in the agricultural landscape as organised structures collapsed. “Farms went bankrupt and were mostly sold to lifestyle farmers who often live elsewhere. Workers were laid off and settled in town, living off state grants, waiting for a better tomorrow that never arrived,” says André.

The impoverished community jumped at the promise of employment by Jobs for Carbon, training in skills hitherto beyond their reach and the chance to earn a living, at least until August next year.

Assistant supervisor Selona Jacobs says the project has benefits beyond putting food on the table. “Many parents for the first time get the opportunity to improve their homes. It also opened a new door for me, and this experience is something to build on.” Learning about budgets will help her to spend her income from Jobs for Carbon more effectively, and the first aid knowledge can be applied at home. “Mostly I learned to respect myself and others.”

Supervisor Jacques van Staden says this new income allows him to care for his family. “After ten to 20 years I will be able to tell my children, ‘Daddy was involved with this project.’”

Local farmer Liz Englington made 70ha of her farm available for the project. “I understand the amazing properties of spekboom. When I bought the land 19 years ago, the hills were bare. I hope the rehabilitation of land I have set aside will bring back wild animals. I see the spekboom project as an unbelievable gift that will allow my land to be rehabilitated and to once more become fertile and verdant.”

Jan Vlok of Regalis Environmental Services (RES) in Oudtshoorn was appointed to undertake the mapping of potential spekboom sites within the domain. He found that more than 60 percent of about 8 600ha of spekboomveld in the Van Wyksdorp area was severely depleted, with no or very little spekboom remaining. This provided a good restoration opportunity within a 30km radius of the town.

Once these areas were identified, the Rhodes University Restoration Research Group (RRRG) did a detailed assessment of the standing carbon stocks of the remaining spekboomveld. These will serve as base measurements to be compared to future restored veld samples, which will ultimately be used to determine carbon credits.

Mike Powell of the RRRG says: “The research protocols are followed rigorously to ensure the project gets approved when international carbon auditors conduct their assessments.”

Jobs for Carbon has already paid off. “For the next three years Cambridge University will be buying the equivalent of carbon sequestrated by about 12ha of restored spekboom to offset the carbon footprint of delegates travelling to its international conference,” says Wendy. “The revenue we generate from this arrangement will be reinvested in further land restoration in the Klein Karoo.”
Wendy Crane
Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR)
028 735 2174
[email protected]

Dr Steve du Toit
Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa
044 873 5077
[email protected]