Wednesday 10 April 2019

Billion Trees

Vast tracts of the Eastern and Western Cape were forested in colonial times and were clear cut for construction, ship building and furniture.

My own house has ridiculously wide yellowwood floorboards (dating to the 1840s). You could never get this sort of timber today – all the big trees are gone.

Much talk of land is about ownership but not about use. The Eastern Cape particularly is very dry – though we have occasional wet periods creating an illusion of plenty. That limits viable forms of agriculture, hence the proliferation of game farms. But game farms are not big employers nor necessarily environmentally sound as there is temptation to bring in animals not suited to the habitat but that tourists will pay to see.

A forest – the end product
What about a massive reforestation campaign? For example: planting a billion trees. This would be a massive job creator, it could be funded in part by foreign donor nations wanting to cur their carbon footprint, if could transform the landscape and local climate and create a long-term sustainable source of income.

There is a lot of variability in the standards for trees per hectare; to calculate a ballpark figure, let us work with 1000 trees per hectare. A billion trees would require a million hectares. The Eastern Cape land area is 169,580km2, or about 17-million hectares. A million hectares is less than 6% of the province’s land area. If insufficient land were available in one province, it could be spread to others – the point is that a million hectares is not that much on a national scale.

Reforesting is not a trivial exercise – you need pioneer species that can grow without the forest that gradually diminish as the canopy increases. You also need trees that suit the local environment and a diversity of vegetation that builds a healthy biome.

Putting forest back where it was removed would promote biodiversity and could also enhance rainfall as dry ground tends to absorb water fast without releasing it to the atmosphere. I went to a private conservancy north of Brisbane a few years back. It was a lush subtropical rain forest with streams and diverse plants and wildlife. The neglected land next door, overgrown with invaders, was dry and dusty.

For long-term sustainability I advocate a mix of old-growth trees that should not be harvested because they sequester carbon and faster-growing trees that can be harvested and replaced on a regular cycle. The new forests will attract wild life and provide economic opportunity in the form of ecotourism.

The final question: on whose land? That is a wholly separate issue. This concept can work on private land, government land or under traditional ownership. The only thing that changes is who benefits from any financial gain.

Tuesday 9 April 2019


About 900km to Cape Town and to Johannesburg

I went to school in a small town called Port Shepstone. That was a few decades back and some things were very different. We had no Internet or (until my last year of high school) TV.

Some things were a lot worse back then – it was the days of deep apartheid for example. So this is not all nostalgia – but we did have some things right in that era.

We had a carbonated drink factory and a local dairy. The local dairy did home deliveries in quite a wide area including the neighbouring village of Umtentweni, where I lived for a while.

Home delivery of milk is thankfully a thing of the past as it could only happen at an affordable price with exploitative wages.

Returnable not Recyclable
But the positive side of local bottling is that bottles were returnable. Even bigger brands like Coke and Castle (beer, for the ignorant) were bottled less than 150km away so returning bottles was practical.

Today, I live in a small town 130km from the nearest big city (Grahamstown, in the process of being renamed to Makhanda but Google Maps does not display the new name). Yet returning bottles is not feasible for most drinks because bottling happens so far away. When I examine labels, most are from Johannesburg and Cape Town, each about 900km away. That’s not counting imports.

Why not locally or on Port Elizabeth, not much further from here than Durban is from Port Shepstone? The low cost of oil has made it cheaper to move goods long distances from factory to consumer, but that “low” cost does not include the environmental harm done by burning fossil fuels. Nor does it count the cost of landfill.

Deposits on Containers
So what’s to be done?

Introducing mandatory deposits on bottles would cause a shake up of the industry.

It would force big manufacturers to decentralize. This would save a lot on fuel costs and increase employment – though costs may also rise. However, soft drinks and alcohol are not essentials. A small price increase to reduce environmental harm especially with more local jobs as a secondary effect would be worth it.

What are the environmental costs?

The obvious one is reducing waste in landfill. Returnable bottles, even if not taken back by the person consuming the drink, are a much more valuable commodity for trash pickers than recycling (the rate at time of writing for recyclable glass bottles is in the region of 20–30c per kg). That means fewer will land up in landfill. And recycling is not super-efficient either – a lot of energy is required.

A local product with reused bottles –
though in this case without a deposit
or cash value.
Deposits on containers will take time to enact – it is not on the agenda of any major political organization so it will require community pressure nationwide.

In the meantime something we can all do is reduce our dependence on unnecessary long-distance sourcing of discretionary purchases. Over here in Makhanda, we have a good local microbrewer, Featherstone. Unless you really don’t like their brew, it is the one to get because they take the bottles back and it’s local. It is significantly more expensive than the mass-market brands but so what? Drinking beer is good up to a point but drinking less will not do you harm.

That is one example – look for others. Read labels. Look for local products and support them. If they are not up to scratch, offer constructive feedback.

There is another advantage to relocalizing: it makes for a more resilient community, one that is less dependent on outside resources.

Billion Trees

Vast tracts of the Eastern and Western Cape were forested in colonial times and were clear cut for construction, ship building and furniture...