As I walk down the dusty pathway through the ‘Khoinania’ forest, I cannot help but hear the sound of bees buzzing around. The further I walk, the more alive this forest is starting to feel. It is almost as if the bees show me the way to Ola Lawrence’s magical cabin in the woods. As part of my communications internship at Greenpop, which brought me all the way from Austria, I get to meet many unique people. Ola is definitely one of them. Rarely have I ever sat across from a person so deeply down to earth, passionate and connected to nature before. After attending her natural beekeeping workshop at the Eden Festival of Action, I was even more intrigued to learn from this ‘Khoinania’ custodian and share her story with the world.
Ola shows me to her cabin located in between Khoinania’s forest restoration sites. Besides being the custodian of this land and managing its environmental projects, Ola (whose nickname given to her by her family, is Ola Bee) is a passionate natural beekeeper. Her house is surrounded by what looks like thirty beehives that are buzzing around the grounds. While feeling the evening sun on our faces, she tells me the story of this land, which once belonged to the Khoisan people.
Ola shows workshop participants honey mead, and shares fascinating facts from her broad knowledge of bees. Photographer: Kara Berkow
A magical piece of land
Ola and her family named their land, which is surrounded by the Tsitsikamma National Park, the ‘Khoinania’ Forest. The name honors the Khoisan people who would have once inhabited this area, and references C.S. Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’. Ola tells me: “My mom describes the word ‘Khoinania’ as a place where magical things happen.” What is now a farm and lodge, the area the grounds sits on were once dense natural forests, forming a part of the Tsitsikamma Forest, had it not been cleared for farming purposes and damaged by wildfires in the past century.
“My mom found this piece of land when she was 28 and she just had this absolute and immediate conviction that she needed to be the protector and custodian of this site”, Ola says. Jenny Lawrence started building an intentional community based around the principles of working with nature instead of against it. Over fifteen years ago, the Wild Spirit Lodge was established to attract friends of the outdoors and create additional income to finance environmental restoration projects. “We really love to share our space with people!”, Ola adds.
The family business even grows its own food: “We have a permaculture style vegetable garden, but we are very challenged by the baboons in this area!” For Ola, who has lived in major cities like London and Cape Town, this community-based lifestyle is, despite its challenges and compromises, the most fulfilling. “It’s exciting and stimulating and it can also drive you completely crazy”, she describes, bursting out in laughter.
Healing forests means healing soil
“I have always been passionately in love with plants of all kinds and how they decide to grow depending on the environment they are in, and what happens when humans come in and make decisions for nature”, the custodian of the site describes with passion in her eyes. When it comes to reforestation, she emphasizes, soil health plays a fundamental part.
“Reforestation is a big part of creating and maintaining healthy soil, especially in this area where we often have big areas of land that completely burn down. The first thing that comes up when you have very degraded land and soil from fires is the pioneers, the wattles!”.
“Wildfires are a sign of a compromised landscape”
Wattles, an alien invasive tree species, are not indigenous to South Africa and require a lot of water compared to locally indigenous plants, which causes a downward spiral of droughts and wildfires. The Fynbos biome naturally needs to burn every seven years or so, in order to reproduce. However, in combination with wattles, this can be a hazard and allow fires to spread easier . The Knysna wildfire in 2017 destroyed 16,000 hectares of land, plants, and property. By clearing wattles, encouraging healthy soil and building green belts, runaway fires and the resulting damage can be mitigated.
When asked about her vision for the next few years, Ola refers to her dream of restoring the health of the landscape, turning Khoinania into what it could have been without human interference. She hopes this will bring with it the return of wildlife back into the area as well. Seeing birds, insects and other species coming back to a piece of land when you add more diverse indigenous trees, allows for the natural biodiversity of the area to flourish. Ola even shares a quick way to measure soil health: “When people ask me about my idea about a healthy piece of land, I always say that if you can pour a cup of water onto the soil and it immediately gets absorbed, then you know that you have got a healthy soil”, and she continues, “I suppose my vision actually is to heal the soil!”
“What’s so beautiful about an indigenous tree especially, is that you know it is going to outlive you by hundreds of years and it gives such perspective on how small and insignificant we are. It really humbles me to know that I plant something that outlives me and brings pleasure to future generations.”
Eager participants plant indigenous trees at the Eden Festival of Action. Photographer: Juliette Bisset
Restoration means marrying passion and science
Ola’s partnership with Greenpop started years back when she incidentally met the team at Wild Spirit and was intrigued by their projects. Greenpop asked her to join the Festival of Action in Zambia as a chef, but Ola wanted to join as a participant, and plant trees instead. She has been part of the Greenpop family ever since. The Khoinania Forest Restoration project was officially added as a Greenpop Forests for Life programme in 2019. We provide assistance to the project in various areas, from fundraising to monitoring and evaluation.
“Planting the trees is only a small part of the job. Obviously, there is ongoing monitoring and many other tasks. Through monitoring, we can give specific trees more attention, but it is also interesting to see how different sites react to what and when you plant. Reforestation is an ongoing experiment!”
Referring to the trees we planted as part of our Eden Festival of Action in the Khoinania Forest on the day the interview took place, she adds: “The one-half of today’s site is going to look completely different to the other half and I love it, it is extremely fascinating.”
One cannot forget that alien clearing and creating a new indigenous forest is a labour-of-love and financially-intensive task.
“It is amazing that Greenpop provides a budget to clear the land and shape it. This work is costly and hard work, alien clearing is not something you casually do on a Sunday afternoon. Also, the wattles must be processed responsibly. In our case, it goes to firewood, but we also make wood chips which go back into the soil. During the Eden Festival, they bring the human power. I would never be able to do what I do at this scale without their support.”
3,720 indigenous trees and many more to come
In many ways the collaboration with Greenpop has been a very enriching one for Ola:
“There are very few people who do restoration on such a large scale in South Africa. In fact, I think Greenpop may be the only organization and that means that in terms of research and data collection they are at the forefront. It feels like marrying science and passion – what a beautiful project!”
For instance, the decision to create swales and to replant an original plant site was sparked by Greenpop’s Forests For Life team. Every few months, Ola provides feedback and Greenpoop’s Forest For Life team gives advice and assists where needed.
“Another great thing about Greenpop is that they really hold you accountable. They don’t just plant trees and walk away. The landowner must make sure that the trees survive. If something isn’t working you feedback to them and they say: Okay, let’s think of a creative solution.”
Ola also values celebrating wins and progress together. Speaking of successes, so far Ola and Greenpop’s Forests For Life team have planted 3,720 locally indigenous trees at ‘Khoinania’. In fact, the first site which was planted in 2019, is already starting to look like a thriving forest ecosystem. When Ola showed me the trees, I couldn’t believe that they were taller than us already.
“What I saw the other day is that a whole bunch of ecosystems have started developing under the trees. A lot of moss and ground cover, which is a really good sign. My greatest success is seeing the degraded soil in that area being covered by green and flourishing again”
With healthy soil and forests come a lot of insects and birds. Slowly but surely all plants and creatures that were supposed to live on these magical grounds start coming back. Legacy is being restored.
Find out more about our Forests For Life programme and learn all about how you can get involved here: greenpop.org/forests-for-life/
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Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.