South African Reforestation: Platbos Indigenous Forest
By Ivy Pepin
Once a year in the Platbos indigenous forest, a group of impassioned people comes together for a unique South African reforestation project. But it’s more than just a project. It’s a festival, a celebration, a mutual pledge for action, and a new way of looking at how we can interact with nature.
The project began when Greenpop founder Misha Teasdale met Francois Krige, now the 12-year owner and custodian of Platbos – where the seed was planted and the concept born. The forest is a unique and unlikely one. Not only does it grow on an exposed sand dune without a sustaining river or spring, it also combines features of the coastal forest (like milkwoods and wild olive species) with Afromontane tree species (like the white stinkwood and hard pear). The forest’s teeming plant life unfurls and meanders around its broad, ancient trees, creating a sense of dreamy magic and a visceral “aliveness” you can feel.
(Re)connect with nature.
Photograph by Mischke Bosse
Over the years, Krige had noticed the risks that alien vegetation posed to the forest. He was committed to working toward reforestation. Along with the Greenpop team, he came up with the idea of a Reforestation Festival. It was the best way to gather the brain power, motivation, and hundreds of hands needed to accomplish such an enormous project.
The aim is to reforest Platbos and increase biodiversity, while spreading awareness about the forest and the need to preserve it. Greenpop has a unique model for engaging in highly important ecological restoration work, which seeks to:
- Mitigate the damage being done to our indigenous forests of South Africa
- Source most of the trees from small suppliers and empower local economies
- Partner with established organisations, trusts and individuals
The project has significant ecological and sociological impacts, from restoring watersheds and removing invasive alien vegetation to job creation and skills development.
The tree-planting festival is one of just a few like it in the world, among others in Australia and the U.S. Although unique, its concept is rooted in the age-old tradition of ceremony. “The process of mobilizing people to a common cause is as ancient as humankind,” says Matthew Koehorst, the planting organizer of Reforest Fest 2017. “I’m really excited by the idea of reintroducing ceremony for human healing, and for planetary healing as well.”
Though based on tree planting, reforestation is entirely different from localized planting projects like Greenpop’s urban greening programme. In the Western Cape, the percentage of forested land has been steadily decreasing, which is a problem for watersheds and local biodiversity. “These forests are not only important because they’re the refuge of some surviving tree species on our landscape,” says Krige. “They also harbor and host a multitude of animals that are not able to find a place to live in the fynbos. These ecosystems are incredibly endangered, very vulnerable, and Platbos is one of the last remnants.”
Family Fest 2017
Friends Fest 2017
Particularly in South Africa, a key element of reforestation is planting indigenous trees. Krige emphasizes the difference between afforestation and reforestation. Afforestation is the replacement of indigenous vegetation with a monoculture of trees. By contrast, reforestation is “healing wounds in indigenous forests by planting the local trees from that same forest,” he says. The goal is to restore the forest as closely as possible to its original state, working in harmony with nature’s established processes. This means planting with the existing fynbos, an endangered shrubby vegetation endemic to South Africa.
Why work with nature, rather than change it to suit our own needs? The answer lies in the deeply ingrained processes that have evolved over centuries and will continue to evolve regardless of our attempts to intervene. For example, Krige points out that fynbos is a fire-adapted species which is designed to burn, but alien vegetation burns much hotter than indigenous trees can handle. Consequently, introducing alien trees leads to more powerful fires and more forest fragmentation. “In my own lifetime, I’ve seen massive damage to forests through fires, and it would seem that the nature of our fires is slowly changing,” Krige says. “They’re less frequent in some areas, so they’re more ferocious because they’re happening at higher fuel loads. So this is all bad for our local forests.”
USING NATURE’S PROCESSES
Rather than trying to prevent fires, which would mean working against the natural process and regeneration cycle of indigenous fynbos, Krige advocates for controlled burns. Indigenous African peoples have used fire in this way for thousands of years. In the 1970s, prescribed burning was implemented into fynbos ecosystem management. With today’s emphasis on litigation and land rights, people are no longer using this burning technique as often for fear of fire encroaching on a neighbour’s land. “The whole environment outside a forest is designed to burn. It’s taken 500 million years to get that right, and we’re not going to stop that,” Krige says. “So the idea that as soon as the fynbos is burning, you just call for the helicopters, is entirely wrong. We should be burning it more often in controlled environments.”
The concept of basing our own actions on existing natural processes is often referred to as biomimicry. Matthew Koehorst used the model while designing the reforestation process for the 2017 Reforest Fest planting sites. “Biomimicry is the concept of actively observing nature and trying to use those patterns of nature in the way that we operate,” he says. Not only will natural fire patterns be maintained, so too will natural biomass cycles. “What we did with our planting site here is we used the biomass of the invasive alien vegetation, which is called rooikrans. We chip it to make it smaller and easily biodegradable, and we use that as a sort of nexus that collects nutrients and water to support the plants. The way the forest operates is that as old trees die, they sacrifice their carbon and their root structures and their space in the forest to new emergent trees. So we’ve used the invasives as the sacrifice or the feed stock for the baby trees.”
Krige’s knowledge of the local ecosystem was crucial in the reforestation plan’s conception. He understood that because of the indigenous trees, it would be impossible to burn out the alien vegetation. Additionally, the alien seeds are incredibly tenacious and remain viable in the soil for a century. “The only Achilles heel of an invasive alien in the Western Cape is that they can’t handle cool soil. They need heat for germination,” Krige explains. “So by planting the trees, we’re heading towards a closed canopy [which will cool the soil]. Even if that closed canopy system is only a meter tall, it will stop any germination underneath it if it’s shaded. So the aim is to get closed canopy as soon as possible.”
“The way that the planting pattern is laid out, if you look from above, is a series of interconnected fish scale shapes, made of small 1m wide curved walls that we excavate around the trees. Those walls basically slow down the flow of water down the landscape and allow it to permeate and sink into the earth. The mulch is very absorptive so it also absorbs water, and we lay mulch pits just above the trees so that there’s a moisture collection there.” – Matthew Koehorst
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
As with most rehabilitation projects, the challenge with tree planting is the lengthy amount of time it takes to see results. Even so, Krige seems entirely at peace with the understanding that reforestation works on a different time scale than we do. “It’s going to take the rest of my life to probably see proper results,” he says. “But if you work with trees, you have to accept that your entire career is one tenth of an ancient tree’s life. We’re in and out of here in the blink of an eye, and what we can do in that short space of time is limited, but it’s very important that we try and tip systems in the direction we want them.”
“It becomes so much more than the planting of trees – it becomes also the planting of ideas in people’s minds, and that is as important.”
Though our impact as individuals is limited, projects like Reforest Fest are effective in that they harness group collaboration and allow for the passing on of ideas and institutional knowledge. “Greenpop is essentially a network,” Koehorst says. “If we look back to nature as an example, they’re sort of like the mycilial network which spreads between trees and allows nutrients to flow through a system. Greenpop is able to harness energy and intention from around the greater community and bring it together. So although they aren’t necessarily dendrologists, tree scientists, or agriculturalists, they’re able to accumulate like-minded people and people with knowledge to distribute that information, and I think that’s really cool.”
Krige agrees that the event as a whole is a special one. “It becomes so much more than the planting of trees – it becomes also the planting of ideas in people’s minds, and that is as important. The concept of the reforestation festival I think is an amazing one. It helps us as individuals to grow along with forests.”
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