Durban, 2 February 2017: Riparian areas – the strip of land on either side of a river – are an important element of healthy rivers. They provide essential habitats for wildlife while also acting as buffers between upland areas and open water. Having the correct plants in place assists in filtering pollutants from the water and provides a barrier to erosion. The shade afforded by the vegetation helps to reduce water temperatures which, in turn, leads to better oxygen levels to support aquatic animals.
“Years of human settlement, including sugar cane farming, have left the banks of the Ohlanga River in Cornubia degraded and filled with alien plants,” notes Bongani Gumede, Corporate Director of Tongaat Hulett Property. “We recognise the importance of a healthy riparian zone and for this reason, we have teamed up with Wildlands Conservation Trust to rehabilitate the stretches of land on either side of the river.”
“By removing the alien vegetation and replacing it with indigenous flora,” adds David Moldenhauer, Strategic Manager – Technical Support of Wildlands “we can restore the valuable habitat to its original state.” But it’s not just any indigenous plants which are used. Thorough research has been undertaken to ensure that the correct historic plants – those which used to be in this location before the sugar cane fields – are planted. This is the best way to ensure that the correct biosphere of both flora and fauna is created.
On top of this, the Wildlands project is not only aimed at environmental restoration. The initiative is also creating jobs and providing skills and training to the local community. There are several different programs that they have been developed which aim to empower the community.
The first is a team of individuals who have been employed to work on the rehabilitation of the riparian zone itself. These people clear the floodplain tract on either side of the banks of the river using the “chop and drop” method: the alien vegetation is chopped down and left on the ground in place. This saves on the cost of removal and, perhaps more importantly, the cut material left on the ground makes an excellent mulch for the newly planted indigenous species while also supressing weed growth. It specifically isn’t burnt as this would be a waste of perfectly good nutrients for the soil.
Considering the 9.2km length of the river, and the fact that the riparian zone can extend anywhere from 10m to 100m from the riverbank, this is certainly a considerable undertaking. The rehabilitation began on Arbour Day 2014 and thus far some 90 ha of initial clearing and 43 ha follow-up clearing of sometimes very dense bush have been effected.
To date, 31 jobs for the alien plant clearing have been created for people from the local community. A new team has just been trained to use chainsaws and both Wildlands and Tongaat Hulett aim to use this training and practical application as a basis to incubate a future working environment for those trained.
“It is essentially the same as teaching a man to fish,” explains Moldenhauer, “and he will never go hungry again. The hope is that these skilled workers can go forward and apply their trade as woodsmen and subcontract their services to residents and businesses in the area. This is the very definition of a business incubator.”
In addition, the local community is to be involved in growing the desired indigenous plants. Members are to be trained in the cultivation of the specific plants that will restore health and balance as well as increase the biodiversity of the floodplain. “We are not looking at the easy to grow landscaping plants, although in time we expect that the growers will also be able to provide nursery services to the greater Cornubia region, including residents and businesses.”
A clear benefit in the initial stages of this initiative is the ready market for the indigenous plants. Those working on the restoration team will hopefully use the stimulated productivity gain out of this initiative as a springboard to undertaking other productive activities.
“Tongaat Hulett is serious about harnessing the capacity of the local community and about creating a sustainable ecosystem as well as social environment,” concludes Gumede. “We are rolling out a programme of training and skills development that will be to the advantage of both the biosphere and the community. This is only the beginning of a far larger undertaking.”