Promote holistic ecological restoration

Dr Alanna Rebelo, Friends of Tokai Park

I refer to the letters by Sandra Hewitson (“Letters ’distorted’ tree programme”) and Eugene Moll (“10 million trees: Another view”) of “Shout for Shade”, published in the Bulletin on February 10, which were written in response to two articles published by well-known South African ecologists in response to the original article on the national government’s Ten Million Trees Programme (“Call to plant 10 million trees could give Cape Town back its shade,” Bulletin, January 20).

Many people were concerned about this article because it appeared to quote only members of pro-tree groups, such as Parkscape and Treekeepers, and did not seem to seek a balanced view from the various other groups in the community, in management and in academia.

Sandra Hewitson’s letter appears to attempt to cast doubt on the ecologists by claiming that they are deliberately distorting the programme.

She bases her premise on the fact the programme does not “advocate planting pines, gums and wattles or any invasive alien trees in inappropriate areas”. However, the very issue with this advert is that neither does it specifically discourage irresponsible tree planting.

The original article in the Bulletin seems to suggest planting trees across Cape Town and in old plantation areas earmarked for the restoration of fynbos (“TreeKeepers … said the public should push for a tree-replanting programme throughout Cape Town”).

Professor Moll claims that these professors are “colonial”, influenced by Western schooling and not humanitarian-inclined. In fact it is just the opposite. Indiscriminate tree planting is colonial, not protecting our native vegetation. Creating treed landscapes in our fynbos is not African (forests cover only about 0.56% of South Africa’s surface and are well conserved). Promoting holistic ecological restoration rather than indiscriminate tree planting campaigns is not ignoring society but rather caring deeply for people.

There are many wonderful programmes that are doing urban fynbos greening initiatives at schools on the sandy Cape Flats where trees are hard to establish and put a strain on water resources, such as Nature Connect, Incungcu and GreenPop. All of these programmes focus on restoring native biodiversity as well as people, and none of them put the focus on trees alone.

People cannot survive without nature. All life is underpinned by it. If we hope to survive a changing climate, we will need all the resilience we can get, or restore, from our ecosystems. And this means building in margin in terms of our scarce water resources as well, as just one example.

To dismiss the impact of trees on water in such a water-threatened city – and country – is very serious. In addition, the City of Cape Town is taking the aquifers seriously, and the Cape Flats Aquifer is being both monitored and protected.

What seems to have been passed over is the fact that neither professor is against trees. Professor Rebelo says: “Certainly, we do need trees. But trees come at a cost.” And Professor Bond says that he likes trees and has planted them, but says that we all have the responsibility to ask: “Is this the right tree, in the right place and for the right reasons?”

These debates are critical in a time that the UN has warned us is marked by an unprecedented decline of nature, with accelerating extinction rates, and where the South African government is increasingly coming under international pressure to plant trees.

In fact, South Africa has a superb record of ecosystem restoration, which has been shown to be far more important in both mitigating and adapting to climate change than interventions like mass tree planting.