Leafy suburbs, dusty townships

The consequential role trees play in our lives is crucial

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The consequential role trees play in our lives is crucial. Unfortunately, South Africa’s geographical history ensured townships and informal settlements where deprived of trees, parks and overall greenery. Rectifying this wrong has not only addressed major environmental issues, but also encouraged urban greening initiatives, consequently empowering the youth in rural and informal sectors over the years.

The most deprived people in society are those in rural areas. For this reason, the South African government launched several projects to empower and develop rural communities, a significant one is the Junior LandCare Programme, an initiative that is linked to Arbor Week (1-7 September).

Arbor Week was initially introduced in Nebraska, USA in the 1800s, when a newcomer to the treeless plains of the town, Julius Sterling Morton, persuaded the local agricultural board to set aside a day to plant trees. He shared knowledge and awareness of the importance and value of trees and the board agreed to dedicate a week to planting trees and highlighting issues around the environment.

In South Africa, though, there was no history of organised tree planting, but this changed in the 1970s. Following requests from various organisations and institutions, the Department of Forestry obtained approval in 1982 to celebrate National Arbor Day, which was later declared a week-long event. South Africa realised the urgent need to promote tree planting and launched a national campaign, with the following objectives taking centre stage: celebrating the country’s existing trees, encouraging people to plant more trees and raising awareness about the importance of trees. This week focuses on rewriting conservation history, in turn, securing a sustainable future for generations to come. That concept instils a variety of principles that will result in a green, healthy and dignified environment.

Arbor week is an integrated process of planting, caring and managing vegetation in urban and rural areas. Interestingly the South African population is increasingly becoming urbanised, resulting in congestion due to high population densities in cities, towns, townships and informal settlements. The result of high population densities is environmental degradation, especially in areas where there is no planning for parks. Communities need to plant trees in streets and open spaces to create a sustainable healthy environment. It is a fact that rapid urban development is characterised by a lack of environmental planning. The environment is a unique resource which delivers an economically utilitarian function for the society. When you fail to cater for people in rural and informal settlements, they migrate to urban areas. It is crucial that those in rural and informal sectors are assisted by the government and more opportunities are provided to them, to reduce the already high population densities in urban cities.

Every living human being depends on forests for oxygen, making trees and forests the real source of life. Sadly, for most urban residents across the country, a local park or in most cases a painting on the wall is all they can rely on to link them to nature. Global warming and climate change, are highlighting the need to plant a tree to save a life. This can only be achieved by increasing South Africa’s urban and rural greening initiatives and promoting a better understanding of trees—articularly indigenous trees and fruit-bearing trees. At the same time, it’s important to educate people on the role trees play in human livelihood, the environment and the sustainable development ecosystem.

Arbor Week allows the government, private sector, non-governmental and community-based organisations and the public to be involved in “greening” their communities by using an integrated and organised approach of planting, caring and managing all vegetation to secure multiple community benefits. As the custodian of forestry in South Africa, every year, during Arbor Week the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries focus on the country’s champion trees. These trees include some of the oldest, largest and culturally significant trees that form part of our heritage, such as the Sophiatown Oak Tree and the Sagole Baobab Tree in Limpopo.

One of the key themes of Arbor Week is exercising rural initiatives, particularly those that foster youth empowerment, by encouraging communities and schools to participate in tree planting. Through the department, the government seeks to invest and address issues of youth unemployment, skills development, school nutrition and environmental education using the Junior LandCare Programme.

Young people in rural areas are often disadvantaged, mainly because they are excluded from the socio-economic mainstream. They are not only far away from assistance, but they can’t access basic services and facilities, feel powerless because they have no voice in decision making and vulnerable because they were previously discriminated against. The Junior LandCare Programme addresses these issues head-on. The objectives of the programme are to: encourage training in leadership and facilitation skills, promote awareness of the LandCare concept, stimulate youth clubs or cooperatives managed by the youth, support small projects that include permaculture and promote food security at homes and schools. Trees have an economic value which contributes a significant proportion of income in rural households.

In 2000, the programme was initiated in all nine provinces. The government gave provinces money to raise intensive awareness campaigns and to fund small projects run by schools and youth clubs. These projects included field trips to botanical gardens, implementing LandCare within the curriculum and school grounds, youth clubs and activities, development of nurseries and permaculture food gardens.

After a workshop with key role-players, a decision was taken to train existing youth clubs (Youth in Agriculture) and school groups and in existing LandCare projects. The programme is jointly implemented by Youth in Agriculture and Farmers. Schools have since implemented LandCare projects, which are fully integrated into the curriculum. The Department of Education in the Eastern Cape is excited about the opportunity of working with the Department of Agriculture to stimulate LandCare and agriculture at poor rural schools. There is also a need to assist the existing youth structures with LandCare training.

Forestry today is centred around relationships between people and resources provided by the forest. In urban areas trees provide a safe refuge for birds and other wild animals, this increases biodiversity in cities. In rural and informal settlements people use natural forests for multiple purposes, from timber for housing, kraals and fencing, medicinal products from bark, bulbs, leaves and roots. With about 90% of the biomass on land being stored in forests, the importance of trees and forestry is undeniable. Unfortunately, South Africa has never been rich in natural forests. Protecting existing forests while planting more trees is the only way our future can be guaranteed. We need trees, Arbor Week serves as a reminder of our dependence on them for survival, it is our duty as South Africans to plant as many trees as possible. 

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