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Spekboom, sun, windmills, and hope.

By January 6, 2021Editorial


I love the Eastern Cape—I grew up there and have so many fond memories of its beautiful beaches, winding rivers, and rolling uplands clothed in impenetrable Albany thicket vegetation. The hills and rivers and beaches are still there, but sadly, the region’s plant life has been badly compromised. Only patches of thicket remain—more than 50 percent of it lost to livestock farming (mainly goats), crop production, and urban expansion.

Serious harm to natural systems is a common thread throughout Africa, indeed the whole world. Everywhere, the oceans, the sky, and the earth—the great engines of our climate—are being plundered and compromised beyond their ability to sustain life as we know it.

The Eastern Cape’s thicket vegetation is remarkable for the number of plants that occur there and nowhere else in the world. So, its degradation and destruction are understandably concerning to scientists. Three plants dominate the landscape: tall, spiny euphorbias—highly toxic to most animals, but a delicacy for Black Rhinos—scrambling plumbago shrubs with their almost year-round sky-blue flowers, and the miraculous spekboom (pork bush) which, in late winter through early spring, is mantled with masses of soft pink, nectar-filled blooms. This hardy, stocky, evergreen succulent is a much-enjoyed food for many browsing animals and has wide-ranging traditional healing properties. But, beyond its seasonal beauty and use as a source of nutrition and medicine, the plant has an almost matchless capacity to fix carbon—in short, it is a carbon sponge ten times more efficient than any tropical rainforest.

Good news for the Eastern Cape’s rural environment has been the growth of the photographic safari industry. Over the past few decades, swathes of degraded farmland have been painstakingly returned to their natural state. Private reserves such as Shamwari, Kariega, and Kwandwe have pioneered this process, but the Addo Elephant National Park remains the conservation core. From small beginnings in 1931, Addo now spans some 1,400 square miles in an uninterrupted corridor from mountains to the sea. These conservation islands hold the promise of hope and renewal, but a visit to the region painfully reveals that much still needs to be done.

Addo lies an hour or so’s drive to the east of Port Elizabeth, the region’s principal city. Soon, as you leave the urban sprawl, you branch left off the highway and onto the R335 that lazily winds its way northwards towards Addo’s main gate and beyond. The initial reaction is one of disappointment as, sadly, the landscape en route is now depressingly devoid of thicket. Here and there, citrus fields hint at some agricultural affluence, but in the towns and villages, the roads have more potholes than tarmac, and people hang about dilapidated doorways in clumps of jobless dejection.

Scenes like these repeat themselves in so many parts of rural Africa. Large pockets of well-conserved land surrounded by abject poverty. The contrasting biological richness and personal wealth across the divide between parks and neighboring communities are marked. Until the beginning of 2020, tourism was a prime source of income funding, not only for the rural Eastern Cape but for so many of the continent’s great conservation areas. And this, in turn, also provided critically needed employment opportunities for local people. Even at its height, however, tourism alone was not nearly enough to offset regional poverty. Then the blight of Covid-19 struck globally, and tourism died overnight. In the Eastern Cape, already suffering a prolonged drought, Covid’s hammer blow landed with crushing effect.

Maintaining one’s belief in the future is a tough ask amid the waves of worldwide infection and the economic havoc they are feeding. However, good rains have at last come to many parts of the Eastern Cape. And Covid-19 will eventually run its course, making way for a resurgence of tourism. However, this alone will not bring the sustainable, wide-spread prosperity needed to alleviate the challenges of poverty, access to potable water, and food security. But conservation, with the environmental healing it brings, can and must be at the core of the long road to recovery.

These are indeed significant social challenges, especially against the remorseless march of climate change, the deprivations of which fall disproportionately on the shoulders of millions of desperately poor people. Already at survival’s edge, they are vulnerable to even the smallest added hardship, let alone the devastation of disease, drought, flooding, scorching heat, and sometimes bitter cold. Such extreme events, which enmesh so many parts of Africa in the nexus of need between energy, food security, and access to clean water, are ever more common.

Gloomy thoughts, but perhaps not. For in these Covid times, we are, perhaps, being allowed to reflect. We need this time to rethink how the world could, and should, run to bring a greater quality of life for people and nature. And perhaps the Eastern Cape could be a driver for these changes—a model to be replicated elsewhere.

For example, one of the more recent and notable changes to the Eastern Cape landscape are tall, gleaming white columns, lots of them, at the top of which turn equally gleaming giant blades. Wind farms have come to the Eastern Cape. I know that wind energy has its critics, particularly regarding birdlife and bats, but innovation and experience can lessen that danger to a marked extent. I think they are beautiful beacons of hope, a promise that the energy we all need does not have to come from coal-fired plants belching greenhouse carbon into our already challenged atmosphere. Nor does it have to come from potentially deadly nuclear plants.

Africa, as it happens, is incredibly blessed with renewable energy. For example, the great Africa rift that runs up the eastern part of the continent through to the Red Sea has hardly tapped its geothermal potential. Hydroelectricity barely features, but a great network of decentralized power could come from micro plants along Africa’s great rivers. Then there are the winds that blow consistently around Africa’s 16,000-mile coastline and ocean currents that push vast columns of water against its shore. But the single greatest and most abundant source of energy, which alone could meet all the needs of Africa, is the sun. With a modicum of appropriate technology, hardly a village exists that would not have enough sunlight to power its path to greater prosperity.

The Eastern Cape, swept continuously by wind and averaging some eight hours of sunlight daily, is richly blessed. Renewable energy capacity would not only satisfy local demand, it could be sold into the national grid to provide much-needed revenues for the province. Furthermore, the construction and maintenance of renewable energy infrastructure would bring thousands of jobs to a region burdened with an unemployment rate of more than 37 percent.

Renewable energy production and returning tourism could be a game-changer for the Eastern Cape. Add the lowly but remarkable spekboom to the mix, and the region could really rise like a phoenix from the ashes of economic depression.

Earlier, I extolled the spekboom’s virtues as a carbon sink, but they don’t end there. The miracle plant grows easily from simple cuttings, and because it sheds leaves continuously, they form a mulching carpet and help degraded land to retain water. Pieter Kruger, a farmer in the Baviaanskloof, planted spekboom and has never regretted his decision. “The trees are now well established, and in the big flood this year, we managed to keep runoff of water to penetrate the soil instead of washing away our topsoil into the river.”

Fortunately, the South African Government sees thicket restoration as one of the low-hanging fruits in achieving national climate and biodiversity targets. The goal is to “restore an area of thicket of over one million hectares, almost 200 times the size of Manhattan, providing work and income for thousands of people, for several years.”

Also, as the world recovers from Covid-19, an enthusiasm for carbon markets will possibly return. Suppose governments and private enterprise were to purchase carbon credits in exchange for growing plants and trees. This would see spekboom farming gain even more popularity as an appropriate and profitable use of the land.

All of this will take time, but hopefully, when my great-grandchildren take the R335 to Addo, the windmills will still be there, with solar farms added to the landscape. And best of all, great swathes of pristine thicket will be holding tons upon tons of carbon, and humans and nature will be prospering on both sides of the divide.