Many of us have had the experience of looking down through an aircraft window at a nondescript Free State or Northern Cape town. Broken by the national road, on closer inspection, the town is split more-or-less in half: a "white" town, invariably a place of greenery and abundance curled around a snake-like river, and a "black" town that is little more than a twinkling ocean of corrugated tin roofs. The roads here are gravel, the trees nonexistent, the toilets — even after more than 20 years of democracy — often outside.
Jeunesse Park, the founder of Food & Trees for Africa, was acutely aware of these rigid social and green divides in SA when she started the business from her garage in 1990. "She wanted the green line that separates north and south Johannesburg to be reduced," says Robyn Hills, programme manager at the NGO. "That was very much in her mind." Since those early days in Park’s garage, Food & Trees for Africa has developed into arguably the largest greening, food, permaculture and environmentally conscious organisation in SA. This month, for example, they will plant 7,000 hardy indigenous trees nationwide in celebration of Arbour Month, doing so in locations as varied as Katlehong, Mamelodi East and Pietermaritzburg.
They will also be planting trees — mainly stone fruit trees, in this case — in a Cape corridor, ranging from Belhar and Delft through Blackheath to Mfuleni.
"We’ve had 200 applications [for planting] just in Arbour Month," says Emily Jones, the tree programme manager. "And close to 1,000 applications for Arbour Month countrywide." The lessons learnt by an organisation that planted its first tree in Alexandra township 25 years ago, have been wide and various. No experiences have been more valuable than those gained through trial and error, involving how best to coax a community into buying in to the tree-sharing project.
Hills describes Food & Trees for Africa as a "conscious organisation", meaning it operates with some degree of thoughtfulness and cultural sensitivity. She says that after appropriate consultation, the trees to be planted are gathered at a central point.
"That might be a school or community centre or a ward councillor’s home," she says. "Then we insist that the trees are collected and taken home. The home-owners themselves dig the holes. We’ve found that this ensures tree survival rates.
"There’s an energy exchange here — and that’s important." Homeowners are sometimes reluctant to accept trees. They cite fears over roots damaging walls and foundations; they are concerned about robbers hiding in their shade, or the darkness at night, or using their branches to climb walls.
They are sometimes reluctant in other ways, too, but Hills has found that their personal investment — being guardians of their own trees, if you like — is crucial to the trees’ survival, particularly with issues of tree survival coming to the fore due to climate change.
"In certain areas the survival rate of trees we and the community plant has come down from 85% to 68% and that’s mainly due to climate change," says Jones. "Those declining survival rates also have knock-on effects in terms of pollination rates and germination rates, so it’s a complex web." Food & Trees for Africa tends to favour trees such as acacias, wild olives and stone fruit trees for planting, though this can be location and climate specific.
One of the most rewarding projects that Hills worked on was in Motherwell in the Eastern Cape, where citrus trees were planted because they were the type of trees asked for by the community.
"Those Motherwell women were amazing," she says. "I think the project was so successful because most of them were from rural areas and they wanted to bring the countryside into the township. They really had a feeling for, and cared for, those trees." The trees selected for planting are almost always indigenous, whether they’re planted by Food & Trees for Africa, or not.
They must be hardy, frost-resistant and capable of surviving with little love and even less water. Sometimes mulch (to help reduce evaporation) and permaculture initiatives help, but there is invariably something grand and stoic about trees surviving in inhospitable environments where rainfall might be erratic and the rain — when it eventually arrives — is often destructive and dramatic.
Jonathan Richmond, the corporate greening manager at Save our Planet — Plant a Tree, tends to favour the bushwillow for its frost-resistant and hardy qualities, with the important caveat that the trees’ survival rates increase dramatically if they are planted at 2m in height.
"We propagate all our trees from seed," says Richmond. "We’re lucky because there are farms nearby [to our base in Irene, close to Centurion] and they supply us with chicken litter, leftover plant waste and horse manure, which is excellent for the young trees. Our tree farm is the largest supplier of indigenous trees in Gauteng and we’ve supplied just over 75 000 of them to various clients and initiatives in the past four years." The Save our Planet — Plant a Tree initiative is really two wings of the same business. The initial point of inception was a Willow Feather Farm, where 500 000 trees await transportation and planting at municipalities, corporate buyers and mine rehabilitation projects. Tacked onto this tree farm, says Richmond, is an NGO: the Save our Planet — Plant a Tree part of the business. The idea here is that rural areas need trees to prevent erosion, bring shade and generally improve quality of life.
Richmond and his team believe young people are crucial in ensuring the survival of trees planted in their communities. Educate them about the health and life-giving properties of trees and half the battle is won. They will grow with their trees and, it is hoped, pass their wisdom on to their children and younger generations.
An extract from Nelson Henderson on the Save our Planet — Plant a Tree website says : "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit." Henderson was a farmer from Manitoba in Canada and his words have never been truer than in this time of climate change and food scarcity.
Above and beyond the environmental worth of trees is their capacity to inspire wonder and reverence.
Those who plant them are worthy of similar respect. Like those who built medieval European cathedrals or the great stone ruins of Zimbabwe, they seldom live long enough to see the mature beauty of that which they build.
It’s a strange thought, both comforting and slightly unsettling. For trees outlive us and our petty squabbles, the strange mist of achievement in which we cloak ourselves and our daily lives. Every new tree planted is a tree to be enjoyed, marvelled at and loved.