South Africa 2. Toward a Restoration Culture? Good news from the Karoo

In this 4th post from southern Africa, James and Thibaud Aronson report on a pioneering, science-based restoration project, the associated private restoration company, and also a nature reserve, all founded by one pair of scientists in Prince Albert, Western Cape province, South Africa.

Last October, posting from SW Australia, we reported on Gondwana Link and some of the activities of the Australasia chapter of SER. These are just two of the thousands of independent non-governmental groups of people working for joint environmental and social change around the world, as celebrated in Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken’s 2007 best-selling book dedicated to the “unnamed movement” to reimagine our relationship to the environment and one another. After a year and a half researching our book on arid and semi-arid land trees, and ecological restoration projects and programs in the world’s drylands, we still like our name for that “unnamed movement” Hawken referred to, namely a restoration culture for the 21st century.

Opportunities for grassroots or combined bottom-up – top-down efforts and synergies abound in South Africa, with its outstanding research, technology, and capacity-building from academics, think tanks, not-for-profit organizations, and small companies offering restoration services and counsel. In our last post, we described a few Working for Wetlands programs and the participation of SAN Parks (the body that governs South African national parks) developing new ways to restore natural capital and social capital at the same time. Here we move to the vast central drylands of southern Africa, known very broadly as the Karoo.

As compared to other inland arid regions, landscape complexity here is enormous and, remarkably, ecotones, a.k.a. frontier zones are largely visible, if not intact.

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A klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) in the Swartberg, near Prince Albert. This small antelope, which occurs throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, is unusual in that it walks on the tips of its hooves, an adaptation to its rocky habitat.

This huge inland semi-desert has at least four sub-regions, and borders to the southeast an archipelago of more than 100 recognized types of subtropical thicket, a plant formation forming a key transition zone, in ecological and evolutionary terms, intermediate between forest and savanna. According to plant ecologist Prof. Sue Milton and ornithologist Dr. Richard Dean,  the archeological and historical evidence indicate that the Karoo has been largely treeless for millennia. Trees are mostly prevented from growing in the Karoo, not only by the aridity (<200 mm precip./year), but also by shallow soils and cold winter temperatures. The Karoo was prehistorically grazed by nomadic ungulates that were hunted by hunter-gathers (San or Bushmen) and by transhumant pastoralists – the Khoe-khoe. Yet, a huge change came about when European colonization in the 18th century brought wire fencing, deep drilling and wind pumps for extracting underground water. As Sue and Richard put it, “combined with a large demand for wool in Europe, this led to a boom in sheep farming and the development of rural villages, mostly dependent on ground-water.”

 

Map

Southern African biomes, highlighting the large extent of the Karoo (yellow & brown), and the two sites we visited: Prince Albert and the Plains of Camdeboo. Modified from: http://www.plantzafrica.com/vegetation/vegimages/biomes800.jpg 

We traveled to Prince Albert, a small town in the Karoo, where we met up with our old friends and colleagues Sue Milton and Richard Dean, who are the co-owners of Renu-Karoo Veld Restoration and founders of the Wolwekraal Conservation and Research Organization, a unique research site Sue and Richard acquired in 2007, very near the edge of this isolated town. After nearly 40 years of hard work as international researchers and teachers, Sue and Richard decided to focus their considerable energy for the remainder of their careers to their town, and a community-based restoration and revitalization program for the Karoo. Unlike many NGOs in the “restoration movement” theirs is firmly grounded in science. Prior to launching Renu-Karoo, when they first moved to Price Albert, they continued teaching part-time in Cape Town – a full day’s drive away, and ran the Tierberg Karoo Research Station, a long-term ecological research site nearby, for many years. They have also written or edited the major ecological textbooks on the Karoo, both for basic researchers and managers. And indeed, it is a complex area in need of serious restoration work.

The plant nursery is a key component for all of Renu-Karoo’s activities, producing indigenous Karoo plants and plugs for landscaping and restoration. Availability of indigenous plants in the village has also gradually led to increased popularity of water-wise gardening and to an awareness of local plant diversity.

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Sue Milton and Richard Dean surrounded by native and ornamental plants at the Renu-Karoo nursery.

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One of the nursery’s 10 employees beginning the day with a round of watering.

As Sue and Richard explain:

“……the vast plains of the Karoo, the wooded drainage lines, the ancient gnarled trees of the dunes and mountains, and the elusive wildlife have been damaged by poor agricultural practices. The area is also currently threatened by development of solar and wind energy generation facilities, and uranium and gas mines that could convert the quiet Karoo into the ‘power factory’ of South Africa. A combination of conservation, education, and continuous active rehabilitation will be needed to enable future generations of people to benefit economically as well as recreationally and scientifically from this rocky and glorious desert landscape.”

When Sue and Richard established Renu-Karoo a decade ago, their goal was to grow and supply Karoo shrub and grass seeds and to provide consulting services on how to re-establish or “repair” Karoo vegetation. Through trial and error, research by students and interns, collaboration with other companies and not-for-profit organizations, and follow-up surveys of restoration and rehabilitation projects, they have produced valuable knowledge, made available both informally and in scientific publications. Additional services, such as contract growing of plugs and plants of never-before propagated veld (the South African name for the sparsely vegetated landscapes typical of the Karoo) plants have added to the interest and capabilities of the business. They also provide free environmental classes and natural history talks and walks to school children and adults. They are truly global citizens working locally to build a Restoration culture in their home, the Karoo.

As part of their work to advance the movement, and raise the bar in restoration and management work, Sue and Richard’s consulting work takes them to businesses and private farms throughout the Karoo. From Prince Albert, we traveled north- east, to visit one such place, the Plains of Camdeboo Nature Reserve, a privately-owned property on the edge of the Karoo.

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A male vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) feeding in an Acacia, at Camdeboo National Park.

This nearly 9000-ha property once encompassed three game farms, which were severely overgrazed for a century, if not more. The properties were acquired by Vincent Mai, a South African who lives and works in New York City, and his wife Anne. They wanted to help preserve a piece of the Karoo where Vincent had grown up.

As it was clear that overgrazing in the past had seriously damaged the land, a South African conservation organization, the Wilderness Foundation, was invited to help. For the past six years, this foundation has been carrying out restoration work on the reserve. Their main focus is on eroded and impoverished soils, and they have undertaken a range of approaches, from grazing native Zulu cattle, to using agave stems and hay to block erosion gullies. A number of mammal species were also reintroduced. Angus Tanner, the indefatigable manager, showed us the range of their work on the reserve. Money and manpower is limited, and there are still many obstacles, but they are making great strides. They rely on Renu-Karoo for advice and seeds and technical advice. They are also reaching out to cooperate with the nearby township and their neighbors. Stitch by stitch, and farm by farm, the restoration culture is spreading in the Karoo.

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Traditional Zulu cattle in the Plains of Camdeboo Nature Reserve. They both break up compacted soil and fertilize it as the managers move them around the property.

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Two adjacent erosion gullies at the Plains of Camdeboo. The one on the right was plugged with a fence gabion and agave stems, in order to slow water flow and trap sediments. The gully on the left was not treated. A year later the difference between the two speaks for itself.

Post-Mine restoration, the Gondwana Link, and SER Australasia – helping Australia transition towards a restoration culture

In their fourth and last report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss promising approaches and programs squarely facing the conservation issues that threaten western Australian ecosystems.

Nothing is simple these days: everything is subject to trade-offs. For example, take Australia’s mining industry. The country has long drawn on its enormous mineral wealth, which sustains a significant part of its economic growth. But this takes a huge toll on biodiversity. Kingsley Dixon, with whom we spent a week in the field, helped us understand the situation, and noted that the miners do not have a very good track record of cleaning up after themselves. Today, there are around 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia – sad testimony to the boom and bust pattern that seems to characterize all too many extractive industries everywhere.  However, the pioneering work of Kingsley and his colleagues and students, in the areas of seed science, conservation biology, and restoration ecology, is helping advance the science and technology of restoration. This is difficult business under any circumstances, but especially so in a biodiversity hotspot. He is also extremely active in trying to persuade the mining industry and Australian government to do more and do it better in these areas.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

The Mt Whaleback mine has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

The Mt Whaleback mine, in Western Australia, has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars. (And, make no mistake, just about every plant growing on the slopes on the right are exotic invasives.)

Happily, despite the complexity and the obstacles, a few Australian conservation organizations are also engaged in ecological restoration – whether at the site level, or much broader scales.

Many people told us that Australians are truly proud of their unique natural heritage, and the “outback”; it only remains for the government to play a larger role, and support those who are already working towards sustainability and a restoration culture.

One of the largest players is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), linked in a small way to the US-based organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The AWC is making significant investments not only in land acquisition for conservation but also conservation research and outreach to the public.

Another example of an outstanding initiative is the 13-year old Gondwana Link, a unique and inspiring venture in the southwest. Indeed, they aim to create a biodiversity corridor 1000 km long, spanning 8 different ecosystem types. We spent several days with Keith Bradby, Chief Executive Officer of Gondwana Link, as well as Mike Griffiths, recently posted to Kalgoorlie, and veteran consultant and restoration practitioner US- born Justin Jonson, learning about the wonderfully exciting work of this coalition. They work both by acquiring pristine fragments, as well as degraded land which they restore, to provide connections between patches of habitat protected in national parks. But even more than their goals, it is their approach that is unique. Instead of coming in and telling everyone who isn’t a conservationist they they’re wrong and evil, they work with the miners, and the farmers, and the various NGOS, to achieve a vision of the landscape where humans and biodiversity can co-exist. For more information, see the chapter on Gondwana Link in Paddy Woodworth’s book Our Once and Future Planet , the first book to present the world-wide scene of ecological restoration to the general public.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

They also have a strong commitment to work with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, of both the Ngadju and Noongar peoples. Aboriginal Australians represent only 3% of the national population of 24,000,000, but finally, and bit by bit, justice is being done. Following the 1993 Native Title Act, and 18 years of shameful litigation, Aboriginal Australians are at last being granted “native title” in their own land, and control a growing percentage of Australian outback. On these recovered lands, some communities are trying to reconcile their truly ancient traditions with sound ecological management appropriate to the new lifestyles they have taken up, and the future they desire for themselves.

Another remarkable actor is the 400 – strong Australasian chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SERA), led by its chair Kingsley Dixon. The challenges they face are daunting, but important and encouraging steps forward are being taken and the network is successfully raising money and doing projects. If one’s government is not helping, after all – as is the case with the current administration in Australia, social networks – of people and institutions – are the key. As we noted in our blogpost from Jordan, last April, another source of hope is the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens.

To conclude, as Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest,

If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.

What unnamed movement? He was referring to the thousands of independent non-governmental groups of people working for joint environmental and social change – not one or the other, but both.

As we discovered, in Australia there are plenty of clear-eyed people in conservation and restoration who do have a heart and who are working for what we would call a restoration culture for the 21st century. There: that’s a name then for the unnamed movement of this century that Hawkins referred to.