Busisiwe Ndlela was radiant when I met her yesterday. Just this month, and with money she earned selling tiny trees, she has bought a new cupboard and an electric stove and she is proud as can be.
I met this 60-year old mother of seven on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa where she and hundreds of other women are helping to transform their communities and the landscape around them, one seed at a time.
Welcome to the Buffelsdraai landfill site, operated by the eThekwini (Durban) municipality. Under law there must be a buffer zone between it and local residents, and until recently this was occupied by fields of sugar cane.
“Sugar cane did nothing for us,” says Busisiwe when I ask her about life before the tree-planting project began. “It was for them [white farmers], not us.”
This all changed in 2008, when the municipality began to work with local people to turn this 800-hectare area into a mosaic of native grasses and rich forest, to help offset the carbon emissions associated with South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup.
As the new trees mature over the next 20 years, they will absorb 48,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide — about the same amount produced by 25,000 passengers flying from Northern Europe to South Africa and back again.
As well as helping to limit climate change, the project aims to protect wild nature, improve water quality downstream and create new livelihoods for poor local communities.
It is a simple idea, and it revolves around jobless local people like Busisiwe becoming ‘tree-preneurs’.
First, they collect seeds of native tree species and then they plant them at home in old bottles, plastic bags and other containers. Once the trees reach a certain height the tree-preneurs can sell them to the municipality, which then grows them up a bit more in a nursery before planting them in the buffer zone.
So far more than 600 people have got involved — 80 percent of them women — and they have sold a quarter of a million baby trees, including acacias and several species of wild fig trees.
A 30-centimetre tall tree is worth five rand but if a tree-preneur tends it a little longer and it reaches a metre in height, she can sell it for ten rand (US$1.25). In reality, this is a cashless project. Instead the tree-preneurs receive vouchers that they can exchange for things like food, building materials and school fees for their children’s education.
Since 2008, Busisiwe has sold about 1,200 trees and — depending on their height — this will have earned her vouchers worth between US$750 and US$1500. In a part of the world with 80 percent unemployment, few opportunities and a minimum wage of under a dollar an hour, this income is not to be sniffed at.
The star seed planter though is Ningi Gcabashe. She has sold 15,000 trees to the project and now works as a facilitator, teaching other members of the community about native tree species and how to grow them from seed.
“When the project came to Buffelsdraai, I never realised it would help the community,” said Ningi yesterday, before explaining that she has been able to build a new home using bricks she bought with vouchers from the trees.
“My life improved,” she said. “Before the project I never touched a car. Now I have paid for driving lessons.”
Today she manages the Trees for Life programme of the Wildlands Conservation Trust, the organisation that runs the reforestation at Buffelsdraai. This is just one of several full-time jobs the project has created.
There is temporary work too, especially at this rainy time of year when around 60 communities members are paid to plant trees.
And in a couple of years when the job is complete and 500 hectares of forest have been replanted, new opportunities will spring up.
“After the canopy is planted there will be enrichment plantings, i.e. planting in the understory to increase the biodiversity in the forest,” says Sean O’Donoghue of the eThekwini municipality’s environmental planning and climate protection department.
“Thereafter we’re hoping to create jobs with regards maintaining the forest,” he says. “There will also be waste-preneur opportunities — collection of recyclable waste and selling back to us. And we hope to stimulate eco-tourism in the buffer zone, for example mountain bike tracks.”
The idea is that these activities can form the basis of sustainable businesses and long-term employment for the surrounding communities.
In time, the forest can bring many new benefits but women like Busisiwe and Ningi are already gaining from the greening. “People did not believe,” says Ningi. “Now they do.”