The theme for this year’s International Day of Forests is Forests and Biodiversity. Consider using the weekend of  March 21st as days for educating yourself and your loved ones about forests. And for planting trees.

Spekboom and Biodiversity

Spekboom is the tree of the moment. This is where the money is headed…And the enthusiasm. It is a small tree which I love, not only for its carbon sequestration capabilities, but for its clean air production ability. (I live in Johannesburg and clean air is what concerned me when I started promoting spekboom in 2012.)

However, from an air pollution perspective, carbon sequestration is a by-product of a clean-air ‘economy’.

While spekboom carbon farming is a viable and legimate way in which to generate passive income streams, as well as biofuels, it is also a potential threat to the integrity of natural biomes.

To retain our natural biodiversity we must protect all our biomes.

Natural Biomes, Ecosystems and Habitats are Heritage spaces

South Africa is rich in biodiversity. SANBI lists the following nine distinct biomes: Fynbos; Succulent Karoo; Desert; Albany Thicket (where spekboom grows as one plant within a guild); Forests; Grassland; Indian Ocean Coastal Belt; Nama-Karoo; Savanna.

Each has its own ecological integrity which human interaction can help protect and sustain or destroy, to our detriment. Each has riches to share with us provided we respect their purpose and their productivity limits. If we can learn to work with them rather than exploit or abuse them, we would be on our way to a sustainable use of our biological resources.

Adding complexity to the Green Economy

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ruled our grassland trees (acacias) inadequate for earning carbon credit points. This is because most have a lifespan of about 40 years instead of the minimum 60 years to make trees worthwile investing in from a carbon credit earning perspective. Does this invalidate their worth within our environment or economy? I don’t think so; we can and should make our resources work for us. Doing so is what will both protect our biodiversity and make us sustainable in the long term.

Because growing indigenous trees was therefore not a viable way for South Africa to enter the carbon economy, spekboom has taken over as the primary way in which to do so. Yet this judgement of what is and what is not viable, is true primarily from an international and monetary perspective. From an earth sustainability perspective, spekboom is simply one amongst many plants. That, in addition to carbon sequestration, spekboom carbon farming for biofuels has benefits as a fossil fuel alternative is wonderful.

However, if planted as monocultures in sensitive areas it becomes unsustainable in the long term. Careful choice of sites for planting spekboom is thus vitally important.   

Five Safe Spaces to plant Spekboom
  1. In containers: on patios; in vertical gardens, on roof tops. Where there are car parks, for example, at malls, spekboom provides me with reassurance that designers and owners are aware of the effects of carbon fumes on lungs.
  2. Directly in the soil on privately owned gardens, be these homes, schools, orphanages, care centres, businesses… (In areas that have winter frost it is best to plant them against north facing walls or in semi-shade under some form of arboreal protection)
  3. In urban public spaces such as pavements. Yet this may only be done with permission from City Parks.
  4. Under trees along roads, traffic islands and freeways.
  5. On degraded or water stressed areas officially designated for farming. Here they can be used to grow green fences, conserve water, prevent soil erosion, provide fodder for animals… While providing an additional source of forex.

Much of the spekboom grown in the wild in the eastern Cape is under threat. To reverse this loss within its natural biome an ambitious spekboom reforestation project is underway. Started in Calitzdorp, where the plant grows naturally, it is from here that the spekboom challenge has been made. My understanding is that it complies with conservation best practice; it is an example that can leverage off the carbon economy while adding value to biodiversity.

Planting spekboom everywhere and anywhere is, however, the worst possible response to a planet under stress. 

The Biodiversity Economy and Sustainable Livelihoods

The biodiversity economy exists as a strategy within DEFF (Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries). It primary intention is to protect our wildlife and the tourist industry that it supports. Yet in my mind it could be larger than this. My thinking is as follows:

  1. Nature is hierarchical.
  2. Sustainability seems to be enhanced when we respect its laws through biomimicry.
  3. The largest organism we have is the planet itself.

This suggests that the Biodiversity Economy is the queen of all ‘green’ economies. Or the foundation that informs all interaction with the earth and its’ resources. Within this framework the carbon economy is simply a subset of this lager, overarching economy. (The king of the economy is the marketplace, real and virtual, local and global.) My sense is that if we can agree on this, we are better placed to generate sustainable livelihoods. It would then be so much easier to develop and regulate the rest of the economy, at all levels.

In conclusion, I trust that I have made a case for protecting our biomes, and natural ecosystems and habitats. And for placing earth first as the ground on which to build a viable and sustainable economy.


What you need to know about the spekboom challenge in SA

Carbon Farming:

Spekboom Challenge warning

© BlueBlueEarth (2020 March 11)

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