When the goats on his farm had nothing more to eat, because the soil had been eroded and most of the vegetation destroyed, South African farmer Pieter Kruger had to make one of the toughest decisions of his life. “I had always been a farmer,” he says, “but at that moment in 2007, I knew that I could not go on. There was no more water. Zandvlakte is the last farm in our valley in the Bavianskloof, and our river had run dry before it reached my farm.” Kruger reluctantly gave up goat farming and embarked on the Working for Water program, a government pilot effort to restore degraded watersheds.
Over the next three years, he and a team of over 100 workers planted 1,500 hectares of his farm with millions of cuttings of an indigenous succulent tree, the spekboom (Portulacaria afra), which can grow well even in dry conditions.
“I have never regretted that decision,” says Kruger. “The trees are now well established, and in the big flood this year, we managed to prevent water runoff from penetrating the soil, improving ground water levels, instead of washing our topsoil into the river.”
Spekboom forests can act as ‘natural water dams’: in mountainous areas, the trees can grow even on steep slopes, and when rare rainfall occurs in the semi-arid regions of the Eastern Cape, they suck up all of the moisture quickly and can store it for months. They can serve as grazing and browsing areas of last resort for wildlife and livestock, even when all else has withered in a drought.
They also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more quickly than most other trees in dry conditions.
However, farmers are usually not paid for carbon storage, water security and other essential ecosystem services that well-managed land provides for downstream water users and for the global community. That could change, though, if governments and the global community set the right conditions.
“Spekboom is an amazing plant. It can take root and regrow, just from simple cuttings from existing trees. It can quickly reform the soil because it continuously sheds a lot of leaves, which help to build up soil organic carbon,” explains ecologist Anthony Mills, who has written extensively on the sub-tropical thicket ecosystem of South Africa, one of the country’s lesser known plant biomes.
Spekboom is the dominant tree of the thicket ecosystem, a complex forest that creates its own microclimate. Thicket forests used to cover up to 5 million hectares across the dry areas of the Eastern Cape, until about 200 years ago, when massive overgrazing by goats and sheep started and turned much of this ecosystem into a mere shadow of its former biodiversity and natural splendor.
“You can drive for four hours across degraded areas, which look like a savannah woodland, because all you see are some of the surviving jacket plum trees (Pappea capensis), which were originally part of the thicket ecosystem. The richness of this ecosystem is almost all gone today, but we could bring it back,” says Mills. “Today, more than 1.3 million hectares of severely degraded thicket landscapes in the Eastern Cape Province are ready to be restored to their former ecological functionality, which can also increase their productive use for livestock,” he adds.
Scientists from Stellenbosch University came upon the remarkable ability of spekboom to regrow in degraded areas almost by chance. In 1976, a farmer in the Kromport area of the Eastern Cape had planted cuttings of the sturdy tree on a steep slope of about 200 by 100 meters behind a barn on his farm, because he was trying to find a way to stop annual floods that were threatening his livestock. He soon discovered that spekboom not only rapidly established itself in the degraded soil but also stopped the floods very quickly after it had been planted.
“Some of the plants in this area are now over 40 years old, and we can see some of the original thicket ecosystem reforming. Other plants are joining, and birds and wildlife are returning,” says Mills. Although the area is rather small, it has yielded valuable scientific information, including on the amount of carbon stored below ground, in the roots of the spekboom plant and in the soil.
The discovery prompted the South African government to carry out one of the largest ecological experiments in the world: in 2007, they planted 330 plots of spekboom, each half a hectare (50 by 50 meters), across the entire degraded area, which spanned almost 1,000 kilometers. More than a decade on, the plots have yielded promising results.
In almost all of the plots that had been planted in degraded thicket and whose fences had been maintained, replanting with cuttings from spekboom has been successful, under a variety of conditions and planting techniques. The most important factor, according to scientists from Stellenbosch University and Nelson Mandela University, is that grazing pressure from goats must be reduced for at least five years through fencing, and the cuttings need to be planted well and deep enough in the soil.
“By finding a way to boost agricultural productivity, restore a lost ecosystem and store carbon quickly and at scale, we would have a real win-win for farmers and for the global community,” says Tim Christophersen, Coordinator of the Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch at UN Environment.
The goal is to restore an area of thicket of over one million hectares, almost 200 times the size of Manhattan. There is potential to plant more than 2 billion tree cuttings across this immense landscape, providing work and income for thousands of people for several years.
“This might sound daunting, but given the opportunities for combining the real, long-term restoration of these degraded lands with diversified economic benefits to the local economy, the potential is amazing,” says Christophersen.
The South African government sees thicket restoration as one of the low-hanging fruits for the achievement of national climate and biodiversity goals and recognizes that private investments are key. “We planted the pilot plots back in 2007 to attract private investors by demonstrating that this can work,” says Dr. Christo Marais, Chief Director at the Department of Environmental Affairs, which runs the Working for Water program. “We have studied this thoroughly, and we believe there are big opportunities for ecosystem restoration investments across South Africa.”
One of the next steps in scaling up the restoration could be to establish carbon and livestock farms, where several thousand hectares could be replanted with spekboom, to combine income from carbon with other income streams and economic activity.
“Farmers like to look over the fence and see what their neighbor is doing,” says Pieter Kruger. “Having big demonstration plots on existing farms is important to spread the word that becoming a carbon farmer can pay off, both for restoring the land and for making a decent return from it,” he adds.
Even though Kruger has not yet received any compensation for the carbon he has sequestered on his farm, he remains optimistic. “We never give up,” he says. His Zandvlakte farm lies in the Bavianskloof, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, one of the most remote and beautiful areas of South Africa. Kruger and his family have also branched out into ecotourism, allowing visitors to experience the success of their shift from conventional farming to land restoration first-hand.
“The global carbon market, including carbon offsets, for example from the aviation industry, is starting to boom again after several years of uncertainty. If current trends persist, carbon credits might provide some income for farmers like Pieter Kruger,” says Mills. Carbon credits are compensations that nations, companies, or individuals can buy to offset part of their emissions that cannot be otherwise reduced. Offsets are not a replacement for ambitious climate mitigation action across all sectors – they can only provide a temporary solution while we deeply de-carbonize our economies. Ecosystem carbon credits often also have many other benefits beyond carbon, such as biodiversity, water, or better income options for farmers.
The carbon market is highly complex and volatile, and farmers should not only rely on carbon for their income. “We must try to blend different income streams for farmers so that carbon credits are only one of several revenue streams. At the same time, the restoration of degraded lands will increase the value of the farmland in the long run and improve resilience and ecosystem services for local communities and for entire nations,” says Tim Christophersen.
“We are running out of time for climate and biodiversity action, and large-scale opportunities like thicket restoration in South Africa must be urgently explored. We would like to support the government of South Africa and other partners, like Living Lands and Commonland, to realize the potential of the Eastern Cape thicket restoration, as we move into the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.”
South African Government studies on ecosystem carbon sequestration:
For more information, contact Head of Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch of UN Environment Tim Christophersen, Tim.Christophersen@un.org.