For millennia we humans roamed the vast lands of this planet Earth, foraging for foodstuffs, hunting animals to supplement our diet as necessary. We took what we could find, as needed, and our searches led us across the accessible landmasses. It is fascinating to think of the various landscapes that scores of successive generations saw – Earth in a state before any human settlement, the wild in the truest sense of the word.
We must have marvelled at the way foliage and insects proliferated, been in awe of the vastness and magnitude of space, been quite wary of predators big and small. This expansive greenery reached from Cape to Cairo – the length of Africa and beyond – and hunter-gatherers thrived.
Then, about twelve thousand years ago, somewhere in the Jordan valley, a man sitting under his favourite tree had a revelation. He revered this tree for a number of reasons. Firstly, the bark was smooth and comfortable to lean against, providing a favourite nestling spot for his contemplations. Secondly, it was big enough to cast plenty of shade, with a good view of any danger beyond. And thirdly, because it produced an abundance of figs, which in honesty was the highlight. Figs are delicious, and all creatures, human and animal alike know this. However, no one else from his tribe knew about this tree, and he had been coming here for many moons.
On this particular day he was casually immersed in his routine past-time of eating and watching, leaning against the trunk in his usual spot, when he noticed a curious thing. In the space where he would habitually throw the less plump and sweet bits of fig, a few young trees had started growing. They all had leaves of the same colour, shape and smell as his favourite tree, and the bigger ones seemed to be producing those same delicious figs.
Something clicked: Suddenly we human beings had the power. And there in what later became known as the Fertile Crescent, the spark for what later became known as the Neolithic Revolution was ignited.
Fast forward roughly halfway to the current day, and we humans had now figured out that it is specifically the seeds that grow new plants. We collected seed, especially that of grains, and learned when to put it into the ground. Through this first recorded form of agriculture we unwittingly start selecting specific species and varieties that lend themselves to cultivation, gradually whittling out wild varieties and starting monoculture farming. We began damming up rivers for irrigation purposes.
We became skilled at tricking, catching and keeping our prey confined, allowing them to breed and amass, intensifying localised grazing to an unprecedented extent. Agriculture and pastoral living had now been established as far as what later became known as China and Mexico. The consequent need to remain in one place led to the development of settlements and towns, escalating human activity in localised space, which, along with the Earth’s axis making a (safe and predictable) wobble, saw the entire Sahara turn into the hot desert it now is.
Overexploitation of soils began to cause widespread destruction. It did not take long before the Loess Plateau in China, where Chinese agriculture and thus Chinese civilisation started, had its once fertile soils degraded so intensely that it was eventually rendered an arid semidesert.
Fast forward to the 20th Century, and enter John Dennis Liu, renowned educator, ecologist and filmmaker. In 2012 Liu made a documentary called Green Gold which reached international acclaim. In this seminal work he filmed and documented the combined efforts of the World Bank and the Chinese government as they embarked on an ecological restoration project of the Loess Plateau. The documentary also covers similar projects undertaken in Jordan, Rwanda, Bolivia and Ethiopia. With humanity’s now advanced understanding of soil, water, sunlight, photosynthesis, microbes, biodiversity and genetics, we have recognised that our actions have had severely adverse effects on the ecological health of our planet. We have learned that while ecosystems can be destroyed, they can also be restored.
Human activity does not exclusively impact the soils and living organisms; it influences weather systems on a systemic level. Healthy hydrological cycles (remember at school – rain falls, rivers run into the dams and sea, water evaporates, condensates into clouds, rain falls – that thing) are of critical importance if humanity is to thrive into the future.
Essentially, there are two interlinked components: the way in which water leaves the surface of the earth, and what happens if and when it returns. If soils have been stripped of vegetation and water can no longer penetrate, surface temperatures rise. In warm conditions, the moisture that leaves the surface of the earth rises too quickly into the upper atmosphere where it can no longer form clouds. In effect, this creates a vacuum where soils are stripped of all moisture so that when, on the odd occasion that it does rain, the water no longer percolates into the soil. This causes flooding and erosion, and devastating the landscape further.
As fortune would have it, we now know how to reverse this catastrophic process. We know how to grow healthy soil, how to populate it with the right vegetation and how to manage the hydrological cycle. We can effectively restore ecosystems and regulate the climate.
After last October’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the UN has declared the period from 2020 to 2030 the Decade of Restoration. In a report published last week, climate scientists have moved the critical date for governments to change and implement policy from a 12-year deadline to one only 18 months away. This is a gamechanger. The Anthropocene’s effect on the climate is now clear, and we need to act swiftly to mitigate widespread biosphere and civilisation collapse. Liu has called this necessary shift ‘The Great Work of our Time’.
Together with The Weather Makers from the Netherlands and a host of other governmental and international organisations, Liu is set to start a large-scale project in the Sinai Peninsula. After the go-ahead was given by the Egyptian government earlier this month, plans are to restore the heart of the Fertile Crescent to its former state as the Land of Milk and Honey – right there where settled agriculture began.
“The Sinai is an acupuncture point on Earth” says Liu, and faced with the complex reality of the region says “if you ask the right question, you get a whole lot of answers. Restoring ecosystems goes quick and with more success than we thought.”
Greenpop, an environmental organisation based in Cape Town, invited Liu to South Africa for a series of talks and panel discussions. The other esteemed and extensive panellists included the likes of Prof Mark Swilling of the Sustainability Institute, Jason Mingo of Western Cape government, Dr Patricia Holmes of Stellenbosch University, Nirmala Nair of the School for Practical Sustainability, Cormac Cullinan of Cullinan & Associates, Siyabulela Sokomani of Shoots and Roots, Angus McIntosh of Farmer Angus at Spier, Matthew Koehorst of Six Kingdoms, the Green Bishop Geoff Davies and Timothy Wigley, the father of permaculture in South Africa. Events were hosted around the Western Cape from the Greenpop Eden Festival of Action held at Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge in The Crags to the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town. It went on to a tour of the Berg River around Paarl, an evening at Spier Wine farm in Stellenbosch, and culminated in a final discussion at the iconic Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
Greenpop invited Liu to join their initiative as part of a bigger conversation. The founders of Greenpop are on a mission to restore degraded landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa and reconnect people to the planet. The organisation plans to plant half a million trees by 2025 and are looking at the best way to go about it. With an already impressive 111 000 trees under their belt over the last few years, Director Misha Teasdale sought the guidance of Liu and various local authorities to kickstart a broader movement in the best possible direction.
In the words of Zoë Gauld-Angelucci, Greenpop’s Head of Programs:
“The drivers of forest degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa are multiple and compounding. From unregulated logging (often by foreign companies), to clearing for cash crops, to overuse of trees for fuel, human activity is putting increasing and devastating pressure on forest ecosystems. For this reason, Greenpop’s Collaborative Reforestation programme seeks not only to restore forest ecosystems through planting trees, but also to provide additional interventions which address these contextual drivers. By providing training in practices such as alternative livelihoods, woodlot management, and farmer-managed natural regeneration, alongside reforestation, our programme aims to decrease pressure on stressed ecosystems while assisting in accelerating their recovery.”
Over the course of Liu’s various discussions, talks revolved around problems and solutions that we face on a global scale, a national scale, all the way down to a hyper-local context – a situation-by-situation specific approach that constantly checks itself. Part of Liu’s core philosophy is that we need to think on a planetary scale and work together as a species. Deep ecological thinker Koehorst pointed out that “the global is only made up of many, many local communities”, and Liu followed this by stating our need to “align human systems to planetary evolution” where “the landscape in the Anthropocene is determined by our consciousness.” Natural farmer Wigley echoed our need to regenerate, to “recognise that we are part of the Earth” and that essentially, “commodification of food is the problem”.
Swilling, also Co-Director of the Stellenbosch Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, vocalised his vast knowledge saying that our current situation will already lead us “past the point of civilisation as we know it” but that this does not mean that we give up hope. He spoke of a misguided mindset that many people have where they cannot see past the short-term economic loss of implementing major restoration measures to the much greater long-term economic and ecological gain thereof.
Talking about our current ownership systems Swilling says “short-termism is completely irreconcilable with long term necessity” and “there is no future for business if the rest of us are extinct.” Nair, a self-proclaimed “one-woman-wild-woman show, made it plain that research indicates that the “system is already imploding”, that we are now “in deep shits”. Says Liu, “the consequence for the children of the rich is the same as the consequence for the children of the rest of us – we cannot afford not to restore the Earth systems.”
Given this, it is worth noticing that President Ramaphosa’s 2019 SONA made only one mention of climate change in passing, a seeming lip service to the looming challenges. There was no mention of ecosystems collapse, no plans to protect biodiversity as a means of building resilience, no discussion around plans of restoration. Western Cape Premier Alan Winde’s State of the Province Address ran very much along the same lines. This, a year after the drought, in the context of South Africa’s poor regulation on water usage in mining, widespread usage of Glyphosate herbicides that are banned the world over for their damaging effect and a huge ongoing invasive vegetation problem, all of which puts great strain on our limited water supply and fragile river systems.
Both speeches, in fact, rang alarm bells – not only in their neglect to mention the biggest challenge of our era, but also in their proposals around expanding further land for development. Some of this development is admittedly focused on agricultural land but, according to Holmes, due to lack of capacity there is no longer any independent public body commenting on Environmental Impact Assessments for developments on ecologically sensitive sites. Add to this the fact that many of the consultants are either incompetent or corrupt, her vast experience is that biodiversity ends up being ‘overlooked’ and mainstream monocrop farming given the green light.
On a previous visit to South Africa, Liu made a documentary called Finding Common Ground in which he showed the water loss and destruction of biosphere caused by expanded farmland in the Baviaanskloof. All of this, says Holmes, again comes down to our very short-horizon politics with short-term gains which always seem to win against the longer-term wisdom of conserving our irreplaceable biodiversity, and linked to this, our life-support systems. Thus, the situation is dire, despite the ‘good’ legislation we have. “Politicians think the future is not their concern as they will no longer be in power when the worse disaster strikes.”
Fortunately, some people in government can see the light. Mingo, Task Manager for Ecological Infrastructure and Bioremediation in the Western Cape, spoke directly to this short-sightedness, saying we have an instant gratification problem and that is not how ecosystems work. “The system itself will only continue to degrade if nothing is done.” There is a need to show long term investment benefits in order to “make sure we sustain our ecosystem functioning and ecological services in the face of climate change”.
Liu’s answer to South Africa? Ecosystem restoration camps. A practical means of creating restorative systems in the face of climate change and social disparity. These are self-organised, self-governing collectives of 30-50 individuals that actively restore degraded landscapes under guidance of an elected, egalitarian council. The council would use participatory assessment systems, a “collaborative enquiry for collective intelligence”. These camps would communicate what they are doing with all the other camps, sharing knowledge and collaborating across institutions and sectors. Using hyper-localised problem solving and inviting anyone who is interested to learn and participate, the idea is to start a bottom-up approach that will self-replicate as the necessary skillsets proliferate. A week into the Festival of Action Liu commented, “What I like about Greenpop is that it looks like an ecosystem restoration camp.”
“We need to convert the majority of South Africans to fight the same fight” says Sokomani, formerly known as The Township Farmer. He drew the insightful analogy of how water needs to filter into the Earth, and so does the knowledge need to filter into communities. Liu bolstered this view saying that the “answer should be found not by an individual but by a collective gathering”, and that all humans should “sit down together and eat real food; this is key,” a sentiment strongly supported by Wigley. Adds restorative farmer McIntosh, “everyone chooses a farmer every time they eat. Vote with your fork.”
There is a sense that this is a worldwide discussion – just look at the multicontinental Extinction Rebellion movement or Greta Thunberg and the Youth Strike for Climate. So, when talking about the majority of South Africans not yet engaging in this global debate, it being seen largely as a white, privileged, leftist and slightly ‘hippie’ movement, Sokomani had a full artillery of answers relating to issues of integration. “We cannot always just talk on a high level.” In both affluent and underprivileged societies there are plenty of people who either do not know about the issues that mankind faces and how to solve it, or do not really care. But those that know and care need to spread the knowledge; those with the financial ability need to fund the ecological restorers and their education in the townships.
People need the money, and seeing that there is gainful employment in the ecological economy will encourage the youth to follow suit. We need to equip those who have the knowledge and willpower with the ability to write proposals, as there is often a language barrier between applicant and funder. Simultaneously we need to empower the right people, those not in it just for personal enrichment, to start projects and spread the message in the relevant local languages. We need to rehabilitate projects that are no longer functioning, sit with the people and find out what went wrong, and be sure to include the right people in the elected council. Kickstarting such projects in the townships is the best means of starting a populous movement. “Imagine our people toy-toying for restoration,” Sokomani concludes with a chuckle.
On the question of access to land, Swilling pointed out the need for a change in ownership systems away from the current market-centric and state-centric paradigm. Liu went further, confident that people will give access to their private land if the ecosystem restoration camps model “claims no ownership” and purely needs access to do the restorative work for a period of around 3 months per site.
Cullinan, author of Wild Law, pointed out how the legal system is implicit in its outmodedness, and agrees on the need to build a grassroots movement first. Though these issues can only be solved on a systemic level, “subsidies going to mainstream agriculture (should, for instance, be) shifted to permaculture or restorative farming”. The top-down will meet the bottom-up in due course. He further spoke of legislation being drafted at the moment, pushing to pass a Wildlife Freedom Act, recognising that wildlife are also citizens of this country and thus have rights to movement and safety. This naturally leads to the right for habitat, and thus healthy ecosystems.
The restoration camp’s movement will not only protect and increase biodiversity as a means of entrenching resilience, it will further strengthen food security, manage hydrological cycles and ultimately regulate the climate.
At the heart of Liu’s philosophy is a view that our current mercantile system “is a bit mad. We place value on the commodities that are plucked, harvested, processed out of the ecosystem, but do not seem to place any value on the ecosystem itself”. This does indeed seem peculiar – to value products, but not the system itself wherefrom it was generated. Imagine if, for example, we no longer had bees, and were required to employ people to pollinate our plants, as is already happening in parts of the world. The cost of paying these people would be huge, the labour tedious, and it can all be mitigated by keeping the ecosystems healthy and letting the bees, birds and bats continue to do it for us.
Liu spoke at length on the need to move away from our current extraction/transactional economy to a new ‘ecological economy’ where ecosystem function is held central. In such a system the balance within the biosphere is seen to be of the greatest worth, and as such creates incentive to keep restoring the Earth. “We need to look at the natural systems and realise they are of value, things are not. The point of life is not to go shopping.” At the very least, he says, “we need to take food out of the transactional economy; we need to all eat together.”
“I have definitely seen that it is possible to restore largescale degraded landscapes – even ones that have been degraded over historical time and over vast landscapes. Well, clearly, that is what we have to do if we really want to survive. We really, as a species, have to determine what our understanding of the world is. What is our purpose? Why are we here? What are we doing? And when we do that, then we have a new world view… The economy has been false for a long time. It has disadvantaged billions of people. It can only disadvantage billions of people if it had some basic inequities built into it. We need to discuss this. South Africa has an opportunity to delve into this because of your unique history, and if you get it right you will lead the world in a way which is really important and necessary.”
After spending three weeks with John Liu, driving home from his last public appearance at Kirstenbosch, I drove past a huge fig tree and took a moment to reflect. It was raining outside on a perfect Cape Town winters day, and the words of Greenpop’s Teasdale were ringing in my mind: “We have a window that can change the course of mankind,” he said. “We are now on the precipice; we decide the story, and that story will become the new reality. We need to act as a species on a planetary scale. This is the best and only opportunity that we have. It needs to be our new step in human evolution.”
I stopped at a traffic light in the rain and Mr Themba Tinzi, a vendor of The Big Issue, asked for a lift. We drove in the slow-moving traffic to Wynberg and I asked his opinion and insights into the matters on my mind.
“If we work together, we can make a big difference,” he said, “there is not enough knowledge about the ecosystems and climate change, we need more knowledge about those things. We need to have talks and discussions about this. People who have the knowledge and experience must go out and educate.” Saying that the focus should be on community halls and schools, he referred to Madiba, saying “you mustn’t wait for someone to give you something. Learn as much as you can. And crime will go down if people feed themselves. I think it’s a good idea, people would be interested.”
On his time in SA, Liu had said that “one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that we are all Africans. This restorative work of our ecosystems, society and common humanity in the Cradle of Humankind cannot help but feel profound”. Liu feels that last year’s drought “ignited an awareness. The great opportunity is that you have a multi-racial society – this is the opportunity to go further, with real equality and to eliminate the racial divisions. If you do that, you are really at the next step in human consciousness. The theoretical is miserable, but the action side looks good.”
Green Bishop Davies called for us to “renew a pledge to care for nature.” Not all of us can put in the time and get our hands dirty, but we may be able to donate funds or wisdom to the right causes. The options for solutions are available. In this way we can start this new ecological economy, and probably just mitigate climate change, leaving a healthy planet for future generations.
The old adage of ‘leave only footprints’ is no longer appropriate – we need to leave indigenous greenery, healthy soils and functional hydrological cycles. This is the “Great Work of our Time”, the only work that really matters. Says Liu, “The science is clear, we either restore the Earth or we face the consequence… Let us design the future and joyously, consciously, start restoring the Earth.” Ends Teasdale, “It is not only imperative; it is also possible.”
By Scone Malone
Scone Malone is a member of the Kingdom of Animalia, the Phylum Chordata, the Class Mammalia, the Order Primates, the family Hominidae and the Species Homo Sapiens. He pretends to be a mycologist, mathematics teacher and writer.