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Nurturing a new generation of climate heroes

Deforestation is a major global threat and contributor to climate change, but developing a new generation of climate heroes can help combat this threat. Between 2002 and 2022, South Africa lost 12,200 ha of humid primary forest, a 9.7% decrease in these ecologically significant forests. Since 2001, South Africa has lost 1.57 million hectares or 26% of its tree cover – equivalent to one billion tonnes of COe emissions.

Trees – and forests in particular – play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and reducing many harmful impacts of climate change. These impacts affect the environment and human populations, especially in areas hard hit by poverty.

Reforestation and forest conservation programmes can help to restore biodiversity, keep rivers clean, reduce flood damage, and serve as carbon sinks. Urban forests and other green areas also substantially lower temperatures in cities and play a significant positive role in people’s mental health and physical well-being.

With food insecurity, unemployment, and poverty reaching crisis levels, there is a pressing need to address South Africa’s climate resilience and socio-economic security. In recent meetings, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP) has aimed to decrease the marginalisation of youth and include young people in climate action and innovation. 

“With the rapid rate of climate change, educating the next generation about how crucial trees are in managing the equilibrium of the climate has never been more important,” says Monique Smith, Events and Tree Distribution Manager at Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA).

The Climate Heroes programme from real estate trust fund Fortress REIT, in partnership with FTFA, takes this to heart, aiming to transform how the company interacts with society.

Since 2019, FTFA has run EcoClusters in Fortress REIT schools and communities. The aim? To future-proof these communities by implementing scalable, sustainable programmes as part of a smart environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategy.

A combination of strategically linked FTFA programmes achieves long-lasting effects. “Inequities are inherent in the current system, so communities need multi-pronged approaches to reduce the effects of poverty and climate change,” says Robyn Hills, Head of Programmes at FTFA. “For example, we will set up a food garden through our Food Gardens for Africa programme, which in turn provides trees to be distributed to community members under the Trees for Homes programme.” 

“Clustering programmes allow communities and learners to see the impact of a healthy environment and ecosystem first-hand – one they helped to create,” adds Luyanda Ntuli, FTFA Food Gardens Manager.

Community members who collect trees form positive associations with the community centres or cooperatives running the programmes. This increases community buy-in and support for FTFA’s activities, creating a positive feedback loop for social upliftment.

Fortress REIT has taken this a few strides further by implementing the Fortress Running Series. This combines climate action, environmental health and the well-being of people in cluster areas on the running series route, as well as in schools from communities around Fortress REIT shopping centres. 

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, the series returned in earnest in 2022, when Fortress REIT approached FTFA to host a Trees For All Programme at two Rustenburg-based schools.

The Fortress Running Series incorporates a fun learning aspect by involving race organisers in a Climate Hero workshop for the children in the environmental clubs at each school. The children learn about tree planting and then plant trees donated by Fortress REIT, with environmental messages reinforced by star athletes like Hezekiel Sepeng and Israel Morake. 

Sepeng was the first black South African athlete to win an Olympic medal, claiming silver in the 1996 men’s 800m. He is now the Excellence Manager at Athletics South Africa. Morake won the 1992 Two Oceans Marathon and is the founder of the ISMO Athletics Club, Fortress REIT’s partner in implementing the running series.

These athletics legends speak to the learners at the workshops about why it is important for our health to keep the air clean and look after our environment. At the workshops, learners take part in fun, interactive activities centred on climate change awareness and the importance of trees in reducing the negative effects of human-induced climate change. After the theory learnt on the first day, FTFA facilitators return on the second day to lead the learners in planting the trees. The learners receive a Climate Hero certificate and are offered free entrance into the race that takes place a few days after each workshop.

Including young learners in climate action is crucial as they are the future stewards of the planet. By involving them in tree planting initiatives, we not only instill a sense of responsibility towards the environment but also empower them to actively contribute to mitigating climate change.

“Thank you for inviting us… to be a part of this wonderful and life-changing initiative. One thing that will stay with us, was the excitement and the enthusiasm with which our learners planted the trees,” wrote faculty members from Goue Arend Primary School in Klerksdorp, North West Province, to Fortress REIT.

The principal of Tapoleng Junior Secondary School in Sterkspruit, Eastern Cape, echoed these sentiments: “These trees symbolise growth, renewal, and hope for a greener future. Your kindness will leave a lasting impact, providing shade, cleaner air, and a vibrant ecosystem for generations to come.”

Usually, around 60 trees are planted by 20 learners from two schools in the area, who are also trained at the workshops. Trees donated can be a combination of shade and fruit trees and equate to 22.14 tonnes of CO2e sequestered over a 40-year growth period.

In 2023, Fortress REIT donated a total of 210 trees in the Climate Heroes programme, equating to roughly 77.49 tonnes of CO2e offset. Seven schools were greened across three provinces, and 112 school children were trained in Climate Heroes workshops.

“FTFA thanks Fortress REIT for their ongoing proactive contribution, support and commitment towards a more sustainable and lower carbon future for all. This programme is helping to enhance climate change alleviation and environmental awareness, and provide a healthier environment for under-resourced communities around South Africa,” says Smith. 

“The provision of 95 fruit trees has also contributed significantly to long-term food security in these communities. We look forward to the continuation of this relationship and hope to plant many more trees across the country in 2024 and beyond,” she concludes.

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