By planting trees, Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) is working to change the lives of South Africans and bring hope to their lives, says Emily Jones, Trees and Carbon Programme Manager at FTFA.

“The idea of changing township landscapes into more liveable and enjoyable places is really exciting for me,” she says. “It’s an environmental project that has a positive impact on people and puts their needs first.”

Every year, FTFA plants between 25,000 and 35,000 trees in homes and communities around the country. In its 30-year existence, the organisation has planted more than 4.6 million trees.

It’s a “major environmental injustice”

Because of the country’s apartheid history, many of South Africa’s residents live far from green spaces. They do not have greenery in their homes and neighbourhoods, according to a recent paper in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. Wealthier suburbs also benefit from something called the “luxury effect”. This means they not only have more trees and greenery, but also a greater diversity of plant and animal species.

Dr Pippin Anderson, an urban ecologist at the University of Cape Town, spoke to GroundUp about the luxury effect. She explains how this environmental inequity plays out in townships. “Think of the cooling, water retention that people lose out on, the increase in dust generation [because there aren’t plants to keep the soil in place],” she says. “Yes, there’s no greenery, but what is the next step – people don’t have places to walk, they don’t get the psychological benefits [of experiencing nature]. You think of all those benefits that they are robbed of,” Dr Anderson says. It’s a “major environmental injustice”.

Trees for homes and communities

This is the situation FTFA has been working for decades to improve. FTFA has two major community tree-planting programmes: Trees for All and Trees for Homes. Through Trees for All, FTFA plants and monitors trees in schools, hospitals, parks, clinics, old-age homes and anywhere else people will benefit from, and look after, them. Trees for Homes is – literally – closer to home: People receive a fruit tree and a shade tree to plant on their property. 

In the past, Trees for Homes beneficiaries wanted fruit trees. However, “in the most recent distributions, shade trees go more quickly”, Emily says. “People have said that it’s getting very hot, and there is more appreciation of what shade trees could give them.” 

The team distributes between 750 and 1,000 trees at a time. Although the locations are usually determined by where sponsors want to plant trees, community members and ward councillors sometimes contact FTFA directly.

Up to 95% of our trees survive

On distribution days, community members collect the trees and plant them themselves. This is important, Emily says, because facilitators can then explain the importance of trees and how to look after them. “If people know that these trees will bring them value, they’re more likely to care for them. Often, they walk far to come and collect them with some compost, and the fact that they plant them themselves makes people more willing to care for them.”

As part of the programme, FTFA trains up local community educators who go door-to-door and check on the trees after one week, six months and a year. Up to 95% of trees that FTFA plants survive, says Emily. “FTFA has been planting trees since the 1990s, and we have a lot of experience in this area. We get our tree selection right – hardy trees that are suited to the area.”

Most of the demand for home-based trees comes from peri-urban and rural areas and places where there are low-income houses and no shade, she says

Tree Planting as a “light of hope”

Although tree monitors are still checking up on trees, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has hampered tree distribution. “We have mass tree distributions that we have funding for and we have adjusted our methodologies to distribute trees in a way that prevents people from collecting in crowds,” Emily explains.

“It is different to handing out food,” she says. “You can justify people queuing for food parcels, but [tree planting] is long-term relief, long-term changing of the neighbourhood, long-term fruit provision.”

The team managed to facilitate one tree planting volunteer day in April at a school, though. It left its mark on Ecopreneur Teboho Mosehle. “It was really uplifting and humbling at the same time,” he said after the event. “We planted with matric learners and, looking in their eyes, you [could] just sense a need for upliftment of the spirit and the event was really a light of hope.”

For Emily, tree-planting holds the same hope for the future as the country struggles through the hardship of the COVID pandemic. “We’re planting for a future in which we’ve overcome COVID. The people who plant and enjoy them will have come through the storm and out the other side.”

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