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Rehabilitating indigenous riverine forests with Respect the River

As the river flows out of the Outeniqua mountains and meets human settlements, its ecology changes. This pristine indigenous forest becomes an exotic ecosystem plagued by invasive plants and pollution, continuing for 15 km to the sensitive Gwaing River Mouth estuarine system. Respect the River is a holistic river rehabilitation initiative focused on the Malgas River riparian zone in the Western Cape’s Garden Route region in George. 

Ruan Siebert, Zoe Prinsloo and dedicated community volunteers drive the Respect the River project. “Zoe and I grew up here and have a great passion for the flora of our Outeniqua mountains. Over the years, we have seen local ecosystems degrade, but we believe the Malgas River has the potential to be a great ecosystem asset to the city,” says Siebert, a Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) facilitator and founding member of Respect the River. 

“It’s only when the river passes through development that it starts to show signs of negative human impacts and high levels of exotic plant species due to disturbance,” he continues. “Our motto is, healthy ecosystems host healthy people. A beautiful, clean river can be a natural, purifying space for people.”

The local community has been vital to the project. “We need local custodians of our ecosystems; the only way to achieve that is through education and creating awareness. If the local community is part of the restoration process, they value the surrounding ecosystems more. A deeper understanding and appreciation are gained from insights into what is required to care for the natural environment,” explains Siebert.

“Respect the River is a great community-run initiative that aims to educate – and work with – the community about the importance of keeping the water system clean and the ecosystem thriving. Riverbank restoration and invasive plant species removal are essential steps towards preserving our natural environment for future generations,” emphasises Susan Evans, FTFA Event & Tree Distribution Manager.

“Invasive plant species can outcompete native species and disrupt the balance of an ecosystem. They can also cause soil erosion and negatively impact water quality. By removing these invasive species and replacing them with indigenous species, riverbank restoration can improve water quality, enhance habitat for native species, and reduce flood risk,” she says.

“Effective removal of invasive species gives the local seed bank a chance to flourish and naturally restore the riverbanks with local species. Thus, funding that targets exotic clearing is critical to ecosystem restoration,” Siebert expands.

Project funding comes from many sources, including FTFA sponsors. One Tree Planted is a regular funder which recently ran a volunteer event on 21 April 2023, clearing invasive species and planting 100 indigenous trees and 100 indigenous shrubs along the riperian area.

“FTFA is proud to support Respect the River in the important work of invasive species removal, indigenous tree and shrub planting, litter clean up, and maintenance of already planted trees,” enthuses Evans.

Respect the River has big ambitions. “We see this river as a starting point – a chance to set an example of what is possible when a community comes together to make a positive impact on an ecosystem,” says Siebert. “Hopefully, it can act as an inspirational model. With appropriate funding, it could lead to the restoration of other rivers along the Garden Route and across Southern Africa.”

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