The Stutterheim Reforestation Project is located within the Kologha Forest Reserve, South Africa’s second-largest natural forest.

Managed by Food & Trees for Africa’s (FTFA’s) Carbon Department, the reforestation project is located towards the eastern end of the Eastern Cape’s Amatola Mountains, a highly biodiverse area home to many rare and endangered plants and animals, including endemic species.

“The importance of planting trees within the Amatola forest is to enrich the diversity and habitat restoration and ensure the land is restored to its original state,” says Simone Ruthnam, from FTFA’s Carbon Department. “The trees are planted densely to ensure they grow closely and intertwine. This eventually creates a canopy of pioneer species, increasing biomass and carbon stored,” she adds.

The Stutterheim Reforestation Project is a research & development (R&D) initiative aimed at understanding planting conditions, species compatibility, and restoration techniques, to develop a replicable approach for other areas. 

“There were many aspects to consider before initiating this project, including a site assessment to determine opportunities and threats that may affect restoration; the management of invasive species, including land preparation and removal; and careful selection of indigenous species well-adapted and suited to the local climate,” says Ruthnam.

Before being outplanted, seedlings are reared in a local nursery near the project site. “I usually have between 5,000 and 8,000 indigenous trees in the nursery, at different levels of growth,” says Robert Scott, owner of The Shire eco-lodge and indigenous nursery, which manages the project’s nursery phase. 

“Because of the site’s harsh winter weather, we have stuck to hardy species like white stinkwood (Celtis Africana), Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus), camphor bush (Tarchonanthos camphoratus), and river bushwillow (Combretum erythrophyllum). The yellowwoods are native to the forest adjacent to the site, while other species are endemic to the Eastern Cape or indigenous in other provinces,” Scott elaborates. 

He further notes that some species are chosen for specific properties, such as sagewood (Buddleja salviifolia), a hardy pioneer, and white honeybell bush (Freylinia tropica), a protective shrub. Other indigenous species used include sweet thorn (Vachellia karoo), kei apple (Dovyallis caffra), and real and Henkel’s yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius and P. henkelli).

Seedlings are grown from seed in trays inside a protective fibreglass nursery before being planted into bags at a height of about 10cm. Bags are then held in the open nursery, protected by 40% shade cloth under overhead irrigation. “Depending on the species, trees are grown in the nursery for about a year to 18 months until they are large enough to plant out. Combretum tend to be faster growers; Celtis and Podocarpus are a bit slower,” says Scott. This also helps to ensure that the survival rate of our trees never fluctuates below 90%. 

The project site is located on private land, with tree planting and maintenance undertaken by Barkay Birds. Local community members are employed to plant and maintain the trees. “All the work – land preparation, digging holes, clearing alien vegetation, planting and fertilising trees, and maintaining the site – was done by the local community. We have not conducted any formal training, but the staff have developed a new skill set by being involved in the project,” Scott expands.

Indigenous trees growing in the nursery.

Trees in different phases of growth.

Phase one planting progress.

Project Progress

“Approximately 6,000 indigenous trees have been planted at the project site, with an estimated carbon offset of 3,468 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) over the trees’ lifetime,” Ruthnam adds. “The reforestation of this site not only provides carbon sequestration benefits, but planting these trees also creates a much deeper value through the increase in biodiversity and the ultimate flourishing and restoration of the land to its original state. Projects such as the Stutterheim Reforestation Project encourage individuals to create a healthy, thriving ecosystem for future generations, inspiring a legacy of sustainability.” 

The project has had to overcome significant challenges. A lot of water is required during dry months, while staff had to protect trees being ringbarked by rats and American Bramble has been a particularly stubborn invasive species. “Excessive rain has drowned trees in some areas, while a bad frost in the first year killed many trees; some that didn’t die took a full season to recover before growing again,” adds Scott. 

“We have learnt a lot about what to do and what not to do. We put many different ideas to the test during this trial project: varying tree density and species, as well as testing different bags and soil mixes in the nursery to fine-tune tree growth. This all contributes to sustainable long-term success and has given us a lot to consider going forward with new projects,” he continues. 

In terms of project success to date, Scott says excellent progress is being made: “Walking through an area where trees were planted 4m apart a few years ago, in some places the trees have grown so well that they are about to touch branches. It is very satisfying!”

By May 2023, efforts to combat American Bramble were yielding promising results. Since then, there have been signs of indigenous vegetation resurgence and the establishment of a natural wetland.

 The project recently completed its fourth planting phase (October 2023 to March 2024). The next phase will start later this year. “We stopped planting in April because Stutterheim experiences extremely cold temperatures during winter, so we won’t be planting again until spring (September),” explains Ruthnam.

Tree protected for ring barking.

A natural wetland is forming in the reforestation area.

Treated American Bramble dying off.

The Stutterheim Reforestation Project and the Inclusive Carbon Standard (ICS)

“In 2010, FTFA registered the first verified carbon standard (VCS) project methodology in South Africa, a Trees for Homes methodology. However, it was difficult to gain carbon credits from this project, as audit costs were extremely high,” Ruthnam says. 

FTFA therefore developed the Inclusive Carbon Standard (ICS), which aims to reduce carbon project registration and auditing costs, and be inclusive of all project types. “A few novelties of the ICS include the use of modern technology to greatly reduce registered project audit costs, and open source component methodologies that make it accessible and affordable for communities to register projects at a fraction of the cost compared to existing carbon standards. The goal is to eventually transfer the VCS registered methodology to the ICS, and earn carbon credits through the ICS for the trees planted at the Stutterheim Reforestation Project,” Ruthnam expands.

What to look for in a reforestation project

The use of indigenous species is a crucial factor in reforestation, and not just from an ecological perspective. “The carbon efficiency and creation of biomass is greater for indigenous trees, which are much larger than fruit trees,” explains Ruthnam. 

For corporates looking to invest in reforestation as part of their corporate social investment (CSI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies, registered and audited documentation of carbon offsetting is invaluable. It creates accountability and ensures corporate money actively goes towards measurable and sustainable carbon offsetting rather than relying on tree planting statistics with no measure of reforestation success.

This is where FTFA and the ICS are doing their part to advance the benefits of reforestation – both for nature and the corporate sector.

biodiversity, carbon offset, Corporate social investment, ESG, forest, indigenous forests, indigenous trees, natural wetland, reforestation, restoration, trees increase biodiversity
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