Putting invasives to good use

South Africans may not be aware of just how destructive invasive alien species are and not just to our environment but government is killing two birds with one stone by turning this problem into job creation opportunities. Nonhlanhla Mkhize has been with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development since 2005. She is currently the project manager for the province’s Invasive Alien Species Programme (IASP). Mkhize says the department is tasked with eradicating and managing invasive alien species (both plants and animals) in KZN and works with the national Department of Water Affairs to achieve this goal, while creating employment.

The IASP was officially launched in 2005 and more than 4 000 job opportunities have been created each year. Invasive alien plants are those that have been brought to South Africa from other countries for their beauty, economic value or ecological purpose but in some cases unintentionally. However, they are brought here without their natural enemies which results in plants reproducing copiously. The alien plants or their seeds can enter the country in a number of different ways – people’s shoes, mail order on ships, planes and migration of birds.

The department works together with conservation groups to identify areas which have been invaded by alien species. In addition, members of the public assist in identifying the alien species by calling the department. In KZN, alien invasive hotspots include Zululand, the Natal Midlands and the coastal zone. In 1998, a staggering 9.75% of the province assessed was invaded. The department selects areas that are most affected and then become their priorities for cleanup operations, as this is an expensive exercise. Over R400 million has been spent on this project over the past few years.

But jobs aside, why is this programme so important? Invasive alien species affect water security, the ecological functioning of natural systems and they also pose a threat to the productive use of land. They intensify the impact of veld fires and floods and increase soil erosion. This can have a knock-on effect. Speaking recently, MEC Lydia Johnson, said that less water would result in the construction of new dams and increased water rates as well as potentially reduced agricultural yields, resulting in high food prices and increased poverty. “When we lose the biodiversity and ecosystems – we will lose our clean air, ecotourism and traditional medicines. When we lose the potentially productive agricultural land and conservation land – there will be a reduction in the land value,” explained Johnson. “When we lose grazing lands for livestock, we will have to use more supplementary feed for the livestock and thus high costs in livestock farming, increased poverty. Poisoning of livestock – we will have to purchase medicine for the care of the livestock and thus livestock farming costs going up, some of the livestock may die after eating the poisonous alien plants,” she added.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Mkhize says one aspect of the programme focuses on value adding opportunities by creating products like eco-coffins and school desks. Sandile Motaung heads up the plant in Durban where the desks and eco-coffins are made on request. Trees that are cut down all over the province and unwanted cut alien plants are collected and processed to make these products which now include church pews and boardroom tables. Prior to 2006, Motaung was unemployed, now he has been trained in coffin and desk making. The department selects unemployed people and trains them in life skills, safety and operational skills. They are also taught to create and sustain viable businesses. Motaung’s life has been turned around since he became involved in this project and he has set his sights on having his own company in two years time. “I had an interest in making furniture but didn’t have any skills. I got into this programme and have learnt a lot of things. I now teach this to my team here. I do feel like I make a difference to their lives,” says Motaung. Experienced coffin maker, Koos Goosen, responsible for training Motaung, says he enjoys mentoring young people. Goosen also educates his trainees on safety and health regulations and is always on hand to assist them.

The School Desk Project is part of a Value Adding Project that currently employs 91 people of which 47% are women; 37% are youth and 5% are people with disabilities. “Training and empowerment of the beneficiaries of the IASP programme is seen as one of the key solution to address the socio- economic challenges of the rural poor communities. The vision of the department with regard to the value adding projects is to train and empower
programme beneficiaries and let them form their own business initiatives outside the department’s ambit,” the MEC explained. This year, the department has handed over 200 desks to a rural school Sabuyaze Primary School. The department constantly receives request for donations says Mkhize but all institutions are encouraged to buy these products so that the sustainability of the projects continue to be viable. The products are
sold at cheaper rates, making them affordable.

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