Plan to uproot 100 000 trees in Limpopo ‘sacrilege’, says baobab expert

Plans to uproot more than 109 000 trees at the construction site for the government’s proposed Musina-Makhado special economic zone, including thousands of protected mopane, marula and baobab trees, don’t sit well with Isaac Sekwama.

“These trees are woven into our culture and are sacred to us,” says Sekwama, who lives in the Tshikuwi village in Limpopo, around 25km from the proposed 8000-hectare southern site of the controversial metallurgical cluster. 

“There are a lot of indigenous trees, which have cultural significance to us as the Venda people, because the roots, the bark, are used for many different things.”

Last month, the final environmental impact assessment (EIA) report by the project’s environmental consultants, Delta Built Environmental Consultants, described how the total number of trees recorded in the proposed construction area is 109 034, of which 51.3% are marula trees, 41.9% shepherd trees, 5.2% baobab and 1.65% leadwood trees.

Its specialists recommend that juvenile and subadult trees need to be relocated and transplanted. 

“This should be done when the plants are actively growing, and the outside temperature is less than 30°C, which would increase the likelihood of successful translocation and with the input of a horticulturist, or a plant translocation specialist.”

A horticulturist and a plant translocation specialist need to be consulted on the feasibility of the relocation of the adult trees, says the final EIA, which notes how De Beers’ Venetia Mine did successful relocation of baobab trees in 2016 and SANParks in 2005.

“The feasibility of creating tourism opportunities using the larger baobab trees need to be investigated. Should the permit be granted to allow the trees to be removed, the wood must be made available to local communities,” it states.

The proposed site is home to over 5 000 baobab trees. 

Dr Sarah Venter of the Baobab Foundation says it’s possible to relocate baobabs of any size. 

“It would be important that it is done professionally and that there is at least a five-year plan to look after the relocated trees to ensure their survival wherever they are moved to.  

There will be a huge impact on the remaining environment (animals that rely on the trees and the micro-habitats around them), landscape (tourism and aesthetic value), and undermining the trees’ spiritual significance in the process of removing them,” she says.

“I cannot believe that the Venda people, who are the cultural custodians of this landscape, would tolerate such sacrilege.”

An assessment of where the trees would be moved to needs to be done.

“Introducing 109 000 trees to a new landscape is just as damaging as taking them out of the original landscape. This doubles the impact of moving the trees and has to be taken into consideration as well,” she says.

Venter notes how baobab wood is spongy and cannot be used by the local community. “It disintegrates within months after it has been harvested. It cannot be used for firewood or building, so there is no value in the wood for local communities.”

The African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at the University of the Western Cape says trees provide a micro-habitat for small faunal and floral species and micro-climatic conditions suitable for these species’ survival. 

The canopies of huge trees such as baobabs form micro-habitats as they limit light penetration allowing other species to grow in their shade.

“If so many trees are uprooted from one site at once, many species, particularly birds, dependent on trees for nesting and resting, will be displaced. This will be problematic since species that are only endemic to the area could be completely eliminated and even driven to early extinction.”

“Moreover, trees are carbon sinks and provide all living organisms with clean air for breathing. Cutting down trees, especially rare trees such as the baobab and the mopane tree, on which the edible mopane worm feeds, will be disastrous to the ecology and to the livelihoods of those in Limpopo.”

The centre says that even if the said number of trees are uprooted and taken somewhere, the species dependent on them cannot be transferred together with the trees. 

“This implies that all those said species will be displaced and stand a great chance of elimination.”

Neil Beddy, the conservation manager at Greater Kuduland Safaris in nearby Tshipise, agrees. Removing ancient trees such as baobabs will change the entire ecosystem. 

“Those trees are little ecosystems in themselves. We can take you down to one baobab, walk you around it, and show you how so many species interact with it, from bats to insects, to big game, to the biggest game, birds, to nesting sites. You will actually be destroying populations and turning that area into a desert … Something that’s stood there for 1 000 years — it doesn’t even belong to us and deserves respect.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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