Combating desertification in South Africa (Willem Van Cotthem / Michelle Greyvenstein)

Interesting message from South Africa

by Michelle Greyvenstein

Good day Mr. van Cotthem,

I have been reading up on your blogs on sand dams.  Very very interesting and very much in need in Southern Africa as well.  I am looking to make a difference in South Africa and I hope that you will be able to assist me in the execution of my dream and vision of a better future for all in this beautiful country.

I am hoping that you will be able to guide me in the right direction.  We are setting up projects to create jobs in small rural towns in the more arid areas of Southern Africa.  We are looking at small towns with 80% unemployment rate and higher.  The idea is to put together a workable and sustainable plan to create jobs and also address issues like alcohol and substance abuse.  Big problems with foetal alcohol syndrome and we want to do our best to obliterate that.

I sat down and started putting small projects together to create work for women in  particular.  Bee keepers, handwork, leather shoes with African beading, wool products, mohair products, living gardens in handmade concrete boxes, etc.  

Our main object though is to create sustainable income with harvesting a local declared weed for animal feed. What I would like to know:  is it possible to change the climate in arid areas by planting drought resistant plants that can be used for food, fuel and animal feed.  Will the plants be able to make a positive impact on the ground and the climate.  I am looking at using plants to try and turnaround areas previously marked as desert and semi-desert areas back to useable fertile land that can be used for food crops.

I will really appreciate your input if possible.

Kind Regards

Michelle Greyvenstein

RTM Project Support Administrator

British American Tobacco South Africa

=============================================

My reply (Willem Van Cotthem)

Dear Michelle,

Thanks for your message and congratulations for your efforts.

I will first try to answer your questions:

(1) Is it possible to change the climate in arid areas by planting drought resistant plants that can be used for food, fuel and animal feed?

In order to change the local climate in a significant way, one needs to cover up a desertlike environment with trees and shrubs.  These will transpire a lot of water in the air and give sufficient shadow over the soil to limit evaporation of the soil moisture.  Gradually the area will become less arid.

I see one immediate solution for South Africa, that is to start planting cuttings of the Elephant bush (spekboom, Portulacaria afra), a drought tolerant species that is widespread in the country and is favourite fodder for animals (elephants, antelopes, goats, sheep, etc.).  It has a remarkable characteristic: little leaves falling on the soil start rooting with some moisture and give new plants, forming a real bush.

I would start with spekboom cuttings in a nursery and multiply constantly to be able to cover a large area.

One can also use a drought tolerant bamboo: 

Oxytenanthera abyssinica, the savannah bamboo (see Google).  It is a very hardy bamboo and can grow on poor soils.  This fast growing species can also be grown from cuttings and rhizomes. People use it to make various types of local baskets for transporting produce, but the main use is as building material (scaffolding, house construction, fencing, even furniture).  It could be used for soil erosion control and rehabilitation of degraded areas.

============================================

(2) Will the plants be able to make a positive impact on the ground and the climate?  I am looking at using plants to try and turnaround areas previously marked as desert and semi-desert areas back to useable fertile land that can be used for food crops.

Growing plants always have a positive impact on the soil.  As for the climate, it depends upon the density of the vegetation cover (one needs bushes or even a wood with trees).

Aiming at turning a desertlike area into fertile land is a rather difficult exercise.  One of the well-known methods is densely seeding the land with leguminous species. Please read this article:

<http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/61/5/1257.full> (African legumes: a vital but under-utilized resource).

You will find a lot of interesting ideas, e.g. the use of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), gum arabic tree (Acacia senegal), honeybush (Cyclopia), rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis), groundnut (Arachis hypogea), etc.

Once (and not before) the effect of these leguminous species is significant, one can start to use the land for food crops.

However, I would like to recommend the set up of plantations of the spineless cactus Opuntia ficus-indica var. inermis (which means without spines).  Please Google “nopales” to find sufficient information on the huge plantations in Central and South America, where billions of people are eating these cactus pads and fruits.

============================================

(3) My attention was taken to your project : “living gardens in handmade concrete boxes”.

This is extremely interesting, because it coincides with my continuous efforts to convince people to switch from classic gardening (food production in a kitchen garden) to “CONTAINER GARDENING”.

As you know, the main problem for gardeners is the quality of the soil (drought, lack of organic matter, pests, etc.).

Well, by growing vegetables and herbs in all sorts of containers (pots, buckets, bottles, plastic bags, sacks, barrels, etc.) one can avoid most of these gardening problems.  Let me recommend to have a good look at my websites and Facebook pages concerning container gardening and you will discover numerous simple, cheap and efficient ideas for food production in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid regions.

MY WEBSITES AND FACEBOOK PAGES (Willem Van Cotthem)

https://desertification.wordpress.com/

https://containergardening.wordpress.com/

https://plantstomata.wordpress.com/

PERSONAL: 

https://www.facebook.com/willem.vancotthem.7

CONTAINER GARDENING ALLIANCE:

https://www.facebook.com/willemvancotthem

DESERTIFICATION FIELD PRACTICES:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/273559399327792/

CONTAINER GARDENING AND VERTICAL GARDENING:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/221343224576801/

WILLOW AMBASSADORS:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/442323322523986/

OPUNTIA AMBASSADORS:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/699997340039515/

SEEDS FOR FOOD: 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/seedsforfood/

ZADEN VOOR VOEDSEL:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/zadenvoorvoedsel/

===============================================

ADDITION

It could be helpful to check out my different videos on YOU TUBE.

Please go to: https://www.youtube.com/user/willemvcot

Hoping that this can help you to find the right direction for your initiatives, I wish you a lot success.

Kind regards,

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem

Photo credit: Leen Geerts - Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem
Photo credit: Leen Geerts – Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.