Our Burning Planet

WILD HARVEST

Livelihoods of KZN South Coast strelitzia seed pickers under threat

It takes strength, agility and precision to collect the seed bounty from the Natal wild banana tree, Strelitzia nicolai. (Photo: Supplied)

Hard times on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast have seen people turn to an unusual, wild harvest to make ends meet, but there are environmental concerns.

Don’t expect to find beautiful bunches of bananas, ripe or otherwise, dangling from the Natal wild banana tree. Its long leaf stalks and broad, shiny green leaves might mislead you, but the Strelitzia nicolai, to use its Latin name, is no banana. It does, however, bear seeds which, weight-for-weight, far surpass prices fetched for the curved green or yellow fruit we all know so well.

In autumn and winter along the KwaZulu-Natal coast, but particularly south of Durban, pickers are busy during the strelitzia flowering season, harvesting seeds. Mostly women, they travel by minibus taxi and often long distances on foot, dragging the long poles they use to reach the seeds.

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Pickers scout for a potential harvest. They travel considerable distances, often on foot, to find seed. (Photo: Supplied)

Once harvested, the seeds are sold to middlemen before being exported, including to Asia and the US.

There has been talk of the plant having medicinal uses. The brilliant orange seed-arils of the Strelitzia nicolai contain bilirubin — an orange-yellow pigment mostly associated with the livers of humans and some animals where it assists with the breakdown of haemoglobin and is excreted in bile. Human bilirubin has antioxidant properties that can help protect the body’s cells, but researchers have yet to discover an elixir buried within nicolai bilirubin.

So the seeds go abroad, not for medicinal use, but to cultivate more strelitzias, prized for their beauty as indoor and garden plants, and also to serve as windbreaks.

Seed pickers received up to R320 a kilogram, according to one South Coast buyer, who asked not to be named. He said he bought about six tonnes of seed in the past season from as many as 250 women — which equated to R1.92-million.

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A young seed picker lashes a hook to a bamboo pole. (Photo: Supplied)

Another buyer, nurseryman and landscaper Ryder Nash, who has been on and off the lower South Coast since the mid-1980s, estimated there were now about 1,000 pickers in the region. The core group numbered about 300 — some of whom can count 20 years’ experience. But, with Covid-19, many newcomers have arrived on the scene, which has resulted in environmentally damaging harvesting practices, including the felling of the trees and invasion of land, said Nash. This has given rise to conflict with residents in local conservancies, ultimately compromising the livelihoods of those who have depended on this seed trade for years.

Individual seeds are light and the trees that bear them are often widely scattered, so it can take a good deal of work and travel to bring in a worthwhile harvest. To get at the seeds, experienced pickers fasten a steel hook to a gum or bamboo pole. This lets them reach up more than 10m into the bushy treetops of the strelitzias. Using their poles, they grip the base of thick flower clusters, which contain the prize — hard, woody seed pods — and yank them down. The pods go into sacks which the pickers sling over their shoulders.

The strelitzia seed trade has been continuing on the KZN coast — and south of the Umtamvuna River, which separates KZN from the Eastern Cape — for perhaps 30 years.

Nash felt picking offered a way for rural people to earn cash in a region where unemployment was rife and wages low. He said the work made for a good family or village enterprise, with people working together to collect, clean and sort seeds.

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Strelitzia pickers use plastic grocery packets to tie steel hooks to long bamboo poles. (Photo: Supplied)

However, in the past about three years, things changed for the worse, he said. New buyers, with little empathy, came on the scene, said Nash. “Many or most are driven by greed and the need to make as much money as possible at the possible expense of the indigenous people and the real custodians of these areas.”

The Johnnies-come-lately (Nash knew of at least eight buyers, up from about three or four in previous years) had “upset the balance that prevailed… drastically increasing prices”. The result had been a “complete fiasco”, he said. And Covid-19 strained matters further, as economic hardships drove more people into picking. A “free-for-all scenario” developed, encouraging “the indiscriminate cutting down of strelitzia and the invasion of private land”, said Nash.

Many strelitzias were on private property or within conservancies, raising tensions between landowners and conservationists on the one hand and pickers and buyers on the other.

There were reports this year that police had rounded up pickers and confiscated seeds in Southbroom. This has not been reliably confirmed. Roving Reporters sent detailed questions to the SA Police Service and received the following response from a provincial liaison officer, Colonel Thembeka Mbele: “Local police have engaged with farmers and Ezemvelo on the matter. If pickers are contravening the laws as stipulated hereunder, then police will take necessary action.”

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is the provincial conservation authority and is responsible for the protection of flora and fauna and regulates any harvesting of these.

pickers strelitzia harvest seeds
A Strelizia nicolai seed pod. Pickers dry these before cracking them open to extract the seeds. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s not that Strelitzia nicolai is endangered. The attractive flowering plant flourishes from East London in the south, well into Mozambique in the north. Great clumps grow in dune bush and coastal forest, frequently topping 12m and swaying in the coastal winds that tear their leaves at the edges so that they resemble enormous feathers. It’s just that getting to the plants and their seeds can do harm to natural spaces and the wildlife that rely on them for food and shelter.

Indiscriminate hacking of strelitzias leaves fewer flowers to produce seed crops for the seasons to come. And newcomers frequently pull down pods before the seeds have time to set, said Nash. “As such, I have noticed that the quality of the seed has dropped drastically because these immature seeds are being presented for sale and not accepted by the international clients,” he said.

Anne Skelton, chairperson of the Southbroom Conservancy, a group of residents dedicated to protecting the natural environment, was not aware of any scientific studies on the effects of strelitzia seed-picking on the environment, but felt it did damage.

“It stands to reason that if the bulk of the seed produced by a plant is removed by the harvesters it is no longer available to the animals and birds that rely on it as a food source and there will be a reduced recruitment,” she said.

Skelton said it was difficult to quantify the extent to which seed picking deprived wildlife of food, but said, “I have noticed an increase in the vervets trying to enter homes in search of food as their seed source has been harvested.”

seed pickers strelitzia harvest poles
Strelitzia seed pickers drag their long (up to six-metre) poles home after a long day of harvesting. (Photo: Supplied)

A local buyer and owner of an indigenous nursery has called for “a sustainable balance between the socioeconomic aspect and environmental concerns”. But he asked to remain anonymous, “as we deal with some difficult and belligerent parties who verbally attack our staff, accusing them personally of creating environmental damage, which is obviously not the case”.

According to a 1974 provincial nature conservation ordinance, no permit is required to gather protected (as opposed to specially protected) indigenous plants and plant matter, which includes Strelitzia nicolai, provided this is on privately owned or communal land. But pickers must get written permission from the owner and must have this to hand for inspection by representatives of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

However, Ezemvelo spokesman Musa Mntambo stressed that permits were required to:

  • Collect seeds or the plants in protected areas and road reserves;
  • Sell seeds or seedlings; and
  • Export seeds or seedlings out of the province.

Applications for permits can be made at Ezemvelo offices, including at Oslo Beach, Port Shepstone. But according to a number of pickers, who spoke to Roving Reporters on condition of anonymity, and a South Coast buyer who assisted them with their applications, none have been granted.

Mntambo denied claims by pickers and the buyer that there was a backlog in the issuing of permits. Conservation officials provided a service to the public throughout the Covid lockdown, he said, adding that a total of seven permits had been issued for strelitzias between 2014 and last year. Three remained valid until October this year, he said.

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An experienced picker teaching a new recruit the tricks of the trade. (Photo: Supplied)

The permits cost R57 and pickers found without a permit and flouting other provisions relating to indigenous plants risked a fine and imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Who’s to blame for difficulties with getting permits and what should be done to better manage seed harvesting is the subject of some debate, including at a public meeting in June attended by more than 20 seed pickers, a seed buyer, conservationists, police, Ezemvelo officials and lower South Coast residents.

Among them was 38-year-old Zethu, who has been picking seeds for the past decade. She said she quit a few months ago after being unable to get a permit to carry on picking.

Zethu, who declined to give her surname, fearing trouble from the authorities, said she relied on seed picking to support her two young children, two sisters, one of whom is six years old, and her grandmother. The family’s sole breadwinner, she said she had no other source of income and was at a loss as to what to do. “I cannot afford to feed my family,” she said.

Zethu lives in Gcilima, a scattered settlement of homesteads and subsistence farms in the hills to the west of the R61 highway. It’s a longish walk from Gcilima to Southbroom and affluent San Lameer, one of the oldest gated residential estates on the lower South Coast.

Before she quit seed picking, Zethu would join a regular group of seven women, who travelled by minibus taxi or on foot. They can sometimes be seen marching in a line, their picking poles over their shoulders, their clothes scarred by thorns and dirty from mud. Together, the women cover considerable distances, collecting everywhere from thick coastal forests to roadside verges.

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The sticky Strelizia nicolai flower has the seed pod within. (Photo: Supplied)

After a day’s picking, the women lay their pods out in the sun to dry. A week or so later, depending on the weather, when the pods have grown brittle, the pickers crack them open and pluck out the seeds. These are sorted, the good from the bad. Next, it’s time to travel to the seed buyers.

At the buyers, the pickers wait as their seeds are sifted to remove any soil or foliage and then weighed. Depending on who you talk to, pickers were paid between R150 and R320 a kilogram. Nash said some new buyers were paying more, but he felt this was not sustainable and would “outprice the market”.

Limbani (surname withheld), the only man among the seed pickers Roving Reporters met, looks after his two brothers with the proceeds of his seed collecting.

“It is all I have,” he said, “I have no other ways of making money, and the only thing I have I now cannot do; I have no other job, nothing else.”

On a good day, Limbani can collect 1kg of seeds, pulled from perhaps 20 trees. “It’s a long day’s work. It’s tiring, holding that long heavy pole up the whole time,” he said.

In more recent times the work has become harder, or at any rate finding seeds takes longer. “I’ve been doing this for five years now,” Limbani said, “but there have definitely been more pickers since Covid — they’ve lost their jobs and need money, same as I do.”

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A seed picker shows us some dried Strelizia nicolai flowers that contain the seed pods. (Photo: Supplied)

For pickers to gather sufficient seeds to make a living, they must collect widely and to do so legally requires permission. On private land, they need the written consent of individual owners. This can be onerous, which may be why pickers prefer to try their luck on public land.

The provincial ordinance requires a permit to gather on road reserves, but on other public land held by the various municipalities along the coast, there is less certainty.

Simon April, a spokesman for the Ray Nkonyeni Municipality, which covers the southern coast of KZN from Hibberdene to Port Edward, said they recognised the need to regulate picking to protect Strelitzia nicolai as “there is a serious threat of over-exploitation”.

He said the municipality intended to address this in its open spaces management bylaws, but regulations were not yet in place. He confirmed that no letters had been issued in the past authorising harvesting of strelitzias.

“This process is still in the initial planning phase and as per the internal procedures; the bylaw will be approved by council,” said April.

The eThekwini municipality had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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Feisty strelitzia seed pickers at work. (Photo: Supplied)

Nature reserves and the Admiralty Reserve (state-owned land between the high-water mark and 45m to 60m inland) are protected or no-take zones. These areas are off-limits to seed pickers, but the restrictions are frequently honoured in the breach. This puts pickers at odds with conservationists, who accuse them of desecrating protected land and creating footpaths through thickets, which they fear could aid poachers.

Nash counters that there had been a “lot of exaggeration” from the “biodiversity crowd”. Talk of trespassing was sparked by “white paranoia”, he said. He felt many of the pickers were “salt of the earth mamas… humble people, scared to knock on doors and ask for permission” and contrasted this with his own experience “in the bad old days as a white person” when it was very easy for him, a landscape-gardener, to secure permission to pick on private property.

Nonetheless, the value of strelitzias to wildlife seems clear.

In their book Strelitzias of the World, Durban authors Himansu “Snowy” Baijnath and Patricia McCracken detail how Strelitzia nicolai provide food and shelter for a host of animals.

They mention vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), which eat its flowers, seeds and leaves; birds (particularly sunbirds) which draw its nectar and eat seeds; and the larvae of the banana-tree night-fighter butterfly, which feeds on its leaves.

Blue duikers (Philantomba monticola) shelter in clumps of strelitzia and tree frogs make their homes at the leaf bases. The authors, citing various learned works, also list honeybees and greater bushbabies (Galago crassicaudatus).

Baijnath and McCracken remarked that the members of the strelitzia family — there are five species in all — favour remote natural regions renowned for their diversity of plant and animal life. But increasingly these habitats are under threat from farming, housing, industry and roads and other infrastructure being developed to serve a growing human population.

Meanwhile, protecting areas where picking was forbidden has proved a difficult battle.

The Admiralty Reserve is unfenced, making it hard to demarcate and conservancies have limited resources. Southbroom Conservancy employs a single scout, who travels on bicycle and foot throughout Southbroom — an area of about 1,093 hectares. He hunts for snares, tackles litter and illegal dumping, combats plant and mussel poaching and occasionally deals with roaming or hunting dogs, said Skelton.

The conservancy also has a full-time employee dedicated to rooting out alien invasive plant species. “[He] often encounters seed pickers during his work in the village’s wild areas, but they move off from where he is working,” said Skelton.

It’s a constant game of cat and mouse. The seed pickers sometimes hide their long sticks in the bush when they go home in the evenings. And the scout, who will remain anonymous to protect him against possible reprisals, breaks up any poles he finds.

Earlier this year, Roving Reporters joined the scout on a patrol through Southbroom’s Frederika Nature Preserve, a pristine stretch of coastal bush in the Admiralty Reserve. He pointed out new paths that had been carved out, including between the preserve’s trail and the neighbouring Southbroom Golf Club’s staff quarters. Within about half an hour the scout’s trained eye spotted perhaps half a dozen poles half hidden, propped up against trees. He broke them up before we continued on our way.

At the June meeting, seed pickers were asked whether they were aware it was illegal to pick in protected areas, but sidestepped the question.

Private security firms in towns on the South Coast, particularly between Southbroom and Port Edward, have peace-officer status and are empowered by law to search and arrest seed pickers.

A group of women pickers from Gcilima, including Zethu, told Roving Reporters how a security officer had confiscated a whole day’s haul of seeds from them. It was some months after the incident, but the women’s anger remained raw. They accused the officer of selling their seeds for his own benefit, although this could not be confirmed. Smarting at the memory, shaking their heads and speaking in raised voices, the women agreed that if they could not harvest seeds because of problems getting permits they should be paid compensation as picking was their sole source of income.

Some of the women, who were introduced to Roving Reporters by a seed buyer, have been picking for more than 10 years. They insisted they had never heard that harvesting strelitzias was illegal and said they were being harassed from every angle: police confiscated their hauls; homeless people stole seeds they had picked; and they accused some buyers of cheating them by using dishonest scales.

The women told how there has been a marked increase in the number of people picking seeds since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. They blamed these newcomers for cutting down strelitzia trees to get at the seeds, damaging the natural bush and generally giving the veterans a bad name.

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An experienced picker fastens with precision a hand-forged hook to a bamboo pole. (Photo: Supplied)

Although there has been talk among conservationists and seed buyers, including at the stakeholder meeting, of starting educational programmes to teach the newcomers how to harvest seeds sustainably, pressure remains on wild areas.

It was also suggested at the meeting that farming strelitzias might provide a solution. But the pickers have few resources and the land likely to be available for the purpose would require the approval of traditional leaders, further complicating matters.

The question of scale must be addressed, too. Many trees were needed to produce a viable quantity of seeds. According to picker Limbani, it takes about 20 trees to harvest a single kilogram of seeds, so a big area would be needed to farm strelitzias economically.

Alida Stofberg, a macadamia and banana farmer on the South Coast, needed a windbreak for her crops and has decided to plant strelitzias, hoping seed pickers would come to harvest from her trees as she knows their plight. Failing which, she might harvest the seeds herself as a third crop, serving, she hoped, as an example other landowners might follow.

Strelitzias of the World details how other strelitzia species, principally Strelitzia reginae (also indigenous to South Africa), are great favourites with gardeners the world over and are grown commercially in many countries for the cut-flower market. But production of this species in its home country was, although a multimillion-rand industry, “generally relatively small scale”.

Strelitzias were farmed for their seeds too, to supply the floriculture and pharmaceutical industries.

The book gave 2010-2012 Strelitzia nicolai seed prices as R300/kg or $25/kg for orders above 100kg. It also quoted farmers complaining of stagnant or falling prices and remarked that while the domestic market was easily saturated, the export market was tough to crack “as it has tended to be dominated by three or four key seed merchants in South Africa”.

Nash said he and some partners were looking at starting a farm to cultivate indigenous plants and would try Strelitzia nicolai, although he noted these needed a lot of space.

He was concerned about the loss of income facing veteran seed pickers and sellers on the South Coast and called for all involved to work together to find solutions. Unless there was a “non-aggressive approach”, crime in the region would increase. He spoke of pickers being robbed of seeds or the proceeds of sales and warned that more people would go hungry or be unable to educate their children.

Meanwhile, concerns over conservation remain. So many questions… but for now the answers are, like those fringed leaves of so many nicolai, blowing in the wind. DM

Additional reporting by Matthew Hattingh

This article forms part of Roving Reporters biodiversity reporting project supported by Internews Earth Journalism Network.

Savannah Burns is a 19-year-old aspiring environmental writer based on the lower South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. This article was produced for Roving Reporters biodiversity reporting project — a training initiative supported by Internews Earth Journalism Network.

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All Comments 5

  • Really great story. How markets for natural produce are made — but also how there is simply never ever enough to go around, as there are so many in need.

  • Thank you for raising awareness through this story, something that I have never thought of before when seeing these beautiful and iconic plants in the tropical areas of our country.

    Sustainability is key, as is the case in much of the natural beauty around us… when is enough?

  • Thanks for this informative and well written piece. Solutions could be quite simple, but as always the context is complex and requires collaboration and commitment to solve. Most obvious being that law should be used to regulate the buying and :-/