South Africa

CLIMATE RESILIENCE

Green shoots — five new forests spring up in Cape Town

Green shoots — five new forests spring up in Cape Town
The first SUGi pocket forest in South Africa is the pilot forest in Philippi, located on the KT Grows Organics which is now two years and five months old.(Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

New urban pocket forests have sprouted around Cape Town in Langa, Mitchells Plain, Bo-Kaap, Pinelands and Philippi. They were planted using the Japanese Miyawaki afforestation technique, transforming vulnerable urban spaces into thriving green spaces that support biodiversity and ecosystem restoration.

Using the Miyawaki afforestation technique for cultivating fast-growing groves of native plants, with the dense, mixed planting intended to simulate the layers of a natural forest, Mzanzi Organics together with local primary schools has planted 800 indigenous trees and shrubs in 200 sq m of Langa, establishing the area’s first forest.

Planting began in January and the Langalibalele Forest was completed in March — one of five newly planted SUGi pocket forests in Cape Town. 

Aghmad Gamieldien, the founder of Mzanzi Organics and a SUGi forest-maker, began planting these forests in vulnerable and densely populated areas after completing a fellowship in 2021 on the Miyawaki forest method with SUGi Pocket Forests — a non-profit organisation fostering biodiversity-building, ecosystem restoration and reestablishing nature connections in communities. 

 

SUGi works with forest-makers like Gamieldien to deliver these pocket forests across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America using the Miyawaki method, planting ultra-dense, biodiverse forests of native and indigenous species.

Key species in the Cape Town forests are assegai, yellowwood, milkwood, red alder and keurboom.

The Langalibalele Forest at Siyabulela Primary School in Langa. ((Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

The Khoi First Nations Forest is located at the Oude Molen Eco-Village in Pinelands. This forest is one of the bigger forests with 600 trees in 200 square metres, and is on its way to being completely self-sustainable. (Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

Langalibalele Forest

The field where the Langalibalele Forest was planted was a dump site before the forest was established. “When we were cleaning using the machines, there were heaps of mountains from years and years of illegal dumping,” Gamieldien said. 

It’s named the Langalibalele Forest in honour of the Hlubi king Langalibalele, who was imprisoned on Robben Island for leading a rebellion against the British and Dutch colonial authorities of the Natal Government in the late 1870s. Langalibalele directly translates to “The blazing sun”. 

“When he left Robben Island he was sent to this land, now known as Langa. So this is in his honour and remembrance, and to foster positive African history which is left out of our history books,” Gamieldien said.

Ahmed Gamieldien has been planting forests in vulnerable areas around Cape Town since 2021 with his organisation Mzansi Organics. Here Gamieldien is pictured in the Langalibalele Forest at Siyabulela Primary School in Langa. (Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

The Khoi First Nations Forest is located at the Oude Molen Eco-Village in Pinelands. This forest is one of the bigger forests with 600 trees in 200 square metres, and is on its way to being completely self-sustainable. (Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

The Langalibalele Forest at Siyabulela Primary School in Langa. ((Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

The forest has been used for community engagements, as an outdoor classroom for a school and it’s a place where musicians make music with the learners.

When Daily Maverick visited the Langalibalele Forest, learners from Siyabulela Primary School were singing along with musician Sibusile Xaba while he played his guitar.

Sithembele Khamsholo, the principal of Siyabulela Primary School, said: “We appreciated the idea of having a forest here because it will help the kids with learning because it’s where they can attend their Natural Science classes and see the different species and trees without having to spend money on going to see the fynbos at Kirstenbosch and Robben Island. Now they have their own spaces.

“We did have a problem with the community in the beginning because there were children that used to play soccer near where the forest was planted. When the forest was planted they were stealing some of the sprinklers but we managed to speak to them and now they understand the benefit of the forest to the school and to the community,” Khamsholo said.

@mzanziorganics The Langalibalele Forest at Siyabulela Primary School in Langa is made up of 800 indigenous trees and shrubs. We use the Miyawaki method of afforestation , meaning we plant dense forests using only native species. For each square meter we planted 4 trees. #generationrestoration #treeplanting #tiktokcapetown #biodiversity #mzanziorganics ♬ Gymnopédie No.1 / Erik Satie(884659) – BPProject


“The forest will help to bring fresh air and other health benefits,” he said.

Khamsholo was hopeful that the forest would also attract tourists to Langa.

Langa resident Siphenathi Hesewu has worked at Siyabulela Primary School as a caretaker since 2015 and one of his duties is to take care of the forest.

“The trees are growing a lot… Last year, Aghmad and his colleagues came to us with the project… The project started in January this year, when we started ploughing and then we finished planting in March… Now there are 800 trees… The community even came in after school to plant and sit with the children,” Hesewu said. 

Amanda Sipika, a Grade 6 teacher at the school, said: “During the classes for Natural Sciences, they use the forest as they get taught about the different types of plants, the importance of plants, planting and photosynthesis. For mathematics classes we also go there to explore and learn, we count petals, we count the trees and they ask more questions.

“Over time, learners can become bored staying in classrooms, so it helps when we go outside with our lessons and books… Those learners who don’t behave in class, but enjoy their time outside because there they become themselves and enriched because they learn different skills. They relate very well with the outside world,” Sipika said. 

“This is my first time seeing this green space in Langa. The open fields are being dumped. At the back of our field, we noticed that people drop dirt around our school but now there are changes, they aren’t dumping there any more. It’s a clean site and useful for everyone.”  

The Cape Flats forest was planted in partnership with the Seed Abundance community at the t Rocklands Primary in Mitchells Plain. This forest comprises 1200 indigenous trees and shrubs in 300 square metres with 1200 indigenous trees. (Photo: Christian Helgi for Mzanzi Organics)

Learners at Siyabulela Primary School singing along with musician Sibusile Xaba at the Langalibalele Forest in Langa. (Photo: Kristin Engel)

Urban pocket forests around Cape Town.

The first urban pocket forest in Cape Town was the pilot forest in Philippi, on the KT Grows organic farm, which is now two years and five months old. The second forest is one of the bigger ones, the Khoi First Nations Forest, at the Oude Molen Eco Village in Pinelands. It comprises 600 trees on 200 sq m and is on its way to being self-sustainable. 

“After two years, the forest takes care of itself. We only mulch and water in the first two years and do weeding. After this, the forest takes care of itself just like a natural forest. No one is giving it water and no one is mulching it. So after two years … the forests are self-sustainable,” Gamieldien said.

After the Khoi First Nations Forest, the Cape Flats forest was planted in partnership with the Seed Abundance community at Rocklands Primary in Mitchells Plain. It comprises 1,200 indigenous trees and shrubs in 300 sq m and an outdoor classroom teaching space. 

Then the Schotche Kloof Forest was planted at Schotche Kloof Primary School in Bo-Kaap. This is one of the smaller forests, with 100 trees in 25 sq m.

“The school has become so activated around the forest, they take such pride in upkeeping and looking after the forest, and they’ve also been involved, from the digging, to the planting, to the maintenance,’ Gamieldien said.

“That’s a very important element for us, activating communities, getting them involved and letting them take ownership of the forest because we take a step back after planting. We do check in with the communities, but it’s really theirs. It’s their forest, we are here for support. 

The challenge of finding land 

“It’s been hard to access government land in Cape Town. So partnering with schools is very important because we have faced that challenge trying to access a small piece of land. One department tells you [to contact] the next department, to the next department, and then six months later we’re in the same boat… That’s why we work with school communities, that has been much more efficient for us.” 

The project hinges on support from communities and their ongoing ownership of and involvement in the forests, but getting their buy-in has been difficult at times. 

“In Mitchells Plain, we left about 15 [water] drums, 20-litre drums, all around the forest in case of emergency or drought, so that water was on hand. After a few weeks, all those drums were gone from the property,

“So sometimes we had problems with theft and stealing. But because we have a bigger project in mind, we do not let things like that hold us back. Of course, it’s demotivating for a while,” Gamieldien said.

Another challenge, in the beginning, was transferring the maintenance of such big projects to a school and then taking a step back. 

“What happens is the maintenance of the watering, weeding, and mulching can be a bit overwhelming. It feels like we are burdening the school, they are struggling to maintain it because it’s so big and they don’t have time or capacity,” Gamieldien said.

The team set up sprinkler systems that made it easier to water the forests.

The agreement with the schools once they were onboard and the financial support was secured, was that the trees could not be cut down for a minimum of 20 years.

The pocket forests have environmental, social and economic benefits. 

They can help improve immunity via positive microbial interactions; filter airborne pollutants through their dense canopies; improve the physical and mental wellbeing of communities; help cool temperatures; mitigate flooding by absorbing stormwater; capture CO₂ and emit oxygen; and create a haven for bees and pollinators.

The Miyawaki forest planting method 

Gamieldien explained that the method was developed in Japan by the botanist and ecologist Akira Miyawaki in the 1970s.

Miyawaki noticed after World War 2 how rapidly industrialisation was taking place in Japan and developed the method to restore forests and habitats for wildlife that were disappearing at a rapid rate. 

Before making the pocket forests, Gamieldien spent time in Cape Town’s Skeleton Gorge, Nursery Ravine, Cecilia Forest, Echo Valley and Spes Bona Valley. 

“They are the untouched forests in Cape Town. I went to study and observe these forests to see what is growing and noting down all the species. Then with that species list, I consulted books, paintings, and literature to see what the indigenous species are.

“This is because what we’re trying to do with the Miyawaki method is replicate what is found in natural space. With those natural species, we plant three to five trees and shrubs per square metre. That’s what makes this methodology so unconventional. 

“Usually, people are taught to plant a metre or a few metres apart but in the natural forest, this is how they are found. Forests are dense and lush, you can’t usually walk through them. So we’re trying to mimic that to the best of our ability.” 

Gamieldien said SUGi pocket forests were 30 times denser and 100 times more biodiverse than monoculture plantations, and the trees grew 10 times faster.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Healthy food is hard to come by in Cape Town’s poorer areas: how community gardens can fix that

Because it grew so fast, Gamieldien said, after five years, the forest would look like it had always been there and after 10 years would look like an ancient forest. 

“The biodiversity is coming back in all the areas that we planted because these trees attract very specific bees, butterflies and birds, not just to come and visit the forest but also to make a habitat, to lay eggs, to nurture the young, to visit frequently for food and so on,” Gamieldien said.

“We cannot ignore our history, we cannot ignore the apartheid legacy of how our cities were planned and we cannot ignore the fact that our leafy suburbs in Cape Town are only leafy suburbs because someone planted trees there 100 years ago.

“So these trees were not planted in the Cape Flats in our townships. This project that we’re doing is holistically looking at how we transform our townships into leafy suburbs. How do we create green spaces that are lacking?” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Papa Red says:

    What an incredible concept. Thanks for the article

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    Kudos to this true hero. Such an inspiration. How great if schools across South Africa got similarly involved.

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    Laudable work by Ahmed. More power to his hand.

  • Julia Milligan says:

    What an incredible initiative – well done Mzanzi Organics!!

  • Pamela Lindner says:

    What a wonderful idea. I wish it could happen all over our beautiful country. This is how we should all live in harmony with nature and ourselves

  • Oliver Schultz says:

    Fantastic project, keep it up – socially and ecologically beneficial interventions, addressing multiple challenges simultaneously!

  • Pam Hicks says:

    All power to Ahmad and Mzanzi for the foresting and also for aligning with schools – both growing for the future. Amazing initiative.

  • Lindy Gaye says:

    What a fabulous initiative – read like a fresh morning breeze – bravo to everyone involved.

  • Robin MOORE says:

    Fantastic work! What a great concept! Province and national govt should learn this method, adopt it, and repeat it en masse across our country. Come, Barbara Creecy, this is a great one!

  • Bob Dubery says:

    A muslim name. Now add in Gift Of The Givers and Zachie Achmet. Can we please start taking a more nuanced view of muslim folks? They aren’t all Hamas funders, terrorists, or oppressors of anything that isn’t as it is in Saudi Arabia.

    There is a mosque close to me in Johannesburg. One Friday morning, during their prayer time, my car cut out as I drove past that mosque. Two men ran acrosss the road from the mosque and asked me if I needed a push or if they could get jumper leads. I said I’m sure it would start in a moment, thanked them for their concern, and then said something like “shouldn’t you be inside saying your prayers?”.

    They replied that there are always two of them outside during services to render assistance to any passer by who has a problem. “We’ll catch up with our prayers later today”.

    That mosque has a borehole. With external taps available for use by anybody passing by. During the recent water shortages in Johannesburg they offered to fill buckets or any other containers that anybody bought. They arranged tankers to deliver water to old age homes in the area.

    Churches and government schools in the same general area were noticably less generous.

    A charity based at that same mosque at funded the installation and annual maintenance of a borehole for a nearby Salvation Army hostel.

    Maybe we want to look past stereotypes.

    • Kenneth Arundel says:

      I’m in agreement there, but some people cant see past their own prejudices or agendas. Religion when not perverted to suit someones needs works really well.

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    Fabulously positive good news on a day clouded by apprehension for the future.

  • Kenneth Jeenes Jeenes says:

    So lovely to read this! Thanks so much – we need these kind of articles!

  • Random Comment says:

    Fantastic article.

    These guys should set up a WEBSITE for donations, similar to tree-nation dot com (who have planted 40M trees!). People and corporates can sponsor a tree planting – once-off or more regularly.

  • Dave Martin says:

    I think what Lebo did in Soweto deserves special mention. More than a decade ago he transformed a waste dump into a forest and now those trees are big and beautiful and have created a wonderful park for everyone.

  • John Patson says:

    Glad they recognise you have to water and mulch for two years. Similar projects in France failed because the townies who planted them did not water.
    It is very important to have some greenery in towns.
    Only quibble I have is with the use of “forest.” In English English should not they be called urban woods? It is a friendlier word and more accurate — forest is a mis translation from the Japanese I think.

  • David Forbes says:

    Brilliant! Amazing work! Maybe we can make 1000 forests in 10 years?

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