Saving the sacred forest
Friday, April 12, 2002
Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg, South Africa) by Niki Moore
Schoolchildren in Khula Village in KwaZulu-Natal are learning how to protect and care for their environment
It was alien-clearing day at the Silethukukanya school in Khula Village on a Saturday morning. Groups of students from the high school had been asked to come to school with pangas, garden forks and old clothes.
The school is situated within the protected Dukuduku Forest on the verge of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. Detergent giant Unilever has adopted the school as part of an environmental project.
Unilever is sponsoring workshops to cultivate a green ethic among the children of this school-in-the-forest. The first workshop of the year was held last month and the theme was the identification and eradication of alien plants in the forest surrounding the school.
"We were hoping for about 70 students," said project coordinator for Unilever, Lisa Ronquest, "and more than 80 turned up. They were so enthusiastic that I think our next workshop will have a turnout of about 200."
This is truly amazing news. It is not so easy to persuade teenagers to give up their Satur- days in order to get hot, sweaty, scratched and dirty in the name of conservation without some strong incentive.
"We'd like to think that the incentive is the genuine environmental awareness of the students at this school," says Ronquest. "After all, that is why Unilever adopted this school as part of its Living Lakes and Sacred Forest Project in the first place."
Unilever is one of the world's largest producers of, among other things, detergent. As the company is keenly aware that detergent has the potential to become a major polluter of lakes and rivers, it has launched the Living Lakes Project, a multinational water watchdog that monitors the environmental health of selected bodies of water. Lake St Lucia is one of these.
And because the lake is surrounded by the precious and rare Dukuduku indigenous forest, the natural extension of the programme was the Sacred Forest Project to watch over the environmental health of the lake's adjacent greenland.
"We have planned four workshops with the students at the school," says Ronquest. "The workshops are supervised by staff from Unilever who volunteer for the job - everybody involved in this project is a volunteer.
"The first workshop had to do with identifying invader plants such as chromoleana, solanum and lantana. The students were then put into groups, headed by a Unilever volunteer, and then we let them loose into the forest to take out the alien plants.
"There were nine groups and I was astonished at how quickly they worked. For clearing to be effective, they had to hack the bush down and pull up the roots and we made a pile for each group. The piles became enormous. And they sang while they worked - it was actually quite beautiful with the sunlight coming down through the trees and the sound of singing."
Keeping a knowledgeable eye on proceedings was Cathy Greaver, an environmental community worker from KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife.
"By working with school kids like this," she says, "I am hoping to create linkages. They will go home and talk to their parents and their friends about what they did, and the environmental awareness will spread. I was quite surprised - some of these youngsters' parents work for the DWAF [Department of Water Affairs and Forestry] but they have never discussed their parents' work, so they had no idea what their parents did. They said that they had never understood the need for alien eradication until it was explained to them in these workshops."
One of the demonstrations by Greaver that had an enormous effect was when she produced 40 two-litre bottles and instructed the students to fill up the bottles. Then she poured the contents over a pine tree, saying that the alien pine drew up 80 litres of water a day.
The neighbouring indigenous tree, on the other hand, only used 16 litres - or eight bottles of water a day. This was a revelation to the youngsters, who had never given a thought to the impact on the water table of alien trees.
The Unilever volunteers were serenaded during their lunch by the students who seemed unable to stop singing. One of the volunteers bore a passing resemblance to a character from a popular TV soap, with the result that all the girls in the school were eager to learn her beauty tips.
The volunteers, coming as they did from the "big city" (Durban), were bombarded with questions about their lifestyle and their shopping habits. It seems that teenagers are the same, no matter where they come from. After lunch the Unilever staff donated stationery to the school and then departed for home. The first workshop, by all accounts, had been a great success.
"The second workshop will be to consolidate what we did previously," says Ronquest, "and then to work on the identification of indigenous trees. We want to teach the students about the trees in their forest. Also, we want the names and descriptions because Unilever is sponsoring a number of identification plaques for the indigenous trees in the forest around the school.
"The third workshop will be when we fix these plaques on to the trees, do more alien clearing and begin work on an eco-fitness trail."
This trail will be a gentle obstacle course that can be used by the children of Khula Village as a leisure activity. It has been designed in conjunction with members of the nearby 121 Battalion military camp, so it will be a scaled-down version of a military fitness course.
By creating the trail through the forest it is hoped that the children of the village will take an interest in the well-being of their patch of greenery. The last workshop, scheduled for August, will see the launch of the eco-fitness trail and a recap of all the work done during the year.
Teams from KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, 121 Battalion, the school and Unilever will race each other over the trail. These teams will also meet on the soccer field. "None of this would have been possible if it were not for the headmaster of the school, Bhekithemba Nomandla," says Ronquest.
"Mr Nomandla is a keen conservationist and is a real inspiration for his students. He has fired up his teachers and pupils to feel that they are special because they have this school that is part of a protected natural area. After all, it's not everyone who can say they have a sacred forest in their backyard."