Africa: Fighting for Biodiversity, One Plant At A Time

Social ecologist Denisha Anand works as the conservation manager for the Princess Vlei Forum.
27 May 2019

Cape Town — A small group of people are gathering with spades, buckets and plants at a local wetlands on a sunny autumn morning in Cape Town, South Africa. They're here to help the Princess Vlei Forum in its work to replant indigenous fynbos in an area that has suffered severe degradation over hundreds of years of exploitation and urban encroachment. But with support from the community, it's looking to make a comeback.

Why is this important? Because biodiversity is key to our survival on this planet.

But what is biodiversity? "It broadly encompasses the wide diversity of species of animals, plants and micro-organisms and the ecosystems (like savannas or wetlands) in which they live and underpins almost every aspect of our lives," says Belinda Reyers, Professor in Sustainability Science at Stellenbosch University.

"The food we eat, the clean water we drink, the air we breathe can all be traced back to a species or ecosystem either pollinating our crops, fertilising our soils, regulating water flows, or purifying our air."

But our biodiversity is under serious threat with human activity putting the survival of about a million species on the line, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) shows. Let's take that in for a moment ... Around a million species of plants, animals and microorganisms may cease to exist because of what people, companies and governments are doing to the planet.

Reyers, a coordinating lead author on the report, says: "A major challenge for me was making sure we communicate the seriousness of this report and its findings, while at the same time remaining hopeful and practical about our ability to change course towards a better future for people and biodiversity."

"The findings are indeed serious because we are losing species and ecosystems faster than at any time in human history with real implications for us and our survival. Industrial agriculture, urban and transport infrastructure, mining, pollution, climate change and many other human activities are changing the face of the world and African landscapes, ecosystems and species with consequences for our health, our wellbeing and our society".

Back at the vlei, planting is getting under way after a backgrounder on the history and work around Princess Vlei. It's part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the six floral kingdoms in the world. In addition to being a biodiversity hotspot it has the highest concentration of plant species in the world - an estimated 9 500 species, of which 70% do not grow anywhere else", according to CapeNature. It was also declared a world heritage site by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2004.

The Princess Vlei Forum was launched in 2012, in opposition to plans to develop the space into a shopping mall, but strong community mobilisation, over many years, forced the City of Cape Town to work with local supporters of the vlei to preserve it as a public space. The forum also raises funds for the ongoing restoration work at the site.

Alex Lansdowne shares a childhood connection to the area. "My grandparents helped raise me. As a child, my grandfather would bring me to the vlei to learn how to fish. It was obviously a very different place then - with a lot more anti-social behaviour, litter and no signs of maintenance. But it was a place he knew and it was his closest community facility."

Today, Lansdowne consults as a restoration horticulturist and plant conservationist at Princess Vlei and says "it's incredibly rewarding to work on a site I have a connection to".

Social ecologist, Denisha Anand, studied biodiversity and conservation biology at the University of the Western Cape, specialising in plant physiology and biodiversity management. She's also the conservation manager at Princess Vlei. "My work and what I do has been focused on socio-ecological aspects of the environment and I work in rehabilitation and restoration management. It's a very people centred take on conservation and restoration of green spaces."

"So we do active conservation work on site, we remove alien plant species and make sure the space is being used within biodiversity and conservation laws. I'm also involved in environmental education with schools in the surrounding areas ... and get the kids to connect and engage with the space, everything is centred around reconnection. It's very beautiful".

"As an indigenous person or as a creole, I have a connection to the work that I'm doing. It's something that really resonates with me. As a person of colour I've connected to the space because I've seen the neglect and the lack of attention in these spaces. These spaces are marginalised and its terrible. So in that way I want to build and rebuild my own spaces, as a person of colour, that's important to me."

Lansdowne agrees. "Restoring Princess Vlei is so important to inspiring a young generation of black botanists."

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