Ecological Restoration in eThekwini Municipality


Text and photographs Errol Douwes

Dark storm clouds gather on the horizon, towards central Durban, and a fresh breeze whips the scattered leaves and dust. Soon all signs of blue sky are gone and the hills around Verulam are cloaked in gloom as the first heavy drops start to fall. The planting team moves quickly, with spades in hands, they leap onto the bakkie that will carry them back to the management office. There’ll be no more digging this afternoon, but there’s hope that the hundreds of holes dug over the past week will fill with water once the storm breaks. If so, tree survival is almost guaranteed once the water subsides and planting begins…

Tree planting in old sugarcane fields at Buffelsdraai

Active forest restoration at this scale is a first for eThekwini Municipality – and so far the project has defied the critics – who said it would never work. The city set its sights on planting a forest on almost 600 hectares of old sugarcane lands, which surround the region’s largest landfill. Land which was likely first cleared in the mid 1800’s and which has been under marginal sugarcane production ever since.

Treepreneurs grow locally indigenous trees at their homesteads

Another recent first for the Municipality was the establishment of a dedicated Restoration Ecology branch, in 2011, within the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department (EPCPD). This branch would spearhead the department’s ecosystem restoration initiatives – and drive projects like the one at Buffelsdraai. The growing need for restoring the Municipality’s natural ecosystems was viewed partly as a response to ongoing densification and human population growth, with concomitant impacts on natural areas in and around urban areas, but also due to a recognition that intact ecosystems can sequester significant amounts of carbon. This links to the risks posed, to Durban’s natural environment, by human induced climate change.

Durban CBD: too much concrete?

Global and local declines of ecosystem health

Globally there is a growing awareness of the importance of the natural environment in reducing risk, enhancing resilience and ensuring sustainable communities in urban areas. In spite of this, human-induced changes to the global environment since the 1800’s have caused a significant decline in biodiversity worldwide and driven changes in the global distribution of species – often referred to as the “Sixth Mass Extinction”. While many people have benefited over the last few centuries, from the conversion of natural ecosystems to human-dominated ecosystems – and from the exploitation of biodiversity, these gains have been achieved at a growing cost: losses in biodiversity, diminished supply of ecosystem services, and the exacerbation of poverty for many groups of people.

People and ecosystems rely on biodiversity (Eulophia ensata; Encephalartos natalensis; Berkheya umbellata visited by Vanessa cardui)

The Municipality’s natural environments have been similarly impacted by landscape change (habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation), invasive alien species, over exploitation (e.g. illegal sand mining practices) and pollution. While Durban is often seen as a world leader, in terms of its climate adaptation and conservation efforts, there is still much to be done. The levels of degradation suggest that current policies and laws, as well as governance and environmental management efforts, are as yet inadequate. Furthermore, the true value of ‘natural capital’ losses has not yet been fully recognised in the city’s strategic planning processes. This issue must be addressed. Based on ideas emerging from around the world, it’s increasingly clear that novel and innovative approaches will be required.

Natural corridors and open spaces in particular, need to remain optimally functional in order to deliver necessary ecosystem services to local communities. One option, based on an ecosystem-based adaptation response to climate change, is the recruitment of local community members to undertake ecosystem restoration work. The approach would help to drive job creation, skills development and could be used to catalyse small business development too. As a result, a significant portion of work would go into understanding and driving the principles of the Green Economy.

A remnant of KZN Sandstone Sourveld grassland, high above the iNanda Dam. Grasslands like these reduce flood-risk and filter water before it flows downstream.

Streams and rivers: vital arteries in the open space system

A decade of ecosystem restoration

On the 1st of March 2019, the United Nations declared a Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This declaration aims to enhance opportunities for sustainable development, and poverty alleviation, by increasing global levels of ecosystem restoration. The declaration builds on the Global Aichi Biodiversity targets, wherein governments from around the world agreed to address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming relevant responses. In cities and urban environments, it means an urgent need for improved security, management and restoration of natural ecosystems. This approach would help to counteract the negative impacts of climate change, habitat fragmentation, nutrient and other chemical pollution as well as the impacts of invasive species.

Sadly, recent evidence suggests that the governments of many countries, in the small print of their declarations, have instead allocated as much as 45% of their forest restoration commitments to monoculture plantations. Furthermore, governments may use this pledge to convert intact grasslands and savanah systems to forests, or, more worryingly, to monoculture plantations. This is a real risk for many parts of Africa, where vast areas of land are covered by savanah and grassland systems. Closer to home, the KZN Sandstone Sourveld grasslands (classified nationally as critically endangered) are eThekwini Municipality’s most threatened ecosystem. These grasslands, the majority of which occured on relatively flat sandstone areas, were historically targeted for agriculture (e.g. sugarcane production and other farming) as well as for suburban and industrial development.

Patchy grassland mosaic, such as the highly diverse KZN Sandstone Sourveld ecosystem are squeezed on all sides by development

Ecosystem restoration, if implemented correctly (e.g. see the Society for Ecological Restoration’s Principles Document), can play a pivotal role in countries meeting targets for climate change action, through the Paris Agreement. Appropriate uptake of the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration by governments will add to this, and ensure that restoration activities can help deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Municipal support for ecosystem restoration

The Municipality has acknowledged that biodiversity protection options are changing rapidly, and that there is a need to better understand changing ecosystem restoration and management options. As such, various mechanisms are in place to streamline and support planning and decision making. Currently, biodiversity-related interventions are largely guided by the EPCPD’s Biodiversity Planning, and the Climate Protection Branches. Following the guidance of these branches, the Municipality’s Restoration Ecology Branch has taken a number of steps, including implementation of several innovative large-scale ecological restoration programmes. Outcomes of these initiatives include opportunities for community upliftment, green jobs and local livelihood improvement, while establishing natural “carbon sinks” and restoring biodiversity. The initiatives also contribute towards mitigating climate change impacts and increasing local resilience and adaptive capacity.

Teams from the Working for Ecosystem Programme control Lantana camara and other invasive plant species in Ntshongweni

The Municipality’s prioritisation of the link between ecosystem restoration and job creation is directly in line with a recent United Nations resolution (70/1), on Transforming our World for Sustainable Development. This resolution highlights the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, which form the basis for global action towards sustainable development over a 15-year period. The approach may require a significant mind-set change in order to transition to a “green” economy. However, the need for ecological infrastructure, as a non-negotiable foundation for all social and economic development, is already outlined in South Africa’s National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2011-2014.

Research for ecosystem restoration

A further priority, identified by the Municipality, is the need for additional research to broaden the scope of biodiversity protection work. An improved understanding of ecosystem restoration – or novel landscape engineering projects – is essential if these are to succeed in the long-term. This is particularly evident in the urban context, where the means of restoring degraded ecosystems for enhanced community livelihoods, may differ, between urban, rural and wild areas.

Good research is essential for successful project implementation

Active restoration is broadly viewed as a mechanism to address negative impacts to ecosystems, and which can reduce risks related to climate change. However, without clear management plans and regular evaluation, restoration activities can create unintended outcomes. Importantly, in developed areas, such interventions may need to be carefully coupled with other measures. This is evident in how disciplines such as Engineering have started incorporating, for example, some natural processes into storm- and waste-water water management. The crafting or engineering of novel ecosystems required to perform and deliver particular services, especially in response to flooding and storm-water damage, is most evident here.

In light of the need, for improved research to guide implementation, the Municipality initiated a Durban Research Action Partnership (DRAP). The partnership includes the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, NGO’s, other research institutions, and local communities. DRAP participants are actively involved in a range of projects including monitoring and assessment of the restoration of indigenous grasslands, wetlands and forests at a number of project sites. Research outputs include:

  • Improved management of natural ecosystems for optimized ecosystem services including water security and biodiversity conservation;
  • Identification of suitable sites for restoration, or habitat engineering, across urban landscapes;
  • Understanding how best to restore, rehabilitate, and/or terraform transformed landscapes;
  • Measurement of local natural capital values to society, and understanding how these could be enhanced through ecosystem restoration or engineering of novel landscapes;
  • Improved use of fruit and timber trees, in suburbs, informal settlements, and areas under traditional governance, for community use and benefit;
  • Improved uptake of solutions developed through transdisciplinary inter-sector processes.

Student support has seen fifteen students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal receive funding through the Reforestation Research Programme. All research is made available to the municipality, and key outputs are used to improve work in the field as well as to refine plans, policies and strategies.

Core work of the Municipality’s Restoration Branch

Ecosystem restoration in eThekwini Municipality is expected to be achieved primarily through the building of a new value chain, based on ecological infrastructure, which increases the supply of ecosystem services and simultaneously addresses economic and social concerns. Investment in, and use of, ecological infrastructure as part of the city’s development strategy represents a strategic opportunity. For over 20 years, the Municipality has directly invested in purchasing land suitable for long term conservation, especially in areas with threatened ecosystems (e.g. KZN Sandstone Sourveld). The intention for many of these areas is co-management with communities (and conservancies) and for some to be proclaimed as nature reserves. The ongoing management of these open spaces required the establishment of three large-scale, municipal-funded implementation programmes, namely the Working for Ecosystems Programme (WFE), the Community Reforestation Programme (CRP) and the Fire and Invasive Species Control Programme (FISC).

All three programmes seek to fulfil the requirements of the Municipality’s invasive alien species management plan (for the monitoring, control and eradication of invasive species) while restoring important biodiversity areas. In addition, the programmes incorporate mechanisms to enhance skills development through provision of training and support. These align with the requirements of South Africa’s National Green Economy Strategy, and include the development of investment incentives (in both the private and public sectors) geared at creating a large number of green jobs. Support for small businesses, previously disadvantaged communities, scholars, students, the youth, unemployed people, as well as disabled or marginalised people are ongoing.

The branch also does some outreach work, e.g. distributing the ‘Beautiful but Dangerous’ posters and flashcards, which highlight many locally occurring invasive alien plant species. These resources help to create awareness about unwanted invasive alien plants and about emerging weed species. A website hosted by the branch, allows reserve managers and the public can report sightings of emerging species. All sightings of emerging weeds are verified before a dedicated Early Detection & Rapid Response (EDRR) team is deployed. This ensures timeous control and is seen as a huge cost-saving mechanism. It has prevented the spread of many newly spreading invasive plant species.

Fire and Invasive Species Control Programme

This programme, initiated in 2009, aims to control invasive alien plants on a number of open spaces, but with a focus on grasslands. Through mechanical and chemical control of invasive plant species, as well as through the application of coordinated, prescribed burns, these managed areas are being given the best possible chance to function optimally, as they have done for thousands of years. Prioritisation of sites is based on the densities of invasive alien plants and the biodiversity value of each site.

Fire control in grasslands as implemented by the Municipality’s Fire and Invasive Species Control (FISC) Programme

Community Reforestation Programme

This programme, initiated as a response to strategic outcomes and plans of eThekwini Municipality’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP), aims to preserve and restore indigenous forests, improve delivery of ecosystem services, and offset carbon emissions. In November 2008, the first ‘reforestation’ project was established within the buffer zone of the Buffelsdraai Regional Landfill site. An iNanda Mountain Forest Restoration Project followed two years later, following the successes seen at Buffelsdraai.

The restoration approach had demonstrated ground-breaking steps towards ensuring rapid planting through community involvement that hinted at successful long-term sustainability. At iNanda, the aim was to restore approximately 360 hectares of indigenous forest within a traditional authority area. This would serve to boost the existing carbon sink on the slopes of iNanda Mountain. Furthermore, management of 200 hectares of degraded KZN Sandstone Sourveld grassland on the top of the mountain were included, as well as 25km of local streams.

Trees grown at nearby homesteads are later planted out

Working for Ecosystems Programme

This programme, initiated in late 2006, has championed ongoing control of invasive alien plants in priority water catchments within the eThekwini Municipal boundary. Complimentary to this, was a target to deliver holistic and positive socio-economic development for local communities. This programme has seen unparalleled success in terms of developing, supporting and mentoring of small businesses.

uMzinyathi River and Waterfall (iNanda district). The river is a valuable source of water for this rural community.

…the heavy raindrops soon turn to a steady downpour, hammering down on corrugated iron roofs, and drenching the red earth of the settlement. Bongiwe, one of the Buffelsdraai Treepreneurs, smiles. She won’t have to fetch water tomorrow to water the many bottle-planted trees that fill her yard. She’s grown these trees from locally collected indigenous seed, tended them carefully, and watched them grow. The trees are planted in old plastic 2L cooldrink bottles, collected from around the community. In a month’s time a truck will come to collect hundreds of her trees, and take them for planting out in the new forest. In exchange, she’ll receive credits to pay for the children’s’ school fees, and for food vouchers. She never dreamed that trees would one day help her family, but since this forest project started, life for her and many other community members has changed, for the better.

Bongiwe Hlatshwayo with the trees she grows at her home near Buffelsdraai


Thanks to Bianca Boshoff for proofreading a draft of this article.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Errol works for eThekwini Municipality as Senior Manager of the Restoration Ecology branch. He oversees a wide range of projects, largely because of the diverse number of ecosystems present: examples include wetland, grassland, thicket and forest restoration. He is passionate about nature and restoring natural ecosystems and has a special interest in re-establishing highly diverse systems within the urban landscape. Durban’s position within a global biodiversity hotspot, makes the work all the more interesting. As an honorary research fellow, at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, he enjoys collaborating with local researchers and assisting students. Other interests include invasion biology, ethnobotany and sustainable land management. He enjoys bird-watching, trekking, photography and gardening for wildlife.