Durban, South Africa: Community Reforestation Programme

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Photo by Errol Douwes

Photo by Errol Douwes

AIPH World Green City Awards 2024 logo

City: Durban
Country: South Africa
Award Categories: Living Green for Climate Change IconLiving Green for Biodiversity Icon
Finalist: Living Green for Biodiversity Icon
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Initiative: Community Reforestation Programme

The City of Durban in South Africa is restoring indigenous forest and woodland ecosystems in the buffer zone surrounding the Buffelsdraai Regional Landfill Site. The city established its Buffelsdraai Community Reforestation Project in 2008, through a partnership between eThekwini Municipality’s Environmental Planning and Climate Protection department and the Cleansing and Solid Waste department. It aimed to offset carbon emissions associated with hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and thereby reduce some climate change impacts. The project was calculated to offset 42,214 tons of carbon over a 20-year period through tree planting based on the Wildlands Trust’s Indigenous Trees for Life programme whereby local communities were encouraged to grow trees.

The reforestation of the Buffelsdraai landfill buffer zone is taking place on old agricultural lands, historically farmed (for over 100 years) with sugarcane. Of the 821.5 ha landfill site buffer zone, only 580ha will be actively restored. Historically, the buffer area would have comprised a mixture of forest, grasslands, woodlands, wetlands and riparian areas. Many of these original ecosystems will be restored, however, it will be impossible to recreate the exact network of ecosystems that previously occurred on the site.

Wildlands Trust, the project’s implementing agent, uses its Indigenous Trees for Life approach to employ local community members called ‘Tree-preneurs’ to propagate indigenous trees at their homesteads. Trained facilitators, who are also community-based, teach the ‘Tree-preneurs’ how and where to collect the required indigenous tree seeds from nearby natural areas. The seeds are propagated, and then the seedlings are cared for until they are of a suitable size.

The Reforestation project has been led by the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department which oversees activities within the 821.5 ha buffer zone, namely forest and ecosystem restoration. However, it would have not been possible without several partnerships including the Cleansing and Solid Waste Department that oversees and manages activities within the central 116.2 ha landfill, Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa for outreach and education, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal for restoration research. Several students have conducted research on the site, which has helped deliver important feedback, including a better understanding of the successes and challenges of the approach.

Since its inception in November 2008, the project has registered 540 ‘Tree-preneurs’ and created 247 jobs (21 full time, 6 part time, 220 temporary) for members of the surrounding communities. Ninety percent (90%) of people who now benefit from this project were previously earning wages below the poverty line and were considered to be amongst the most vulnerable in the country. The project has created many excellent opportunities for community upliftment, including green jobs and local livelihood improvement while establishing natural ‘carbon sinks’ and restoring biodiversity.

Socioeconomic benefits are not the project’s only impressive achievement of the project. Planting of local indigenous trees, shrubs, and other forest plants in mixed stands has ensured a carbon emission offset, as well as biodiversity protection and improved ecosystem services.

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Benefits of Urban Greening

Harnessing the Power of Plants

Annual restoration plans are prepared and revised, after considering the baseline biodiversity assessment, together with subsequent biannual biodiversity monitoring assessments, which collate plant, bird, small mammal, and invertebrate data from monitoring plots. In 2015 the Project was compared to a reference site, the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve, which is in a late succession phase. The results of the study were used to fine-tune the selection of species for planting.

In addition, other on-site monitoring and evaluation studies as well as practitioner knowledge are considered. This includes field surveys and soil sampling (undertaken once every five years) used to determine the amount of carbon accumulated on the site.

The initial phase of the project (2010–2015) focused on planting a low diversity of pioneer tree species throughout the entire project site. Outputs from research then indicated that a shift in focus to secondary reforestation should commence. From 2016 on, the planting of a greater diversity of species began, including shrubs, climbers, ground cover, and forbs, with additional spreading of seeds and bulbs to increase plant diversity.

Although changes in the landscape are very visible, it is necessary to evaluate and classify different aspects of ecosystem recovery over time, and this was achieved through applying the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) 5-star evaluation tool. This has helped managers and practitioners track progress and set targets.

Delivering Multiple Benefits

The investment in ecosystem restoration in the municipality is effectively an investment in enhancing not only carbon sequestration as a single ecosystem service but also increasing the supply of many other ecosystem services (e.g., flood attenuation, sediment regulation, biodiversity refuge conservation, river flow regulation). This helps to enhance the resilience and adaptation capacity of the river catchment ecosystem and communities that depend on the natural resources it supplies.

Although the project initially set out to achieve a carbon offset (for climate change mitigation), it soon became clear that another benefit (climate change adaptation) was perhaps even more important. EThekwini Municipality, with various partners, had been developing a concept for a new community ecosystem-based adaptation (CEBA) to manage and restore local ecosystems. The concept was rooted in ensuring that local communities were at the heart of ecosystem-based climate change adaptation projects.

The City’s Bold and Innovative Vision

The Project, through its pioneering and innovative forest restoration approach, has been successful in demonstrating the role that natural ecosystems play in supporting the livelihoods and resilience of people. This is in part due to the use of the ‘Indigenous Trees for Life’ model, developed by the Wildlands Conservation Trust (implementing agent) and adopted as the approach to tree production. This approach encourages local unemployed people, known as ‘Tree-preneurs’, to collect indigenous tree seeds which they propagate at their homesteads. Tree seedlings are traded to the project in exchange for credit notes, which in turn can be traded for basic food items, clothes, building materials and can even be used to pay for school fees or vehicle driving lessons. Once the tree seedlings are large enough, they are collected and transferred to a holding nursery where they are sorted according to size and species.

Trees in the holding nursery are hardened-off prior to planting, to ensure a high survival rate. This means that trees in the nursery are not kept under shade netting, and no fertilizer, compost or mulch is added to the soil. They also receive only the minimum amount of water. Most trees are planted in the buffer zone. Additional trees, planted around the boundary of the buffer zone, act as a living fence. This fence is an alternative to the traditional barbed wire fence and is considered effective in minimising incursions by vehicles, people and stock animals into the buffer zone area.

Partnerships and Collaboration

Although the municipality owns the entire 937.7 ha site, the Cleansing and Solid Waste department oversees and manages activities within the central 116.2 ha landfill. The Environmental Planning and Climate Protection department oversees activities within the 821.5 ha buffer zone, namely forest and ecosystem restoration. This partnership has helped to strengthen the relationship between these departments, which now work with local communities to drive much needed climate change adaptation work at and around the site. The involvement of organisations like the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa, for outreach and education, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal for restoration research, has added to the positive work.

The municipality also appointed the Wildlands Trust as an Implementing Partner to carry out the required work on-site. Subsequently, other partners and implementing agents have been engaged. These include a partnership with the municipality’s Coastal, Stormwater and Catchment Management Department, for the construction of a weir for water monitoring purposes; and a partnership with the municipality’s Energy Office, which has provided photovoltaic and solar geyser technologies. Importantly, members of the local community are considered key partners, without whom the project could not have taken place. Several key funding partnerships have supported the project, the first with DANIDA and the second with National Government through its Green Fund. There has also been buy-in from local leaders, decision makers and politicians. This is especially due to the large budgets required.

Addressing Urban Challenges

The Issue

The natural environment of eThekwini Municipality has been under severe pressure due to rapid urbanisation and climate change. These have contributed to the degradation of the City’s environmental assets, such as rare and threatened ecosystems, rivers and coastal wetlands, affecting the wellbeing of people and the economic prospects of the city.

The city has grown in a fragmented way and rapid development growth in peri-urban areas results in the encroachment of natural habitats and conservation areas. Degradation of the natural resource base has direct social, economic and environmental impacts. Having fewer or no green natural space to curb the impacts of climate change threatens the City’s long-term sustainability targets. This is exacerbated by increases in temperatures, droughts, floods, etc., that are linked to climate change.

If urbanisation continues, it will negatively impact the health, assets, and livelihoods of city residents, as well as local and national ecosystems and economies. Cities, and African cities in particular, need a suite of relevant tools and approaches to deal with the various threats related to climate change. Local level actions, such as ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA), and community-based adaptation (CBA), are both effective forms of adaptation for African cities. Durban has embarked on a novel approach with the community ecosystem-based adaptation (CEBA), which combines EBA and CBA. The Buffelsdraai Reforestation Project is one example of where this is being implemented.

The Impact of the Issue

The broader region around Buffelsdraai was under sugarcane production for more than 100 years. This resulted in a severe loss of biodiversity in the area, including in drainage lines. In many areas, wetlands were drained and the forests pushed back to grow more sugarcane. The farming of sugarcane also involved regular deposits of high-nutrient fertilisers as well as pesticides and herbicides. Residues of these chemicals have likely remained on the site.

The sugarcane farms created employment, but anecdotes indicate that labour was often brought from as far as Lesotho. These people were housed on the farms, and it seems that little employment was generated for local community members.

The loss of indigenous vegetation on the site and in the broad region impacts the availability of firewood and natural building materials, medicinal plants, and areas for grazing livestock.

A key focus of the project was to restore the forest by maximising the benefits to local communities. Local people are employed for tasks such as digging holes and planting trees, removing invasive alien plants, fighting fires, and patrolling the site for undesirable activities. The ecosystem services derived from the restored forests will produce benefits such as enhancement of biodiversity refuges and water quality, river flow regulation, flood mitigation, sediment control, improved visual amenity, and fire risk reduction. Such services enhance the long-term climate change adaptation benefits derived by local communities, as well as short-term resilience to dangerous weather patterns.

Nature Positive Solutions


The Project is being implemented in a municipal-owned buffer area situated between a landfill site and adjacent communities. Over 500 ha of sugarcane plantation were phased out and replaced with indigenous tree species. The intention is to establish a functioning, diverse, indigenous forest that sequesters atmospheric carbon over time and enhances ecosystem functioning within and around the buffer zone.

Success against pursued objectives:

  • Restore forest habitats that are strategic from a biodiversity protection and management perspective. A variety of indigenous trees, shrubs, herbs, and climbers have been planted. This in turn has helped to improve the bird and butterfly species that are attracted to the site.
  • To assist the municipality in offsetting the climate change impact of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. With the planting of almost 1 million trees by August 2022, the achievement of the anticipated carbon offset is on track. The project has also shown that complementary adaptation and mitigation strategies can yield better results.
  • Provide employment and income opportunities to impoverished communities living adjacent to the project area. The project has created many excellent opportunities for community upliftment, including green jobs and local livelihood improvement.
  • Restore catchment areas with the aim of improving water and sediment flows considered important to down-stream estuaries and tourist beaches. Some wetlands on the site have recovered well, and others are in the process of recovering.

The project has been led and funded by eThekwini Municipality. However, two other key funding partnerships have helped catalyse action at the site: the first, via the Danish Development Corporation (known as DANIDA), which provided start-up funds from 2008-2010; the second, through the South African National Government’s Green Fund grant, which has ensured that significant benefits to local communities could be scaled up and sustained. Funding from both these organisations was essential and highlights the reliance of projects of this scope and nature on external funding. The municipality’s own contribution and commitment to the project was also crucial to securing these funds and involving the other partner organisations.

Options to ensure ongoing financing of this project now require careful consideration. Importantly, the municipality’s commitments to carbon-offset projects associated with mega-events need to be factored into long-term budget planning. This is important, as there is no guarantee of ongoing, long-term grant funding. Furthermore, while currently considered an unlikely option, it would be prudent to investigate if and how private sector financing could be leveraged.

While the municipality already has an internal budget line for reforestation, it will continue to seek additional funding. This would help to ensure that additional project activities, which support ongoing sustainability, are explored and successfully incorporated.

Multi-Stakeholder Support

Partnerships established between municipal departments and external organisations, for the purpose of sharing knowledge, accessing funds and building capacity, have allowed the community reforestation project to respond effectively to the objectives of the project in a sustainable and equitable way.

Key partners that have helped ensure the success of the project:

  • Durban Solid Waste Department (DSW) | Municipal Department (internal) | Department that owns and manages the landfill site at Buffelsdraai.
  • Coastal, Stormwater and Catchment Management Department | Municipal Department (internal) | Department, which assisted with the construction of a weir on the site to measure water flow.
  • Wildlands Conservation Trust (WCT) | Not-for-profit organisation (external) | Organisation appointed to oversee tree production, as well as to plant and maintaining the forest.
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal | Local University (external) | An academic institution appointed to oversee research at the BLSCRP, including building capacity of students and staff.
  • Development Bank of South Africa | Financial institution | Administers funds within the Green Fund, as provided by the South African National Government – Department of Environmental Affairs.
  • Danish Development Corporation (Known as DANIDA) | Financial institution | Provided seed funding which was essential to initiate the project.
  • Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa | Not-for-profit organisation (external) | Organisation appointed to carry out environmental education at the Project site.
  • Local community members |  Local community members are considered key partners without whom the project could not have taken place.
Management and Maintenance

On-site fire management is carried out to minimise the destruction of newly planted trees. Firebreaks are cut and maintained around all planted areas. This work is carried out by the municipality’s Fire and Invasive Species Control (FISC) programme, in conjunction with Wildlands, which provides manpower to directly suppress unauthorised wildfires. Fuel loads are reduced through the application of prescribed burns, as well as through continuous control of invasive alien plants (IAPs) on the site. Together, these minimise the occurrence of wildfires. Fire management is largely seen as a protectionist activity, i.e. to protect young trees, physical assets, and people within the site. The risk of methane (from the landfill footprint) contributing to fire-related disasters is considered by careful planning and management of or reaction to, on-site fires.

Regular and ongoing control of invasive alien plants (IAPs) is a high priority, as these plants threaten the successful establishment of the forest. IAPs most commonly found on site include Chromolaena odorata, Lantana camara, Melia azedarach, Solanum mauritianum, and Tithonia diversifolia. Wildlands, as part of their planting regime, clear IAPs systematically prior to planting and through follow-up control.

Challenge and solution:  Weather patterns vary and cannot be easily predicted, e.g. any delay of the rainy season or insufficient rain can result in the death of trees. Fires can cause similar losses. As a counter measure, approximately 50,000 additional trees are kept in a nursery and can be planted out after any such unforeseen circumstances.

Measuring and Reporting Impact

Monitoring Results

Various on-site ecological baseline studies and detailed socio-economic assessments were conducted. Comparisons of transformed areas (predominately sugarcane lands) with remnant patches of untransformed land showed substantially less biodiversity in transformed areas. Such ecological baseline studies are also important for long term research, as ecologists will be able to interrogate changes over time that reflect the gradual transformation from a landscape covered predominantly by sugarcane, to that of a forest. Soil surveys, to determine soil types and distributions, helped guide the tree-planting, given that soils play an important role in determining the climax vegetation cover. A field survey is carried out to determine current carbon stocks using biomass plots and soil samples.

There is periodic monitoring of carbon and biodiversity on the site, including trees, avifauna, invertebrates and mammals. A periodic Veld Condition Assessment (VCA) aids in the identification of areas to be prioritised for prescribed burns in a particular fire season.

In addition, the municipality and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) initiated the Durban Action Research Partnership (D’RAP). Through the partnership, principles of transdisciplinary research are used to address real-world problems through collaborative research that is conducted within a range of disciplines including environmental, biological, social science, governance and economics.

At the project site, a variety of topics have been covered, including communities’ perspectives on the Reforestation Project, quantifying ecological restoration, and assessing climate change-related considerations and biodiversity outcomes. The general aim is to understand the system and monitor changes.

Demonstrating Progress

Through research, the city can demonstrate the amount of carbon that has been sequestered from project inception until the present day. In addition, research has shown how biodiversity has increased with the growth of the forest.

Students have assisted the municipality, its partner organisations and local communities through the provision of meaningful results and insights. For example, one research project developed a tool that allows managers to optimise a restored forest’s biodiversity, ensure maximum opportunities for job creation, as well as optimise carbon sequestration. Such knowledge helps academics to realise the importance and relevance of the work they do.

Another study has demonstrated the socioeconomic benefits to local people who grow and trade trees to the project. This knowledge is important before similar projects can be established in other parts of the city. Any improved understanding of reforestation-related benefits must then yield better climate change-related considerations, decision making and policies.

Measuring Impact

Through its community-based forest restoration approach, the project has benefitted local community members, while also ensuring biodiversity enrichment and improved ecosystem service delivery. Planting of local indigenous trees, shrubs, and other forest plants in mixed stands has ensured a carbon emission offset, as well as biodiversity protection. The increase in biodiversity has likely also improved the delivery of ecosystem services such as water purification, storm water attenuation, soil formation and pollination. Together, such services reduce the vulnerability of communities that live around the project.

The initial offset aimed to secure 3,036.4 tons of carbon within the first five years of the project. This was achieved by planting a suite of 45 locally indigenous trees and other plant species from different succession groups, all of which are native to the Buffelsdraai area. After 2016, the diversity of native plant species being planted increased to 141 species.

As part of the community benefits, the project was able to improve food security. Before the introduction of the project, 90% of the future beneficiaries were living below the poverty line. Furthermore, 80% of community members claimed that they sometimes went hungry, and 10% stated that they were always hungry. Since its inception, the project created 247 jobs and registered 540 ‘Tree-preneurs’.

The impact of the project is measured through qualitative and quantitative research. Several papers have been published in local and international journals, as well as popular articles written. Some of the measurable outcomes include job creation, carbon sequestered, trees planted and species diversity.

Learning and Transferability

Adaption and Enhancement

The strong research component linked to the project, achieved through a partnership between eThekwini Municipality and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is seen as a major success. The partnership has generated a wide range of lessons learnt, including the benefits and challenges associated with the ecosystem-based adaptation approach. Such benefits span a wide spectrum of socioeconomic, biodiversity (air purification, wildlife habitat), and climate change (carbon sequestration, increased water infiltration) benefits.

The results and learnings of such research have already been used to improve the way restoration projects are being implemented in the eThekwini Municipality. Examples of these lessons include: (i) planting a greater diversity of plants early on in a project; (ii) ensuring long-term plans and funding are agreed to prior to project initiation; and (iii) thorough interrogation of threats such as invasive alien species, which can hamper or set a project back.

Potential for Replication

Due to the Buffelsdraai success of the Reforestation Project, two other projects have subsequently also been initiated in the eThekwini Municipality, one at iNanda Mountain and one at Paradise Valley Nature Reserve.

Importantly, the University of KwaZulu Natal has been a key partner in this project. These institutional partnerships are important for generating further knowledge and learning that address the gap between scientific research, policy development, and management within a local government setting. To date, 16 postgraduate students have conducted studies on or linked to the project. Various papers have already been published, and additional research is in the process of being written. Long-term monitoring is taking place on the site, and a plot-based study is underway to investigate the success of different planting approaches.

Inspiring Other Cities

The Reforestation Project has been showcased at several events/conferences both nationally and internationally. As a result of the innovative work done, the project was nominated as one of the United Nations ‘Momentum for Change” initiatives: projects that address climate change through climate-resilient and low-carbon mechanisms, while ensuring optimal benefits for local communities. The project has also been validated, by the internationally accredited Climate Community Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA), as delivering social, biodiversity and carbon sequestration benefits at an international standard.

The Reforestation Project serves as a model of best practice and lends itself towards introducing innovation in terms of delivering benefits on a global scale, and, in particular, for local communities in the least developed areas of the world. Furthermore, the Reforestation Project offers interesting new perspectives on how best to foster systemic and transformative change through improved equity, social legitimacy and environmental sustainability in the climate-stressed cities of the 21st century.


Reducing Negative Impacts and Ensuring Sustainability

To ensure the continuity of the many benefits of the project, the department established a Reforestation Hub Centre of Excellence at the nursery site. The centre targets researchers, scholars, community members and tourists who come to learn about climate change adaptation. The centre showcases the extensive plant nursery and a new building (Reforestation Hub) that demonstrates innovative sustainability technologies. These include solar panels, the capture, storage and re-use of water, efficient lighting, etc. Green design principles were used throughout the centre to showcase climate-smart construction methods and materials. The construction process generated many local job opportunities.

The building design is considered a material manifestation and a demonstration of the principles used in Durban’s climate change adaptation work. The main building, a restored farmhouse, mirrors the restoration of local forests. The on-site ethos of the construction project was to reuse and recycle where possible. Timber from local invasive species or locally sourced bamboo and stone from the landfill site was used wherever possible. Construction materials with low or neutral carbon footprints, as well as locally produced goods, were used. Transportation was closely monitored and minimised, as was steel and aluminium use due to their high carbon footprint. Maximising natural light and ventilation, and rainwater harvesting and reuse were important design imperatives. Phasing in of grey and even black water on-site treatment and reuse is included in the master plan for the project.

Environmental Considerations

Deciding which ecosystems to restore on the site was largely guided by two important considerations. The first was the ease with which tree planting could be tracked (including for carbon offset purposes) and funded. The second was the need to avoid planting fire-prone grasslands near a landfill that produces highly flammable methane. The earliest aerial photographs available (ca. 1931) confirmed the site as already being under sugar cane at that time, so an assessment of physical features (soils, geology, aspect and flow of water across the landscape) was used instead to guide the selection of tree species to plant in each area.

The initial phase of the project (2010–2015) focused on planting a low diversity of pioneer tree species throughout the entire project site. Planting densities averaged 1,000 plants/ha for upland drier areas, while lowland riparian areas averaged 2,000 plants/ha. From 2016, the focus shifted to secondary reforestation, which included planting a greater diversity of plant propagules, including shrubs, climbers, ground cover and forbs. In addition to active planting, additional spreading of seeds and bulbs also aimed to increase plant diversity.

In terms of recycling, staff collect litter and solid waste from the site in such a manner that recyclables are separated and sent for recycling.

Erosion is monitored, mitigation measures are applied and management interventions are implemented where required (e.g., stone-packing in depressions, cutting of drainage lines to deflect water run-off).

Use of Natural Resources

A derelict farm building, adjacent to the nursery, was renovated to form the core of the new structure, again as a means to showcase the principles of reuse, recycling, and sustainability. Instead of utilising local wood, timber from invasive alien trees was chosen as a sustainable and non-destructive alternative. The centre relies on borehole water for its operations, contributing to water conservation. The construction process also provided numerous job opportunities within the local community.

To promote plant growth and protect smaller plants from potential damage, thorny tree species were strategically planted along the perimeter of the landfill buffer zone, forming a living fence. This natural barrier not only deters goats and cattle, but also contributes to the Reforestation Project.

Additionally, to optimise water usage, tree planting is scheduled during the wet season (spring and summer) when rainfall is abundant. The project actively manages invasive alien plants without resorting to herbicides, protecting both soil quality and underground water sources. No fertiliser, compost or mulch are added to the soil. They also receive only the minimum amount of water.