Published in Business Day, 19 November 2012
THE other day, I spotted a small flurry of activity just outside my front door. A gecko had died and its body was covered in black ants. Within days, the ants reduced it to a shell of crumbling skin.
The world is full of beings and processes that support us in ways we take for granted, just as some take for granted their domestic workers. Yet this symphony of all life on Earth, “biodiversity”, is profoundly threatened. The word is almost designed to sound inconsequential. Yet biodiversity is the sum and wonder of all species on Earth — perhaps all species in the universe.
Last month, the Convention on Biological Diversity met in India. The world barely noticed, which is amazing compared with the attention given to climate change, because the biodiversity crisis is more advanced than the climate crisis.
While I was staying in Wilderness over the holidays, a friend took me to meet William Pedro of Smutsville township, Sedgefield, who has for the last 15 years been running a successful indigenous tree nursery tucked away in the forest at the foot of a coastal dune.
Sedgefield is a largely white community with a great many retired people, notorious for petty complaints to the local authorities. Smutsville, the impoverished township that supplies Sedgefield’s labour and soaks up its poverty, is hidden away out of sight in the coastal dunes, and Pedro’s nursery is hidden away in thickets at the foot of one of these dunes. You’d not know it’s there, looking from the cluttered streets of the townships, where the presence of two white men in my friend’s bakkie (small pickup) provokes sarcastic and, um, colourful comments from some locals as we drive by.
Speaking in Afrikaans, Pedro tells us about the droughts he has seen in this region, particularly around 1960, when rivers that usually flow strongly dried up completely.
“The earth has its own cycles; when it must, it reduces the human population with sickness or disaster. I have learned these things over 50 years of observation.”
“When the Department of Land Affairs pulled out from this venture, I had to make this nursery work myself.”
Now he supplies trees to numerous other local retail nurseries – which probably sell them for four times what he charges. He is highly critical of the dependence of many in his community on government and white people for money and work.
On a sweltering day, his nursery was a small, cool paradise beneath the trees, where he is now in the midst of planting a million new seedlings that hopefully will end up around the much-deforested southern Cape to slow climate change and species loss.