Agroforestry the sustainable way at Chevy Chase

An agroforestry approach is providing a rural Eastern Cape community with a chance to develop and farm their land more productively, creating jobs, skills and opportunities along the way …

Chevy Chase is the unlikely name for a rural Eastern Cape community located between Mount Fletcher and Maclear (now Nqanqa Rhu). Like many rural communities in South Africa the people of Chevy Chase have access to ancestral land but very few job opportunities as they are far from markets and have little or no infrastructure. As a result the local economy is based on subsistence agriculture. However over-grazing has reduced the potential of the land to support livestock, while rampant alien plant invasion is further eroding agricultural potential and using up precious water resources.

In 2010 the Chevy Chase community got involved in a European Union funded rural development project known as ‘Thina Sinako’, which is when they started working with a dedicated group of rural development practitioners who went on to establish Umsonti Community Forestry NPC.

Through the help of Umsonti, the Chevy Chase community, under the Leadership of Chief Montoeli Lehana of the Batlokoa Traditional Council, approached the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform (DRDAR) for funding from their LandCare Program for a forestry project.

The area identified for the forestry project was fenced to control livestock, and work commenced to clear the wattle jungle and plant grasses for grazing pending the completion of an EIA and the granting of a Water Use License for the establishment of the correct commercial tree species for the site.

The nitrogen left in the soil from the wattle and the successful exclusion of livestock meant the grass sown by the Landcare staff under the supervision of the DRDAR grew well and thanks to the summer rains, by winter the community was able to provide good grazing for their livestock.

In 2019, on the back of this initiative, the DRDAR approached Umsonti with an ambitious plan to start a conservation agriculture project with the community on adjacent agricultural lands which had been standing idle for over 10 years. A community Trust was formed with the six villages that make up Chevy Chase in 2020.

With agricultural equipment purchased by Government (initially a no till planter and a spray rig) and borrowed from local farmers, 100 ha of land was fenced off and 27 ha was successfully established to yellow maize by early December 2020. This yielded around 20 tons of maize (which was sold to the community, given to members in lieu of work, and 9.6 tons sold to BKB) and stubble for community cattle to graze at the end of winter / early spring when insufficient grass is available before the first rains. A cattle auction was also organized with the help of Umsonti and Meat Naturally in May 2020 which resulted in the sale of 282 head of cattle, bringing in R 2.27 million to the community. This also assisted with reducing the pressure on the veld from overstocking, meaning survival rates of the remaining animals increased.

Clearing wattle jungle
In the initial phase of removing the wattle jungle the cleared wattle is separated into usable poles, firewood and pulp logs for sale. The money generated from these activities is ploughed back into the project allowing clearing work to continue.

In 2012, with funds from Thina Sinako, a soil survey was conducted on the land earmarked by the community for the forestry project. Due to the amount of seed in the soil, the wattle has kept on coming back on the ‘cleared’ areas. Considering the high cost of spraying the small trees or cutting them out, the work teams adopted a different approach and it was decided to line out the wattle jungle already growing there using the ‘boere metode’ to give the trees space to grow and produce more poles, firewood and pulp in the years to come. This serves to generate some cash and get the wattle jungle under control, pending the granting of a Planting Permit for the establishment of a proper plantation. Wattle coming back in riparian and other sensitive areas are permanently removed and grass seed sown in these areas to allow for establishment of additional grazing areas of good grass for livestock, and the roots to bind the soil to reduce erosion.

“The sale of firewood and pulpwood is absolutely necessary, as the income from these activities has helped with diesel (Government doesn’t supply diesel) and equipment maintenance,” said James Ballantyne, one of the directors of Umsonti, who has been working closely with the community for a number of years. “If it wasn’t for the wattle clearing and the income from this, there would have been no maize production, as a lot of money is spent on diesel for ripping, lime spreading, ploughing, spraying and planting.”

The community is budgeted to be clearing roughly one hectare of wattle per week, translating into around 48 ha per year. There are three teams doing the initial wattle clearing. Each team comprises a chainsaw operator and three people stripping bark and stacking branches and bark in brushlines while utilizable timber (poles, pulp and firewood) is left in the middle of the ‘indimas’.

The pulp timber is kept separate from the large logs of firewood timber which get sold to the local community. Depending on distance from the project, the 1.5 ton loads of firewood are sold for between R500 and R1 200. The income (around R 10 000 per month) is used to purchase diesel for the tractors to transport staff from the community to the forestry project.

“The philosophy of paying for a product is being entrenched in the community,” said James. “The ‘everything for free’ (EFF) model does not work.”

Wattle pulpwood logs are sold to either NCT Durban Woodchips (when tickets are available) or PG Bison. The Chevy Chase LandCare project has the potential to generate between one to two truckloads (30 tons) of pulpwood per month.

The funds generated from pulpwood sales have been used to assist with purchasing diesel for the ripping, liming, ploughing, planting, fertilizing and spraying of maize, as Government pays for all the inputs (equipment, fencing, seed, lime, fertilizer and chemicals), but not for diesel or equipment maintenance. The people working on the maize are paid as part of the LandcCare project.

Environmental considerations
Roads have been planned using natural or existing routes such as cattle tracks and wattle extraction routes that have been used for decades by the community. Bridges across streams have been made from rocks or wooden poles so tractors and bakkies can cross safely and without causing any disturbance to the rivers.

“Ultimately, concrete pipes and culverts will be constructed, but with the shortage of funds, we have had to make a plan to minimise the impact on the environment,” said James.

The key to sustainable rural development at Chevy Chase is the agroforestry approach i.e. integrating agricultural activities with forestry, maintains James. This has allowed cash generated from pulpwood and firewood sales to be ploughed into clearing of alien invasive plants and crop production which has provided winter food for livestock – all of which has provided an opportunity to improve management of the land. In addition these activities have created a vehicle – in the form of a community trust - to mobilise community resources and efforts which has the potential to create further opportunities going forward.

“The formalisation of structures and the investment by Government provides an opportunity for sustainable development, which creates jobs and benefits for the community both formally and informally,” says James.

Developing rural communities through forestry and associated businesses
Tel: 074 154 4430 / 074 173 5583 James Ballantyne: 079 516 1261 Email: