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South Africa Battles Plant Invasion

February 1, 1998

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ Aliens have invaded South Africa. They are green and will destroy the environment if not stopped.

They don’t come from outer space, though. These foreign invaders are plants and trees imported by settlers and other visitors over the past three centuries.

They have spread quickly across the country, bullying and killing local species and sucking up precious water from land that usually supports scrub brush and other less-thirsty varieties.

``We have found that these alien trees are drying up the streams and lowering the water table,″ said Caroline Gelderblom, an ecologist at the state-funded Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. ``They are like a green cancer.″

Now a program funded by the government and private money uses unemployed and disabled people in teams that wield chain saws and machetes to hack down the intruders.

Called Working for Water, the 3-year-old project has grown from a $5.1 million budget in 1995 to $52.2 million last year.

Environmentalists say the counterattack has been timely.

``With alien plants, the initial spread is slow, but they then become dense fairly rapidly. We are currently in a fast phase of growth and now is the time for action,″ Gelderblom said.

The first European settlers who came to South Africa in the 17th century brought non-native plants with them. Pine trees and other species have been farmed commercially, while others, like the purple-blossomed jacaranda, were prized for their beauty.

Over the years, a lack of natural predators allowed the foreign invaders to expand their domain, colonizing and wiping out fragile natural vegetation.

Much of South Africa’s landscape is low-lying bush or scrub, while many of the aliens are large, thirsty trees that gradually deplete the limited water resources.

The most seriously infested areas are in Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Northern provinces, which are on South Africa’s western, eastern and northern edges. About 25 million acres suffer infestation.

Wilfred Pheiffer, 29, the Working for Water project manager in the Botsrivier area 60 miles east of Cape Town, and his teams have cleared Black Wattle trees, originally from Australia, along local streams.

Farmers report the streams now run more fully with clearer water, because the Black Wattle caused soil erosion.

``Before we cut out the trees there was nothing growing on the banks,″ Pheiffer said. ``They were completely bare and a lot of erosion was taking place. But now the reeds are growing back.″

Burned stumps and patches of scorched earth filled the narrow Houw Hoek valley where Pheiffer worked, making the landscape look like a battlefield.

``It is ugly at the moment, but we are at war with the aliens,″ he said.

Acting quickly against the invaders saves money. Clearing 2.5 acres of lightly infested land costs about $20.40; waiting 20 years until the land gets heavily infested raises the cost to about $1,635.

Working for Water has created nearly 10,000 jobs for unemployed rural people in a country where more than 30 percent of the population is out of work. Logging the foreign trees creates spinoff industries such as selling firewood and timber for furniture and charcoal.

Workers earn $6.75 a day, which increases to as much as $18 for chief supervisors. Teams that clear areas ahead of schedule receive bonuses.

Lorraine Williams, 41, project manager in the Drakenstein Valley 50 miles northeast of Cape Town, has nearly doubled the size of her team _ from 145 to 270 people.

Machetes hacked and chain saws buzzed recently in the picturesque hillsides above the valley of fruit farms as workers chopped down thickets of young trees.

Every alien species is cut down, with stumps painted with herbicide to ensure death. Cleared areas are burned to germinate seeds left in the ground, and the saplings are then cut down.

Williams will send climbing teams and even helicopters to mountain peaks and cliff faces where pine trees lurk in small openings to cut them down so they cannot drop seeds into the valley.

``They all have to come down,″ she said, squinting against the sun at the enemy above.

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