Protect the Milkwood trees

Aerial view of the destroyed Milkwood forest in Kommetjie.

A local Kommetjie resident is making her voice heard on behalf of trees in the far south.

Heleen Louw is a steering committee member of Treekeepers, which is a citizen-based organisation working to protect mature trees of all kinds in the Cape Town area.

A relationship – guided by a memorandum of agreement – has been formed between the organisation and the City Council’s Parks and Recreation department.

The agreement is to conserve and maintain urban forests.

Treekeepers guides fellow residents to look after mature trees in their gardens and to work with council staff, planners, contractors, as well as property owners and developers, to help ensure that no trees on public or private land are cut down unnecessarily.

An incident in February raised Ms Louw’s ire, when a tree feller was employed to lop down protected Milkwood trees on the property of 1 Disa Avenue in Kommetjie.

“Milkwoods have been rooting themselves and growing here for many thousands of years and are a protected tree species in South Africa. Sideroxylon inerme (White Milkwood) trees are part of the natural coastal forest landscape,” she said.

What makes them so special, she said, was that they were an indicator species of the Western Cape and natural forests of South Africa.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) “less than half a percent of the land surface of the country is natural forest which means this is the rarest biome in South Africa”.

The damage or removal of trees in this category is taken very seriously by DAFF. This means that harming them or removing them is unlawful and is in contravention of sections 3(3) (a) of the National Forest Act of 1998.

“In any developing urban space, ‘green’ corridors play a very important role in keeping biodiversity thriving, acting as habitats and routes for wildlife, birds and insects,” Ms Louw said.

Early on the morning of Monday February 27, Kommetjie residents woke to the sound of an unusually quiet chainsaw and were shocked, Ms Louw said, to find that a resident and owner of a local garden services company had a team cutting away at the protected Milkwood forest.

When neighbours tried to stop the trees being cut down, he told them that he had a licence to cut and remove the trees.

However, DAFF had issued a licence which only allowed for the pruning of the side branches of eight Milkwoods for easier access to the property.

“The neighbours were very upset but felt helpless as they were unable to contact the owner of the property who lives in Holland,” she said.

However, subsequently, on March 3, the officials of DAFF did investigate the damage at 1 Disa Avenue, Ms Louw said, and it was discovered that an area of approximately 200 square meters of natural forest was topped or destroyed – in contravention of the licence conditions which were issued.

Masithandaze Falitenjwa, acting regional head of forestry for the Western Cape DAFF responded to the situation surrounding the Disa Avenue property.

With regards to the transgression of the National Forest Act, no 84 of 1998 as amended, he said: “The damage or removal of trees in this category is taken very seriously by DAFF. This means that harming them or removing them (without a valid licence ) is unlawful and is in contravention of sections 3(3) (a) and section 7 (1) of the National Forest Act of 1998.”

In addition, Izak van der Merwe of Forestry Scientific Services, in the DAFF said natural forest may not be removed without a licence and the circumstances under which such licences can be issued, are very restricted.

He said Section 3(3)(a) of the National Forests Act stated that natural forest must not be destroyed save in exceptional circumstances.

“Removing natural forest for residential purposes is not exceptional circumstances, and we have legal precedence for this. Exceptions are large public capital projects and infrastructure, fencing around registered properties, or property rights predating the National Forests Act,” he said.

He said charges had already been laid against the owner of the property.

“Compensation can include complete rehabilitation of the removed vegetation, which is costly. But because natural forest takes decades to recover to a reasonable resemblance of what was there, ecosystem services will be lost for a considerable period of time, which may require making a case for additional compensation when the case is heard,” he said.

Ms Louw said people who love and value trees can feel helpless when a situation like this takes place.

She believed that developers and estate agents selling properties as well as tree fellers were often culprits in the destruction of urban forests.

“Excuses for this behaviour include ignorance of the law or saying that it was not under their control, or blaming of others. But too often money and greed is at the core of these decisions,” she said.

“When confronted, developers and estate agents often respond that they will plant a few young trees to make up for the loss of the large mature trees they remove. And loss it is indeed, because replacement trees take decades to replace the felled tress,” she said.

Patrick Dowling, acting chair of the Kommetjie Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association (KRRA), said: “We want the relevant authorities like DAFF and the City’s Environmental Resource Management Department to refer any Milkwood pruning or removal permit applications to us before they are approved.”

He said that the City of Cape Town and DAFF had taken up the issue of Milkwoods which were cut down in Disa Avenue and that the process of enquiry would take a while yet.

He said a formal complaint was lodged about the matter at the police station, and that the process would now follow its due course.

He said the ratepayers’ association had offered its help to DAFF because to look into every application across the Western Cape was a large task for an already under-resourced department.

“We are hoping we can get a piece of state land for Milkwoods in the area which may solve a few instances where trees can be moved to if necessary,” he said.

Mr Dowling said the incident in February had highlighted that Milkwoods were protected and that many more people had approached them for advice and counsel on how to manage them, which he found to be most heartening.

Ms Louw said many people did not realise that old trees have large, well established root systems and are able to access underground water through periods of extreme drought, unpredictable weather patterns, global warming and pollution.

“A young tree, however, needs many months of watering and nurturing and will only be able to develop self sustaining survival strategies over a period of up to 20 years. Often young replacement trees that are planted by developers are not suitable trees for the area or are not cared for properly, and so will soon die,” she said.

Ms Louw urged readers to join local environmental interest groups such as Treekeepers.

“Find out how to map the trees in your area so that there is a record of what exists. Take note of tree fellers who are active in your area and provide their contact details to Treekeepers, who are work-
ing towards a register of qualified tree care workers and support the landscape industry in creating trained and experienced tree specialists,” she