Molecular Systematics, National Greening Programme & Global Climate Change: SA National Biodiversity Institute briefings


22 February 2005
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report


22 February 2005

Ms E Thabethe (ANC)

Documents handed out:
South African National Biodiversity Institute briefing: The Greening of the Nation Campaign
South African National Biodiversity Institute briefing: Global Climate Change

The South African National Biodiversity Institute presented their three current programmes. Their Training Programme gave feedback on the exciting work being done in molecular systematics and the internships and courses being offered to students from various universities. The ‘Greening of the Nation’ campaign was a two-year and four-month campaign, which was aimed at beautifying the grounds around schools, clinics and police stations, and creating awareness of South Africa’s threatened and endangered flora. The presentation on global climate change showed disturbing shrinkage in vegetation and the consequences of decreasing rainfall and increases in temperature.

The Committee decided that a special meeting should be convened in the near future to deal with climate change as many of the presented issues would have an impact on policy formulation and government’s response to the problem of ongoing climate change.

SAMBI presentation

Ms Reeves said that the Molecular Systematic laboratory was established four years ago at Kirstenbosch and had received a substantial donation from Leslie Hill. The laboratory conducted various research programmes. The first had generated DNA sequences of plants and another was looking at the evolutionary systems of plant life. The disciplines of taxonomy and systematics had seen major advances in recent years and had comprehensively mapped lineages of plant life. The proteaceae, for example, was related to the plane tree, which was endemic to the Northern Hemisphere.

Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism was another branch of research, which entailed DNA fingerprinting and DNA banking of preserved DNA samples of plants. The unit had a strong commitment to training and capacity building through outreach programmes. They covered a wide range of students including undergraduates, post-graduates and those doing full time research for their MSc or Post-Doctoral qualifications. New graduates had been attracted to the unit through three-month internships, which gave these students the opportunity to gain valuable hands on experience of science. Two out the eight students that had completed these internships had become full-time employees. Ms Reeves said standards of research were high. The unit also offered one-week courses in molecular systematics to students, as well as molecular techniques. The unit was in the process of building a Tree of Life of Cape Flora. This looked at evolutionary lineages and how they were related. The Cape was considered a hotspot of biodiversity, in terms of profusion and density of number of species existing within a relatively small area, with some 1500 species of which 70% were endemic to the Cape. The evolution of this diversity had taken place over the last three to nine million years, which in evolutionary time scales, was considered fairly recent and something of an explosion of evolutionary ramification. The science of establishing evolutionary relationships was known as phylogenetics.

Molecular systematics
One of the students who had been an intern and who had completed the course on molecular systematics was Amelia Mabunda. Ms Mabunda said cycads were a highly threatened and endangered species in South Africa. They were found in Appendix I of the critically endangered list of SITES. Ms Mabunda explained that since DNA formed the basic building blocks of all life, the laboratory was in the process of determining the DNA make-up of cycads through a process called Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism. Through this process the unique fingerprint (or sucker print) of each cycad could be accurately extracted and visually represented. This held implications for conservation and genetic studies, as any plants illegally traded could be traced with a great degree of accuracy using this method. One species of the cycad, the Encephalartos Latifrons, was critically endangered and it was illegal to remove this plant. There were twenty such specimens at the Kirstenbosch Gardens and only another 60 to be found in the wild. The unit intended rehabilitating some back into the wild.

Ms Reeves added that this store of genetic information could therefore be used in law enforcement. The cycad was mainly found in areas around Gauteng and Mpumalanga, stretching north into Kenya. It was in the process of becoming extinct, a process which was self-perpetuating, since its very rarity had made it an extremely sought after commodity in the illegal trade of endangered species, fetching up to R100 000 per metre of stem. Bar coding the DNA of such species had become a very helpful tool in tracing the origin of products and finding out whether they were derived from endangered life. Ms Reeves showed examples where shark fins used for shark fin soup could be traced to endangered species of sharks. This technology was transforming systems whereby the collection and trade in wild and endangered fauna and flora could be traced and proven and perpetrators brought to book. Another cycad, which was also on the endangered species list, was the Encephalartos Middelburgensis, of which there were only 120 remaining in the wild. Since the discovery of the double helix in 1953, genetics had come a long way and held exciting possibilities for the future. The unit was embarking on a seed banking project as well as a gene or DNA banking project, in conjunction with Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom and the Darwin Institute, as part of this country’s responsibility in complying with the requirements of the Convention on Biodiversity. These banks would preserve models of species that were facing extinction. The unit aimed to have 2000 samples of plant genes collected by 2006 and it had already extracted 3105 DNA prints. It was estimated that by 2050 one million species faced extinction.

Ms Thebethe asked whether the unit was involved in studying indigenous plants.

Ms Reeves said that only indigenous plants were studied at the laboratory. She said South Africa had a rich heritage of biodiversity and that consequently it attracted researchers and funding from all over the world. This was conducive to training and capacity building. It also attracted tourists and held future possibilities for bio-prospecting.

Ms J Chalmers (ANC) asked how DNA was banked in terms of space and security. She commented on the incidence of unique South African flora being poached and farmed in Australia and California. She asked whether there existed a possibility of the cycads at Kirstenbosch cross-pollinating and producing hybrids.

Mr J Arendse (ANC) asked whether the knowledge gained on the cycads could expedite its propagation or growth, as they were known to reproduce very slowly. He asked how much could be gained within the space of only one week on one of these courses offered by the laboratory.

Mr M Moss (ANC) asked where the cycads were found in South Africa and whether they could be reproduced and harvested.

Mr L Greyling (ID) asked whether any bio-prospecting entailed accessing the appropriate communities.

Mr A Mokoena (ANC) asked for the intrinsic value of cycads. Did they hold any medicinal value or was their value as a direct consequence of their rarity? He asked if it was possible to use grafting methods for reproduction. He asked whether the unit was doing anything to encourage the appreciation of our biodiversity outside the Gardens by awarding prizes for communities or schools that made an effort to preserve it. He asked whether they had completed the mapping of any entire families of plants.

Mr S Maja (ANC) asked what academic qualifications were required to do the work with which the unit was involved.

Ms Reeves said there was little chance of hybridisation occurring since cycads were notoriously difficult propagators. Reproduction at the Kirstenbosch Gardens only succeeded through hand pollination from male to female plants in the nursery. These plants thrived on high levels of carbon dioxide levels and had in ages past been used to higher levels of this gas than was prevalent today, although this had been steadily increasing.

She said the high value attached to the plant was due to its rarity and partly also its aesthetic appeal. It was fetching high prices in the muti market, causing further decimation. It was not known what it was being used for, but cycads were ring barked around their entire circumference for this purpose, which essentially destroyed the plant, since water could no longer be transported up the plant. It was rumoured that the bark was used as a cure for HIV/Aids. The DNA bank was the size of a one metre cubed box, which was kept at a temperature of 80 degrees Celsius below zero. The DNA extracts consisted mainly of leaf material, which was ground and purified several times. It was then placed in a 1.5 ml test tube in a buffer solution. The ultra-centrifuge machine used to purify the DNA had been bought at a cost of approximately R500 000. Kew Gardens in London were known to have the largest number of samples in the world, with up to 20 000 samples. Kirstenbosch had about 3000 so far. She said these samples were used to trace where certain plants came from and in that way plant heritage could be protected to some extent. DNA bar coding was a fail-safe method of doing this.

Cycads were such slow reproducers that they did not thrive in the wild, but seedlings harvested at the Gardens were to be reintroduced into the wild. Mature plants fetched high prices on the illegal market and micro chipping had even been used in an attempt to stop this, but traders were sophisticated and were known to use X-ray machines to trace and then remove the microchips. DNA mapping or fingerprinting seemed to be the only fail-safe method of tracing these plants. Ms Reeves said the one-week course presented by the laboratory was indeed worthwhile and that it had theoretical and practical components. The students were expected to have completed an entire process by the end of the week and to present their findings. Work in this science could also be applied in many other fields.

Entire families of evolutionary trees had been mapped, such as the daisy and daffodil families. Cycads were not found in the Western Cape, but across the Eastern Highlands and Limpopo province and up into Kenya. There were 300 species worldwide of which 65 were found in South Africa. Education and awareness programmes were aimed at preventing further loss of these plants and at protecting them. The Director of Research operated on a policy of benefit sharing and this extended to access to indigenous knowledge. Institutions like UWC had already established community networks, which were used by the unit, in order to facilitate access to indigenous knowledge. Ms Reeves said that extracted DNA was essentially dead material and could not be used to regenerate plants.

The Kirstenbosch Education Centre had initiated various outreach greening programmes in places like Khayelitsha, where schools were awarded prizes. The academic requirement for being accepted for an internship was a third year or Honours degree in Botany or Applied Herbal Science. The unit was however relatively flexible in this regard.

Greening of the Nation campaign
Ms Malta Qwathekana, from the Environmental Education Unit at SANBI, said that the "Greening of the Nation" campaign, which was started on 1 December 2004, was aimed at raising public awareness of threatened, endangered and endemic plant species in their area and encouraging them to protect and propagate them. The stated purpose of the project was to create a green, healthy and beautiful environment. This initiative involved the greening of targeted schools, police stations, clinics and the like, with indigenous plants that were endemic or threatened in their areas. The campaign was sponsored by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and had received R70 million to galvanise this pilot project. Various school grounds had already been transformed in this way. The learners participated in the planning and working stage, while being guided by the SANBI staff. This created a sense of ownership and pride. Each of the schools then had to oversee the transformation of two other schools in their vicinity, making the campaign self-perpetuating. Rare and threatened indigenous plants were re-introduced to certain area in this way.

The project had started with 15 staff and had increased to 50 staff. These included interns from the Environmental Education Unit at SANBI. She said that in the Eastern Cape 72 schools would be greened. The duration of the project was two years and four months. Various criteria were used for selecting areas for greening, including using Development Nodal Areas, schools, clinics, police stations and townships, using existing partnerships with councillors and municipalities and engaging them and linking up with existing projects.

One of the purposes of the project was to create a healthy environment. This was facilitated by planting indigenous plants, since these plants cleaned the air of pollutants like carbon dioxide. This decreased temperatures and at the same time conserved endangered species, which were threatened with extinction. The project included the development of nurseries, which would supply the project with the plants needed for the greening process. These nurseries were to be used as educational facilities as well to raise public awareness and knowledge of threatened indigenous flora. Grahamstown already had such a nursery, which was being used for this purpose. The project aimed to rehabilitate degraded land through measures like removing alien species. Representatives from the communities would be trained to become key role-players in the culture of greening the nation. The project would build capacity and create jobs. Interns had already been recruited and were being trained in environmental education. This aspect was a significant aspect of the deliverables set out for the project. Most of the schools that had been greened thus far had no fencing or water supply and the project had contacted the necessary departments in facilitating the fencing and provision of tanks.

Mr Greyling asked whether the project was linked to the school nutrition programme and whether the greening of schools included the planting of vegetable gardens for food. He asked if shelters and children’s homes could also be selected.

Mr D Olifant (ANC) commented that no provision for the planting of trees had been made in the planning stages of townships. He said certain areas had not been mentioned as targets for greening.

Mr Mokoena said that the project should be linked to agriculture and that a perception seemed to exist among activists that they were more knowledgeable on indigenous plants that the people of a certain areas. This approach created resentment and antagonism and compromised the efforts being made to improve the situation.

Ms R Ndzanga asked whether degraded land would be rehabilitated and plants planted to prevent erosion and whether these plants were able to survive on rainfall alone. She said that rural communities needed the assistance of this campaign.

Dr M Sefularo (ANC) asked whether this was a pilot project and whether any consultation with clusters had occurred before starting the project and whether it would provide any support to small businesses or micro-lenders.

A Member asked whether the Northern Cape would feature in the campaign, as this was a very dry and hot province and in great need of trees and plants. He said he was a bit concerned about spending money on consultants.

The Chairperson commented that there were only targeted areas in Pretoria and none in Johannesburg for greening.

Ms Chalmers asked how the project was going to ensure that the plants would be maintained and the greening of grounds sustained. Initial enthusiasm engendered by outside assistance might wane. She asked if there was any monitoring system in place.

Mr Arendse asked to what extent other government departments had been involved in the planning and implementation of this campaign and whether it linked up with other campaigns such as Arbour Day, which had similar goals, instead of working in isolation. He asked why was it always Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain that were chosen for these sorts of projects.

Ms N Khunou (ANC) asked why the project was so short and to what extent was the job creation that it provided sustainable. She asked whether the interns would gain permanent employment at the end of the project and did the project stand to make any profit?

Mr Moss said that the building of RDP houses had often destroyed surrounding vegetation and asked if the campaign would look at these areas for greening.

Mr M Kalako (ANC) asked whether the Tsuga nursery in Langa was going to be used for supplying the campaign with plants. He asked who should be contacted in order to find out more about getting involved.

Ms Qwathekana said the campaign would not include planting vegetable gardens, although skills like soil preparation and composting were helpful in growing vegetables as well. Provision had been made to identify needs and then to consult with Integrated Development Planners or the appropriate department or stakeholders. Teams would be sent to Johannesburg and eventually also to the Northern Cape, North West and Northern Province, although this would be dependent on available funds. The project would be extended if they could access additional funds.

She agreed that provision should be made for trees and that people should take ownership for looking after these trees. The probability of sustainability improved the more ownership was created. The Gold Fields Education Centre was actively involved in educating people at school level on the benefits of looking after and knowing about our flora heritage. The Centre provided the project with a list of schools that were either very poor, had achieved good academic results or who had shown some sort of initiative in the past. Based on these criteria, the project had approached these schools for greening projects. The project used an approach that would encourage ownership and not create feelings of resentment. It entailed engaging local stakeholders and municipalities, informing them of the aims of the project and the criteria for selecting participants and leaving them to decide upon the next step.

Practicality had dictated the areas chosen to concentrate on initially. These were areas close to existing botanical gardens. They were the Kirstenbosch Gardens, The Harold Porter Gardens, The Pretoria Gardens and the botanical gardens in the Karoo and Nelspruit. She said that monitoring would continue for three years after the greening of any grounds had occurred and thereafter intervention would be gradually withdrawn. Some of the jobs created were temporary, such as the work for labourers. Employees would be capacitated with skills, such as plumbing and driving, in order to give them a better opportunity for employment once the project ended. Individuals working on the project were given a two-year contract. The project was not a profit making concern. It had received R70 million for implementation. The project would not be able to address the phenomenon of degraded land throughout the country, but only in the places it had targeted for greening. Indigenous plants, by their very nature, were used to limited water.

The team consisted of 50 staff members currently and a few short-term contractors. A small percentage of the budget would be spent on consultants. She was uncertain whether any clusters had discussed the project. The deliverables of the project were as stated and did not really aim at providing much opportunity for small business, apart from the nurseries which would be developed to supply the plants for the greening. These plants would be purchased from these nurseries, which would remain sustainable into the future. Members could contact SANBI to get involved.

The Chairperson suggested that there were still issues needing debate, but that these would have to wait for another opportunity. Especially questions around the criteria used to select targets needed revisiting.

Climate change
Mr Barney Kgope of the Climate Research Centre at SANBI, told the Committee that the Centre had nine scientists and three technical staff. He said biodiversity controlled climate change and the climate had changed significantly over the last few decades. These changes were monitored and studied at the Centre. Carbon dioxide levels had also increased dramatically from around 180 parts per million during the last ice age to 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times. Since then it had steadily increased to over 380 parts per million. This had resulted in significant increases in temperatures since the 1860’s. Models for predicting future weather trends had improved vastly over the years and various scenarios could be played out and their results predicted. Simply put, it meant that certain strict and substantial measures needed implementation by the government were the country not to face a substantial increase in temperatures. Rising temperatures would affect health and promote disease, it would compromise food security, sea levels would rise and water supplies would decline. South Africa had seven biomes, of which five were spatial. These were Grasslands, Savannah, Nama Karoo, Succulent Karoo and Fynbos.

Mr Kgope showed how the various biomes dominated and retreated over the last twenty-five years as a result of temperature changes. These trends could be deduced from pollen drills, which indicated which vegetation existed during a certain time period. A steady increase in temperature had meant that the number of days on which rainfall had occurred and when moisture was available had decreased over this time and resulted in a change in vegetation from vegetation requiring more moisture to vegetation suitable for dryer conditions. Should the trend continue at the same rate, it was predicted that by 2050 the number of moisture days would decrease from 40 to 60 days per year to 20 to 40 days per year. Experiments had shown a difference in leaf temperature and physiological traits after good rainfall and after drought conditions had prevailed for two years. The increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrate oxide would undoubtedly have adverse effects on our climate and our vegetation.

Mr Kgope said it would cause a massive contraction of all the biomes, especially the grasslands. Higher levels of carbon dioxide favoured tree growth rather than grasses, which in turn would affect the animal life in those regions. Fire also played an important role in that growth before fires was dependent on carbon dioxide levels. It had been shown that if trees could reach 3m in height they could survive fires. The survival of trees during fires had improved over the years as a result of the higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Various other factors were also touched on in this regard and the inter-dependence of climate and vegetation reinforced by these points.

The Chairperson recommended that questions and discussion be held over for another occasion, since the subject was extremely important and would affect policy making, which would curb the emission of greenhouse gases.

Mr G Morgan (DA) commented that the presentation raised questions which required a considered response and appropriate strategies to ensure that government would become a contributor towards the solution and not the problem. He suggested that another meeting be scheduled to look at only this phenomenon of climate change. The Chairperson accepted.

The meeting was adjourned.


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