Blue skies and burnt trees

The Cape is a special place to do just about anything; surfing, whale watching, brewing, foresting and field tripping. On the 19th of August, I set off on a 3800 km journey to and around the Southern and Eastern Cape with one of FABI’s extension officers, Sandisiwe Jali, and two graduate students, Bianca Jardim and Sydney Sithole. The purpose of this field trip was to collect insect specimens and investigate various pest and disease issues in commercial forestry plantations. It isn’t often that the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme (TPCP) finds itself in the Cape, when compared to the much closer Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, which made this trip quite distinctive.

Field trips around South Africa are always memorable; you get to see more of this beautiful country, you get to interact more closely with other students, meet the people in the forestry industry, and put your finger on the pulse of plant health in SA. Our first stop was to Stellenbosch, wine country, to meet Deon Malherbe, a researcher at Stellenbosch University. Deon is monitoring a Eucalyptus (gum) trial, which was setup by Camcore–an international tree breeding organization–to look at the performance of various hybrids across different sites. This valuable trial is under attack by a number of Eucalyptus pests, which we helped Deon identify. Together, we worked out a scoring system for better assessing the damage caused by these insects.

From there, we set off east to Riversdale, about 50 km north of Still Bay, to collect a few pine logs containing the larvae of a woodwasp, Sirex noctilio. The larvae and adults of this wasp will be examined at FABI for the presence of a tiny worm, Deladenus siricidicola—a bio-control agent developed at FABI that has saved the South African forestry industry more than 400 million rand. Here we paused to take in some of the sights while we thought about what R400 million could buy you.

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The next day, we continued east–towards Knysna–to meet Awelani Netshituka, a forester working for PG Bison at the Ruigtevlei office. Many parts of the Cape have been, and still are, at the mercy of a severe drought—the worst in 100 years. We were often reminded about using water sparingly by the little notes stuck on the walls near the taps and toilets of our accommodation. While the drought meant one couldn’t take long showers anymore, it also meant that much of the vegetation hadn’t had a good shower either. The dry conditions, high winds speeds and building fuel load led to the fires that swept through Knysna and the surrounding areas, claiming seven lives.

Awelani showed us some of the areas that had been devastated by the fires and the recovery operations under way to try and salvage some of the burnt timber. In the valley below the Ruigtevlei office, in front of thousands of dead trees, there are long lines of what looked like neatly stacked mounds of charcoal. When we asked what those lines were, we were told that they were the burnt logs they had harvested after the fire. They have harvested so much, the market is flooded. Now they have to try and store it! The arrangement of theses logs under sprinklers are called wet decks, which helps keep the wood moist until they can be used.

While many trees were harvested, the lesser-affected younger stands were left to recover. Awelani took us to some of these compartments. The prolonged drought has had a significant impact on these trees. They are trying to recover but without good rains they are being attacked by a number of different secondary or opportunistic pests and fungi, killing those too weak to put up a fight. And this wasn’t isolated to a single company or region. We saw more examples of this at a number of sites we visited.

For any industry growing plants and selling their products, climate is going to be a more important part of planning; for South Africa, a water scarce country, even more so. We are going to have to be smart with how we collect, store and recycle our water. For our plants, we are going to have to develop more efficient breeding strategies, develop and implement possible GMOs, and we are going to need more scientists to understand the effects of climate on pests and diseases because we are going to have many more blue sky days (no rain) and more burnt trees (any crop plant, really) if we don’t.


What is at the Centre of Excellence?

In 2004, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) with the National Research Foundation (NRF) established the first seven Centres of Excellence (CoE). These Centres, based on the successful CoE models implemented overseas, were adopted to build on existing capacity and resources but also aimed to bring researchers together to collaborate across disciplines and institutions to drive science excellence.

I joined the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI)–the host institution of the Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology (CTHB)–in 2008 when I started my Honours degree. At the beginning on my Honours, I didn’t quite understand what the Centre of Excellence was or why it even existed. How “excellent” was this programme? Was there a need for tree health research in South Africa? I was really only concerned about doing well and learning as much as I could so that I would be a better candidate for a Master’s. But my eyes have opened up since then.

Between my classes and research project, I was encouraged to get more involved in the CoE’s activities by volunteering to be a mentor for the undergraduate mentorship programme, working in the Diagnostic Clinic (which services both the CTHB and TPCP), attending workshops run by Dr Marin Coetzee, who conducts some of his research in the CoE, and so on. The CTHB–true to the purpose of the Centres–made more room for excellence; more postgraduates could complete their studies through FABI, more essential equipment could be bought, research could include other sectors and not threaten industry-specific funding, opportunities through workshops and collaboration started to grow, leveraging funding and excellence became more important, etc. The CTHB – a virtual centre run through FABI – became a critical part of FABI and because of that, the CTHB absorbed some of its excellence, built on it and delivered its own excellence.

The TPCP began at the University of the Free State before moving to the University of Pretoria, where it became the founding programme for FABI. The TPCP helped start a number of other research programmes that are run out of FABI.  The CTHB started at FABI in 2004 and has linked a number of institutions to FABI and the University of Pretoria. 

I experienced how research can truly grow and have international reach. As the CoE’s research net widened, we started to identify more and more problems of concern to plant health in South Africa—many of them brought on by climate change and globalization. Because of the limited capacity in the country, back in 2004 to deal with pest and diseases that were arriving from other parts of the world, the importance of national and international collaborations and knowledge exchange became a priority. These close connections–that are still being built and expanded today–have led to growth in South Africa’s capacity; not just around FABI but at all the institutions linked to the CTHB. In 14 years, the CoE has produced 786 publications, 125 students, and really changed the ways in which we understand diseases of our native plants.

As a student associated with a CoE, I have had better opportunities for funding, wonderful teaching, mentorship, collaboration, and international exposure. Like those that have come before me, I plan to contribute to the science excellence in the country and grow more excellent people. No matter what happens to these Centres in future, as funding continues to dry up, we need to remember to keep excellence at the centre of anything we do—for us, for our country and for the world.