TIM NEARY analyses how a small CSI project can grow unexpectedly into a rich harvest of winning outcomes
In an effective CSI project, as the isiZulu saying goes, “Izandla ziyangeza”, which literally means “one hand washes another.” In practice, it should mean that the outcome is more than simply mutually beneficial – ideally its impact should be exponentially greater.
About five years ago, the South African public voted Sappi into offering help to a tree nursery project in the Kruger National Park. This led to Sappi’s short-term 2013 Typek Earth Kind™Green promotion which sprouted green shoots in all directions, brought unexpected dividends for all concerned and raised and handed out about 25 000 seedlings and saplings of the precious pepperbark tree.
The promotion involved consumers buying a box of Typek™paper and nominating any community greening or tree-planting project to receive a Sappi donation. The Kruger National Park’s project to protect and regenerate the pepperbark tree (Warburgia salutaris), one of South Africa’s most highly poached trees, was awarded a Sappi grant of R100 000.
Often that is where a pro-conservation promotion and donation ends. Instead, a journey began, linking project staff across southern Africa, generating substantial media coverage and arousing widespread public and conservation enthusiasm. Successes range from a farmer offering rare seeds to communities and micro-industries adapting age-old practices to promote conservation.
All this reinforces Sappi’s mission as an environmental custodian. Our plantations are central to this, offering sustainably grown timber to reduce pressure on indigenous forests. But along the way we have also learned unexpected lessons that resonate for any CSI project.
Start at the grassroots
The world’s forests are being affected by climate change and reduced by encroaching human habitation and industrialisation. Without trees and other plants, many of the flagship species that we struggle to conserve – from blue swallows to rhino and elephants – would have no nesting place, no food and no habitat.
Human population growth, urbanisation and migration have all contributed to an exponential growth in demand for the muthi plants used by traditional healers. Today there are 150 different communities within 20 kilometres of the Kruger National Park’s western boundaries where at least 2 million people live in subsistence conditions. This was once part of the problem – now it is part of the Warburgia Project solution.
Establish boundaries
A new, more aggressive generation had been infiltrating the park to fell pepperbark trees and strip them of their bark to sell on South Africa’s thriving muthi markets. These supply at least 30 million consumers and the biggest markets – in Johannesburg and Durban – are both wholesale and retail conduits for the pepperbark, one of the top-selling traditional remedies.
For centuries, the pepperbark has been traditionally used treat malaria; common cold, coughs and sinusitis; and candida yeast infections. It is believed to have been traded by Arabs at one time and is now used in commercially available western homeopathic remedies. Its botanic name, Warburgia salutaris, recognises these health-giving properties which have been chemically identified as warburganal and polygodial. To make this burgeoning trade sustainable, the Warburgia Project’s unusual solution was to put an armed guard on the park’s surviving trees and grow pepperbark seedlings to distribute among surrounding communities.
Keep up to date
The pepperbark always seems to have been rare in the wild, partly because it can be fussy about where it grows, preferring cool, south-facing krantzes and kloofs. The first warnings that the tree could become extinct due to unsustainable utilisation came as far back as 1926 but it was 70 years before it was celebrated as South Africa’s Tree of the Year in 1996 and some replacement saplings were distributed.
This stalled until the Warburgia Project began in 2011. In the meantime, scientists and horticulturists had identified some of the challenges of saving the pepperbark from extinction. They showed that the tree grows poorly from cuttings and much better from seeds – but that many seeds are not viable because they are infested by fruit fly. The Sappi Shaw Research Centre has been collaborating on seed propagation. The Agricultural Research Centre and SA National Biodiversity Institute have also contributed expertise.
Scientists also found that groves of wild pepperbarks are often just clones because when trees were debarked, they responded by suckering or coppicing. Currently, DNA studies are underway to find how growing seedlings originating from a different area might affect the gene pool. Keeping pace with science is an important key to saving the pepperbark from extinction in the wild.
Do the maths
Successful CSI projects need to be sustainable in several ways. In this case, Sappi’s role has become much longer term and the project may grow beyond the Lowveld into KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, as well as adjoining countries. Instead of shying away from getting involved at an operational level, we saw how we could help make a difference there. In turn, our involvement has become more publicly visible.
Part of the original R100 000 grant went to equip the rangers, who guard the surviving trees,with uniforms and bicycles. We provided overalls for gardeners in the Skukuza Indigenous Nursery and potting bags and other consumables to enable them to repot existing stock. We have supported training of a sniffer dog who locates pepperbark trees in dense bush. We have contributed to workshops for traditional healers that discuss the challenges they face finding raw materials; explain how harvesting can be more sustainable as both leaves and shoots contain the same active chemicals as bark; and train them in planting and caring for the young pepperbark trees distributed by the project.
By becoming involved in the Warburgia Project, we have helped put this tree’s income-generating and health-giving potential on a much more sustainable footing. We see that as a major win for forests, trees and people.
Tim Neary is Sappi project manager and consultant and a regular contributor to Radio 702’s Nature Diary.

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