A lesson in humility: what it really takes to restore our degraded ecosystems

Sitting in an office, you can try to calculate the costs of the climate crisis, the value of nature conservation, or the true price of a product. I did those kinds of things in the corporate world for a couple of years, producing glossy reports. Seven years ago, I left the corporate offices, and set out to understand what it takes to create real change for landscapes and people on the ground. The opportunities seemed endless and up for grabbing. I soon discovered that even planting a single tree is not as simple as it sounds. And that thinking that it’s easy, is perhaps the most costly mistake we can make.

Working with farmers has been a lesson in what resilience and humility really means; and that understanding how nature works is key to restoring degraded ecosystems

Ah, simple maths

After studying mathematics at university, I went to work for a strategy consulting firm. It was shortly following the 2008 global financial crisis, and I wanted to understand how money and power worked. I told myself it was time I learned something about the real world. Since this firm works for a range of businesses, and since businesses seem to have a lot of power and influence out there, I thought this was a good place to start.

It was here I discovered that any problem can be solved with an issue tree and an Excel spreadsheet. No matter how complicated the problem, plug high-level data points into a model, and, voila!

This suited me. After all, I loved mathematics for how it can wrestle chaos into working order. It is beautiful: a perfectly logical framework with an answer for everything.

As a consultant, I was making calculations, looking at datasets, creating charts showing how, over time, climate change and landscape degradation would pose real problems for businesses. I examined how the bottom line would suffer when the areas where they operate become drier and drier, and what would happen to industry outputs when land productivity diminishes from over-use.

I was on top of the world — I was good at this stuff. If I wanted to, I could become a partner at that consulting company and make a lot of money (and let’s not forget, create impact) by presenting charts to people, and solving problems with issue trees.

The sense of accomplishment I felt by arranging the world’s most troubling environmental challenges into charts was directly proportionate to my own ignorance. After a while, this irony started to weigh on my conscience: I had never seen a degraded landscape, experienced a drought, or spoken to a person who lived through one. I was making charts about the efficiency of planting trees to combat climate change, meanwhile, I had never planted a tree.

Eventually, it became hard to congratulate myself on my role in the climate change crusade. I was influencing the decisions of some of the biggest climate change contributors, waxing on about things like carbon sequestration, which was no more than an abstraction to me.

Still, all my chart-making had led me to some blunt conclusions about the planet: the most pressing issues in our world are increasing social inequality and environmental collapse. I needed to actually understand these issues — not just their cost to corporates — to figure out how they might be solved. I knew I couldn’t do that while sitting in an office in the Netherlands. I wanted to work with people who are in touch with nature every day, who deal with droughts, floods and extreme temperatures first-hand. I realized that it was farmers who are on the forefront of so many of these issues.

A farm worker in the Baviaanskloof valley, South Africa. Photo by Andrew Zylstra

Thus sparked my journey to Sub-Saharan Africa and the work of soil restoration. This has been a lesson in humility — in accepting complexities and working with life, rather than spreadsheets.

A new equation

But old habits die hard. Before I even arrived, I had already solved the problem of the first landscape where I intended to begin work. I had studied the reports, made the spreadsheets, and prepared a PowerPoint presentation. I figured it would take a year to kick-start change and I’d be home the next Christmas.

When I got to South Africa, I immediately realised that none of my solutions made any sense on the ground. I never showed them to anyone and felt foolish for even thinking they could work in the first place. Instead of presenting solutions, my job was to shut up and listen. This was my first lesson in landscape restoration.

For six months I shadowed my colleague Dieter, who had been working in the area for many years. I observed, spoke to farmers, policy makers, businesses, ecologists, and people living in the area — I learned about the ecosystem, and even planted some trees on a degraded hillslope (they all died — I’ll tell you later).

After some time, I figured that even if I couldn’t control the solutions, at least I might try to control the process. I made Gantt charts with linear workflows which would, again, within a year’s time, result in a desired outcome. Dieter looked at my charts and drew a gigantic U, and then many circles and circles on a flipchart. The process would basically have to be a giant mess, was my interpretation from what he said. We’d go around in circles and circles with several things running in parallel, implementing lessons learned from previous iterations in every next step, and adapting and changing the approach as we move along.

We had fierce discussions on this. How could I present this ‘chaos’ back to our funders? They needed deliverables! In hindsight, I think it was not only the funders who needed results and predictability, it was me as well.

From issue trees to planting trees

We started planting trees on a degraded hillslope, piloting a technology that would help them grow by providing water for them in a box. We had two days to plant 100 trees, and it was 40 degrees outside. The farmer who owned the land just laughed. According to him, there was no way we would achieve this — the soil was rock-hard, we’d have to use pickaxes to dig the holes, and it would take forever. But with the help of a team of twelve strong men from the local community, we managed to plant them. The farmer helped us by delivering water in a tank — for the trees, and for us. We were proud to have achieved our goal; it felt good to be planting trees, to finally have my hands in the soil. I sent the photos to friends and family — I was doing it! We mapped and measured everything we did. We were in control.

Planting trees on a degraded hillslope

A few months later, most of the trees were gone. The baboons had raided the water boxes and uprooted the trees. A year later, all the trees were dead.

Gradually, it dawned on me what Dieter meant. We didn’t work with spreadsheets or datasets. We didn’t work with technology we designed and controlled. We worked with life and its exponential variables and unpredictability — with human beings and with nature.

The goal in ecosystem restoration is to bring back life and restore the balance between people and nature, which is more complex than any mathematical problem I ever had to solve.

(NB: the technology we used to plant these trees since we did that first pilot, has been improved a lot — it is much more effective now — but the point still holds that many things need to be in place for a tree to grow, with or without technology to help it ;-)

Nature squared

This was my second lesson in working with life: you don’t just show up and plant the tree, you have to deal with the entire fabric of the ecosystem. It is patient work to understand a system that has, over billions of years, perfected the art of sustaining life — even harder if you’re trying to do so in degraded soils, where nature’s carefully honed support systems have been destroyed.

Trees don’t just grow; they need the right soil, the right organisms in the soil to help them get nutrients to their roots, they need water, they need the sun — but not too much of it — and they need to withstand grazers or other animals before they reach maturity. Sometimes they need other plants near them. They need the right slope, the right climate, the right temperature. Occasionally plants need something you would never have considered, like a specific bee or ant to propagate them.

A spekboom, one of the pioneer species in thicket vegetation, which is used a lot to restore the degraded areas where I worked. Photo by Andrew Zylstra.

That’s true for every single tree. The area where we worked was 10,000 hectares of land, classified as “degraded” — the size of 13,000 soccer fields. In pristine areas, there would be around 10,000 bushes and trees on a hectare, so 100 million trees. We had a team of 15 people who took two days to plant 100 trees and all of them died. How on earth would we manage to plant the 100 million we needed to actually restore the landscape, and get them to grow?

I leave that dismal equation to you. (NB: the organizations and farmers I worked with came up with some pretty cool innovations on this — if you want to know more, reach out to me)

Multiplied by the unknown power of people

In the meantime, even if we found a way to solve that puzzle, we would be faced with another problem: the livelihoods of the farmers. Farmers in the area required most of the land to graze their goats, an activity, which had, in previous generations, over-utilized the lands, causing much loss of vegetation and soil degradation. We could plant young trees, but the goats would eat them immediately, and our efforts would be nil.

In this photo you can clearly see a ‘fenceline contrast’ — showing the effect of overgrazing (on the right) and intact vegetation (on the left)

How could transforming the land-use and restoring the degraded hillsides, with trees or other plants, co-exist with grazing goats? How could we protect our new investment in the soil health and ensure farmers kept their secure livelihoods?

This is where my journey started, with these two intertwined problems. I didn’t have a formula this time, but I was learning from experience and through people who cared about and depended on the solutions.

Grounded grew from our commitment to solving this puzzle.

Towards an answer

When we found out it was too hard — and costly — to plant trees everywhere on the landscape, we had to completely shift our approach, but also set new goals, which did not involve planting a determined number of trees. I found this challenging, having grown up in an environment where you could measure your own success in numbers and where deliverables were linear and one-dimensional.

Dieter was right — environmental work is a circular and chaotic process that requires full commitment and a lot of collaboration. It is about tackling issues as they crop up, not knowing what the one next will be but knowing for sure there will be a next. In such a complex environment, it’s hard to achieve results. There is no one elegant answer because nature isn’t fixed. It’s harder to be proud of what you’ve achieved because there is always ambiguity in the process as well as the outcome.

In all of this, I learned the most from the farmers I worked with — from Dawid, Ankia, Willie, Gerda, Rune, Hestelle, Pieter and Margriet. All the lessons I learned, they already knew. They knew that you can’t predict when it is going to rain, and it’s unwise to put much stock in a spreadsheet projecting your seasonal yields. They knew it’s impossible to be sure that applying a product to the same crop will affect it all the same, because every inch of soil is a little different. They knew that just when you think your field has found its perfect harmony, a pest can come in and wipe it out; and when you’re faced with the worst drought in living memory, all you can do is to bite down and pray for rain.

Working closely with the farmers and residents of the Baviaanskloof was a humbling lesson in the resilience it takes to depend on a landscape. Photo: Andrew Zylstra

Perfectly messy answers

I’ve been doing this work for seven years now and feel like I owe it to the former me, and those like me, to share stories from the landscapes. I want to connect with people sitting in offices and arranging data into spreadsheets — people attempting to solve large-scale environmental problems or pushing them to the edge of their mind; I want to convey the intricacy of these living systems, and to motivate people to get involved. You don’t have to spend years of your life trying to understand this stuff first-hand to make a positive impact — you can connect through stories and insights, and then repeat these stories so that, together, we can weave a more accurate and complex narrative of our landscapes and agriculture systems.

Step outside and life is a big, beautiful mess. There’s chaos and order that doesn’t fit inside a formula. There are networks of fungi connecting over kilometres of soil underneath our feet. This is the crazy complicated world we live in that urgently needs protecting and restoring — there’s no problem more worthy of puzzling out.

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Thanks to Hailey Gaunt for helping me edit this story