These desks are made from invasive trees….

I first learned about invasive plants when birdwatching on a Ugandan lake and seeing all the water hyacinth plants floating on top of the water. Beautiful, but invasive.

So too are eucalyptus trees – in South Africa, they suck up scarce water; in Portugal, they made forest fires worse.

But South Africa has been tackling this problem of invasive trees in a very productive way for more than two decades now.

The late Kader Asmal, first minister of water and forests in Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet, wielded a panga to cut down an invasive Port Jackson willow tree on a Villiersdorp mountainside on October 16, 1995. It was the kickoff to a program that ended up being phenomenally successful in a whole range of areas – restoring water sheds, training and employing vulnerable peoples, making furniture including school desks, and setting a model for a whole suite of government programs. The program has won more than 100 international awards.

The program was a unique public employment conservation initiative at the time, particularly in the Overberg area where the first invasive alien tree was cut. It was the beginning of a concerted effort by government to address poverty and unemployment through addressing key issues of environmental degradation.

But initially, the main goal was to remove invasive plants and trees, introduced from elsewhere, that were sucking up huge amounts of South Africa’s scarce water resources. Studies had long suggested that alien invasive plants – from Australian acacias and eucalypts to American cacti – were consuming much more water than the indigenous vegetation they replaced. Once they were cleared, stream flow would increase and indigenous biodiversity and ecosystems would flourish.

South African National Biodiversity Initiative (SANBI)

”If we hadn’t, it would have been catastrophically worse,” said Guy Preston, the former university professor who oversaw the program after joining the South African government as Asmal’s deputy. He retired as Deputy Director-General in the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in 2020. “So Working for Water, having cleared 3.5 million hectares of land and [completed] over 10 million hectares of follow-up work, has unquestionably had enormous positive impacts.”

“And then there’s the huge dignity in having a job and in the work that people do earning a living – like Working on Fire, or in anti-rhino poaching work and so on. That makes this worthwhile in itself.  But our job is to say ‘How can we get optimal impacts, including sustainability? How do we ensure that we’re getting optimal value for money?’ And that’s the on-going quest.“

Creating around 50,000 jobs every year, the scheme specifically targets the most disenfranchised: well over half its workers are underprivileged women, and the programme has ambitious quotas for young people, disabled individuals, and those living with HIV/AIDS. As well as jobs, Working for Water provides employees with education and training, health and reproductive care, rehabilitation for convicted criminals, childcare services, HIV/AIDS awareness courses, and savings programs.

Working for Water is committed to integrating HIV/AIDS awareness into the program’s everyday activities with both a workplace and a community focus. The Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa, a program partner in the Eastern Cape, engages in skills development, training, and community awareness. The partnership makes a visible difference and there appears to be a decline in teenage pregnancies, rape and alcohol abuse, the government says.

The project even helps local businesses, by providing free wood and biomass from the clearings to be turned into furniture, wooden toys, firewood, fuel chips – and even coffins.

Even retired, Preston is still extremely interested in value-added industries (VAI) that can be developed alongside alien plant removal. 

Between 1995 and 2015, the program turned 2.8 million hectares of invasive trees into school desks, furniture and other useful consumer items. Invasive alien plants cover some 20 million hectares of South Africa. 

While it took a while to find its feet, given that it had started at a time of such change in South Africa, the Working for Water model was used to create 14 other labour-intensive environmental programs that became the basis for the government’s Expanded Public Works Program.

Preston stresses that the programs are “not only ‘make-work’ programmes – all have critical environmental outcomes.” He hadn’t expected to be a hands-on manager when he joined the government in April 1995. But the minister wanted him to take charge of a National Water Conservation Campaign that promoted clearing invasive plant species in water catchment areas. Asmal wanted to make more water available while creating employment for the poorest of the poor.

Since Working for Water began in 1995, the family of Natural Resource Programmes have together created more than 227,100 person years of employment across South Africa, the government noted in 2015. “The programmes grew from just over 6,100 employment opportunities to more than 50,000 on average over the last three years.  For the last three years, consistently just over half of these were female and more than 60% were younger than 35 years of age.”


The water Guy: A conservationist who cast an indelible mark on our environment. Daily Maverick, Aug. 19, 2020

DEA’s Working for Water programme celebrates 20 years of job creation & environment sustainability. South African Government, Oct.29, 2015

Protecting South African ecosystems to create good jobs. Green Economy Coalition, Sep. 20, 2017

A Rapid Transition Away from Eucalyptus. Resilience, Jul. 6, 2023

Cover image: Grootbos Foundation