[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 25 FEBRUARY 2022]
We are comfortable to admit when we were wrong – especially if our error indicates, perhaps, too pessimistic a stance on our part.
In the edition of 4 February our lead story was about the vernacular-style houses at Napier that are falling into neglect. Based on the fact that the houses enjoy protection under the law, our accompanying editors’ letter lamented the lack of formal protection for old trees.
Napier-based Okko de Jaemer wrote to tell us that trees older than 60 years may not be chopped down without permission from Heritage Western Cape, the provincial heritage resources authority that resorts under the Western Cape government’s department of cultural affairs and sport. (See full letter on p. 10)
We were wrong. Sorry. And hurray.
What’s more, our attention was drawn to the tree management policy drawn up by the Cape Agulhas Municipality (CAM) last year, dated 30 June.
It is an elegant document that states its policy orientation unabashedly: “to promote greening and tree planting in the CAM through sound management [practice]”.
The document speaks about the benefits of trees, their beautifying effect, and proposes programmes to raise awareness and promote tree planting. It even contains an annex with a list of trees suitable for planting in the Overberg region.
While the tree management policy is only intended for the management of trees on public land, it is so sophisticated, so adroit, if CAM wanted to, the document could be held up as a benchmark to guide the community and private landowners in ways to look after old trees.
In an ideal world, one could have hoped that in the spirit of conservation that undergirds the document, private residents might be encouraged to discuss their tree issues with CAM before simply chopping one down.
Thereby alternative options, such as the pruning of roots – so-called 'root control systems’ proposed under paragraph 6.2.8 – could be explored before an old tree with a girth, say, the size of a man's, is summarily chopped down.
Ironically, the policy is really hard to come by. It was a struggle for us to get our hands on a copy.
So, what could have been a major coup for CAM, by setting a benchmark for its community and – possibly – even a standard for other municipalities for the conservation of trees, now feels like a damp squib.
However, the problem lies not with the municipality and its tree policy. The problem lies with a community that simply does not seem to care for green and shaded spaces in their towns. A long-standing resident bemoaned the general lack of respect for trees as living things.
De Jaemer writes in his letter that respect for one’s environment and heritage attests to an underlying cohesion in a community or society.
His observation is prescient. What he is really saying is that shared values bring people together. And he is not alone in this kind of thinking.
The British historian Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History comprehensively explored the rise and fall of civilizations. Toynbee remarked that civilizations on the rise have a common purpose. Societies on the rise, he found, are literally united by a central, unifying principle across all organizational spheres of life – political, religious, legal, creative and so forth.
In other words, as De Jaemer would say, there is social cohesion.
On the other hand, Toynbee found that civilizations in decline tend to fall into compartmentalisation. There is no social glue that holds them together and they fragment, disintegrate and disappear.
The tree example of our letter shows something like this disintegration: people doing what they want, without regard for rules and guidelines, good policies written but hidden away. It is a kind of ‘any goes’ attitude. Nobody cares.
We know this is not only true about conservation and heritage issues in the Overberg. This is a common problem across our national landscape. Even across the world today. We simply lack overarching, common values to bind us together.
So, perhaps we celebrated the fact that we were wrong about the protection available for old trees too soon after all. Plug the champagne corks again.