Nieuws - 16 december 2010

Internship with major impact

The Baviaanskloof nature reserve in South Africa is a major source of internships for Wageningen UR. Students from the University and Van Hall Larenstein are helping to restore this wilderness area damaged by erosion. 'Your research really does get used here.'

Part of the Baviaanskloof suffering from erosion.
 The baboons the valley and river are named after (baboon is baviaan in Afrikaans) are very much in evidence. 'If you go hiking in the mountains you can hear them shrieking when you encroach on their territory', says Martijn Zijlemans, a Tropical Forestry student at VHL. 'Baboons make a real racket, just like a braying donkey, only a rather peculiar, hoarse donkey.'
The Baviaanskloof is located not far from the coast in the southernmost tip of South Africa, between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The extended wilderness area is officially a World Heritage Site but is under serious threat due to erosion and drought. 'Which is a shame because seven of the eight biotopes present in South Africa can be found in the Baviaanskloof. If we don't stop the rot there will be virtually nothing left in fifty years' time', says Martijn.

Football pitch full of elephant bush plants
Martijn did a six-month internship with Presence, a project set up to restore the area to healthy conditions. Presence helps farmers look for alternatives for livestock farming, tourism and nature conservation. Martijn is focussing on the role of the elephant bush, a plant that could be the answer to many problems in the Baviaanskloof. 'If you stick a stalk in the ground it will start to grow. The plant doesn't need any water and grows pretty much anywhere. The succulent leaves capture a lot of CO 2 from the air', explains Martijn.
Martijn set up a fund for planting elephant bushes and looked at how they could attract investors in carbon dioxide storage. For example, they had the idea when the World Cup was being held in South Africa of offering areas the size of a football pitch planted with elephant bushes as CO 2 compensation. The Dutch national football team was among those helping to increase the number of elephant bush plants in the Baviaanskloof.
One big family
Dieter van den Broeck is a founding member of Presence. He did an internship in South Africa while a student at Wageningen University and built up a network in the country. He heard about the Baviaanskloof by chance after graduating in 2005. Money, research and people were needed for the restoration of this area, which was under serious threat. So three years ago he and four other Wageningen alumni founded Presence. He likes to call it a 'learning network'. So far, about forty students - mostly from Wageningen University or Van Hall Larenstein - have done their internship or graduation project there. Many of them come through the Wageningen foundation OtherWise.Presence has its own settlement near the Kouga dam that they call their learning village. Now team members and students are living in the huts that used to house the workers building the dam. VHL student Martijn describes the community as one big family. 'The nearest village is 35 kilometres away so you really are forced to get along. We relax every now and again with a big barbecue or a game of football, and sometimes in the weekend we head off together into the mountains.'

Broad-shouldered farmers
Martijn was particularly impressed by the fact that everyone took him, a mere student, seriously. 'When I was an intern in Ecuador I was always hearing: what do you know about this? But the farmers in the Baviaanskloof know something is really being done with the research because of the good feedback Presence provides. The sense of urgency helps too, he feels. 'The farmers realize that they can't go on like this. Then you get one of those broad-shouldered men, nearly two metres wide, at a meeting with tears in his eyes. They see how their traditional way of life is changing.'
The students are playing an important part in these developments, says the coordinator Dieter. 'Students are part of the bigger picture. You are having a major impact from the moment you start doing research in the region and asking questions. The farmers are very much in favour of our project, partly because the students present their results.'
It is also satisfying for the students to be able to contribute to a project with a clear, feasible goal. Dieter knows from his own time as a student that it is not always like that. 'Often nothing is done with your thesis after you have handed it in. That's very frustrating."

Sharing with the intern supervisor
However small the research project, the results can still be really important. Marjan Sommeijer discovered this recently when she completed her Bachelor's degree in International Land and Water Management. The student studied the effect of replanted elephant bushes on the water balance. She used a rainfall simulator, a unit producing drops of water, to measure the degree of infiltration in the soil. 'It turned out that soil around large trees can hold up to as much as eighty per cent more moisture than bare soil.' That is an important fact in an area where many South Africans depend on the Baviaanskloof for their drinking water. Marjan: 'Water was being rationed when I was in South Africa because of the shortages. It is easier to persuade the farmers when you have these figures available.'
What Marjan liked most was doing the research herself, from the proposal and experimental design through to the execution. It was confirmation for her decision to take the Master's in Hydrology. But the project itself appealed to her too. 'I got excellent supervision. The funny thing was that I was lodging with my supervisor. That made it very easy to discuss anything. Sometimes you hear of people who see their supervisor for less than 30 minutes a week. Well, it was a completely different story here.'