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Elon in South Africa: Spreading sustainability through saplings

A group of students participating in the Winter Term program The Call of South Africa write about the effort to offset the environmental impact of international travel by planting trees at the University of Cape Town.

Elon students in The Call of South Africa Winter '18 program planting trees with staff at the University of Cape Town. 


by Abby Flavin '18, Emma Gresh '19, Emily Hill '18, Kat Grinnell '18, Brianna Levy '18, Janie Lorenzo '18 and Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne

Students in Elon's The Call of South Africa Winter Term course traveled to the University of Cape Town on Jan. 12 to promote Elon’s powerful mission of sustainability. Excited by the prospect of contributing to a country that had already positively impacted members of the 2018 cohort and many before them, the students of The Call of South Africa planted 20 local orinoquia yellowwood trees, a local species known for its wood and durability under harsh conditions, on the university’s main campus.

Robert Buchholz, associate vice president for facilities management and director of the physical plant at Elon, spearheaded this initiative following his own journey to South Africa with the program in January 2017. Prior to the departure of the 30 students in the 2018 cohort, Buchholz visited the class and brought to attention the fact that study abroad courses constitute the majority of Elon’s carbon footprint. Buchholz’s office provided a small grant to purchase the trees.

Prudence Layne, founder and faculty leader of the Call of South Africa program and associate professor of English, worked with horticulturalist Noelene Le Cordier, head of the Garden Department at the University of Cape Town, to purchase and secure the trees from one of The University of Cape Town's plant suppliers, Starke Ayres (Pty) Ltd Garden Centre. During a planning meeting held at the University of Cape Town, Layne and Le Cordier shared their institutions’ mutual sustainability practices and carbon neutrality goals.

SASA students posing with "Grace," one of the names of the yellowwood trees they planted at the University of Cape Town.

The university location was selected as the inaugural site for Elon’s international tree-planting program because of the sustainability goals it shares with Elon and the commitment and willingness of the staff to maintain and care for the immature trees. The effort takes on increased significance as the University of Cape Town campus and the rest of Cape Town is dealing with a critical water crisis, in what has been called “a hundred-year drought.” In the midst of the crisis, the university's Garden Department has employed strategic measures to care for its landscape. The University of Cape Town staff assisting the Elon students with the planting used limited amounts of “grey water” to plant the hearty yellowwood species and to launch the program.

So why plant trees? They provide shade and sound barriers, reducing noise by up to 40 percent, decrease air temperature caused by sunlight blockage and increase water evaporation. However, perhaps most importantly, trees absorb carbon dioxide and other potentially harmful gases from the air while simultaneously releasing oxygen. Each tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for four people, as well as store up to 13 pounds of carbon each year. An acre of trees can absorb 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Due to Cape Town's current drought, the type of trees planted and techniques used were carefully considered. When asked about these particular strategies, Le Cordier said, “they may fail, but our goal is to plant species that are drought tolerant. We have had to change our planting on the university because of this obstacle.”

Under Le Coudier’s watchful supervision, Elon students followed a careful process which consisted of digging a hole and inserting the tree directly in line with the ground, adding fertilizer and soil to fill the hole, and adding just enough water to keep the tree hydrated without being wasteful. The results were 20 trees with the potential for a very long lifespan - and therefore many years of benefits for the residents and environment of Cape Town.

Over the long term, The Call of South Africa program hopes to make the tree planting a permanent, annual addition to its Cape Town itinerary. The effort will add to the number of trees at the University of Cape Town site, which will soon be home to a new bus terminal and a park for the UCT students, faculty and community members to enjoy. The hope is that this first Elon Friendship Garden at the University of Cape Town will be replicated at other sites throughout South Africa and by other Elon study abroad programs around the world.

The Call of South Africa is focused strategically on offsetting the program’s negative environmental impact. To learn more about this and other South Africa Study Abroad (SASA) sustainability initiatives, contact Prudence Layne at playne@elon.edu


The student authors of this article are participating in the communications group for The Call of South Africa, a Winter Term study abroad program led by Prudence Layne, associate professor of English.

Owen Covington,
1/25/2018 10:45 AM