March 1997 Number 1




Newsletter of the Southern Africa Vetiver Network

Editor: Duncan Hay. Address: Institute of Natural Resources, University of Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa. Tel: 0331- 460796. Fax: 0331- 460895. E-Mail: [email protected]

Vetiver - the Conservationists' Cannabis

At first glance Vetiver seems about as exciting as Sunday afternoon in suburbia. However, looks are deceptive. For the uninitiated, Vetiver is a grass species originating in South-East Asia. Extracts from it root system are used as an oil base in the perfume industry. It is, I understand, an essential component of Chanel No. 5 - not an average "greeny's" fragrance of choice (or budget) so not much excitement there. But lets take a closer look at the plant's less obvious properties: a matted root system that can penetrate several meters below the ground and binds soil like a vice; tightly clumped rigid and vertical grass blades that can stop rain run-off in its tracks; as tough as a Mac truck, handling fire, drought and the extreme chemistry of a mine dump; and it's Hugh Hefner's nightmare - no sex, only clonal reproduction so its non-invasive. The ideal hedge against erosion has made a quiet but forceful entry onto the conservation stage. Like Cannabis, dull at first glance but increasingly exciting as subtle (but far more positive) properties reveal themselves.

There are two local species of vetiver - Vetiveria nigratana, an indigenous grass found mainly around the Okavango Swamps, and Vetivaria zizanioides, introduced to KwaZulu-Natal as early as 1860. It is the latter that has commercial and conservation applications. It is believed that a French Mauritian initiated the first vetiver-based conservation program south of Durban in the 1940s - remnants of these plantings still remain 50 years on. The plant used then and still used locally today is genetically identical to that used in Australia, the USA, Guatemala, Fiji, Mauritius and India.

In southern Africa its commercial and conservation applications have been limited but are growing rapidly: the mining industry is using it extensively to stabilize and rehabilitate mine dumps and slime dams; farmers are using it on their contours to restrict erosion and conserve soil moisture; engineers are recommending it increasingly as a cost-effective solution to conventional bank stabilization procedures; and in Mpumalanga an oil extraction plant has been established. (ed.)

The Southern Africa Vetiver Network

The Institute of natural Resources (INR) , with financial support from The Vetiver Network (TVN), the US-based Vetiver Network, is co-ordinating the establishment of a regionally based network, an element of which is this newsletter. The Institute claims no ownership of the network or its contents. It belongs to all those people and organizations in southern Africa interested in vetiver and its applications.

It is your ideas and your contributions that will cause it to succeed or fail. The most critical element of any network is a comprehensive data base of members, their contact details, and their specific interests. Should you wish to be included in the network please fill in the attached registration form and return it to the Editor. Please also copy the form and forward it to anyone who might benefit from membership.

I also require contributions and suggested guidelines on what is appropriate for the newsletter, and its format. My feelings are that articles should focus on newsworthy items, people profiles, upcoming events, and summaries of technical application techniques and research (rather than the full article that would be better located in a technical or scientific journal). I have not thought much about including commercial advertising and would appreciate opinions on this. (ed.)

The Three Wise Men ! ?

Three wise men recently cut a swathe of enthusiasm through Southern Africa. The three - Dick Grimshaw, coordinator of the US based Vetiver Network; Dr Paul Truong, a Vetiver specialist based in Australia, and Tony Tantrum, a South African commercial grower and pioneer of local applications - traveled through Mpumalanga visiting and providing presentations to commercial growers, users and conservationists. Tony and Paul then invaded KwaZulu-Natal. They were hosted by the Department of Agriculture at Cedara, the Institute of Natural Resources in 'Sleepy Hollow', and by Lionel Moore of the engineering firm Moore Spence Jones & Partners. Paul and Tony made presentations and lead discussions amongst a broad array of vetiverites.

Before splitting up, and in a moment of total sobriety I am told, they succeeded in smearing Jane Zimmermann (INR fund-raiser and public relations guru) with vetiver oil. I am also told that the pleasure was all theirs!

Dick then traveled through Zimbabwe where he was hosted by Jano Labat of Chiredzi - a champion of vetiver applications in the country (see article below). In Malawi Dick met with Glenn Allison who manages a European Community funded project known as PAPPA (Poverty Alleviation Program - Pilot Project Agroforestry), and with Malcom Blackie who is in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation's Maize and Soil Fertility Program in southern Africa.

Paul moved on to the Cape to take a well earned rest sampling our selection of wine, and Tony started kicking my butt back here at the Institute.

The enthusiasm they generated was infectious and it is through their collective initiative that we are establishing the network, generating project proposals and hosting the next World Vetiver Conference. To them from all of us, we thank you for your efforts towards conservation and economic development in South Africa. You have given us a superb foundation on which to build. (ed.)

Vetiver in Zimbabwe

The Labat System

Dick Grimshaw, TVN


Like South Africa, there are two species of vetiver grass in Zimbabwe, Vetiveria nigratana, an indigenous grass, found mainly in some river systems that are linked to the Okavango swamps, (also in the Zambezi Valley) and Vetiveria zizanioides, introduced from Mauritius to the sugar growing Lowveld in south east Zimbabwe. In fact it is known as Mauritius grass, and like the grass in South Africa, it is identical to that in Louisiana, Fiji, Guatemala and Australia, and is non invasive and sterile.

Like Tony Tantum in South Africa, Zimbabwe has its vetiver champion too - Jano Labat of Chiredzi. Jano is a sugar farmer near to the enormous and famed sugar mega giants Hippo Valley Estates (Anglo American) and Triangle. In the early 1990s Jano started using vetiver grass for stabilizing his field drains, irrigation ditches, and farm roads. At the same time he championed vetiver grass across Zimbabwe. He has supplied planting material, advice and good will to hundreds of would be vetiver users in a country where soil erosion is estimated to cost billions of dollars annually. Like all new technologies it is rather slow to be accepted by the traditionally conservative farming community and technical support services. But it appears that adoption is now on the roll and Zimbabweans are turning to this unique plant to stop erosion.

Labat's farm is on flat land and is irrigated. The problems that he faced included deteriorating canefield roads, eroding drainage ditches, and collapsing irrigation channels. in addition he faced a growing and costly weed problem in the drainage ditches that were expensive to maintain. He turned to vetiver grass to solve these problems.

He established 3 ha of nursery to supply vetiver for his own need and for sale to other framers and users. His technique for stabilizing field drains and the immediately adjacent field road is unique and a lesson for all of us. He plants closely spaced vetiver strikes (3 - 5 slips per strike) along the edge of the drain (about 1 foot back). He then grades the field road to the hedge, thus water on the road drains to the vetiver hedge, where excess sediments and gravels are retained and the water is filtered through the hedge to the drain. On the other side of the drain more often or not is a square section concrete gravity irrigation channel, that is in danger of collapse when the support earth bank is eroded. Thus he plants a vetiver hedge along the bottom of the support bank which coincides with the top of the drain. In one stroke he has stabilized both channel and drain. The latter is "V" shaped (45),from 2 -3 m wide at its widest section, from 1.5 to 2 meters deep and about 0.5 meters wide at the bottom. Half way down the slope he plants another vetiver hedge on both sides. This hedge traps any sediment that may get through the first hedge, and any major slippage or erosion between hedges. Once a year the ditches are cleaned of a much reduced sediment load, and the cleanings are deposited behind and above the lower hedge. This has three advantages: (1) over time it creates a level terrace half way down the ditch (2) the top hedge remains free of excess sediment from the ditch cleanings and thus road drainage is maintained; and (3) the bottom of the ditch settles at its final grade, and there is minimal drain disturbance. This is not all; perhaps the most important aspect of all is that the leaves of the two lower hedges completely shade the bottom of the drain resulting in a weed free environment. Thus there is no impediment to drainage water flows, and drain maintenance is virtually reduced to zero. Where limited planting material is available Jano Labat recommends establishing the two lower vetiver lines first. This assures that weeds are quickly shaded out and assures guaranteed establishment because of higher humidity. He also suggests that in instances of limited planting materials the bottom lines can be split after a year or so to plant the top two rows. He recommends that where sufficient planting material is available planting strikes should be planted with zero gap thus assuring a 100% effective hedgerow. One last point that Jano is quick to point out is that the vetiver hedge along the side of the roads keeps tractors and trucks firmly on the surface of the road. The Vetiver Network will henceforth refer to this technique as "The Labat System".

Labat is also using a variety of "Lily of the Valley", Ophiopogon intermedius, brought in from Mauritius (originating in Nepal) where it is known as "Muget", for soil stabilization under heavy shade. It is both pretty and a good soil binder.

Labat has demonstrated the effectiveness of vetiver grass to stabilize the interface of concrete works and earth, reservoir embankment stabilization and its action to depower wave action on the inside of a reservoir. The cost of this is minimal compared to stone rip rap and lasts for ever. Believe it or not -- vetiver has established well on 5 mm of soil overlying mass laterite, the roots growing into and through the laterite!! Vetiver cut off at ground level has even grown through a gunited surface on the side of a drain!!

Hippo Valley Estates (HVE) have also been using the Labat System with varying modifications and successes. It would be useful if full and detailed specifications are established so that all the estate sections follow the same standards.

Labat, working with HVE stabilized an 80 m wide reservoir spillway. The method used was to plant rows of vetiver 1m apart across the spillway, starting at the base of the concrete sill at the head of the spillway. It could be further improved with vetiver hedges planted at right angles to the horizontal lines to create a sort of honey comb effect. During my visit I witnessed a flow of the order of 9000 l/sec passing over the spillway. It was an awesome sight. The vetiver depowered the water over 80% of the spillway area, with the main flow concentrations centered on two rock sections that were free of vetiver. The vetiver only two years old held well, either remaining upright, where the water was not too deep, or bending over to form a continuous mat where the water depth was greater than the vetiver. Jano will send The Vetiver Network new photos after the spillway flows cease.

Another interesting use of Vetiver by HVE was the lining of the banks of two rivers that conveyed water to the above mentioned dam. Both rivers were under continuous flows of between 4000 - 5000 l/sec and were acting as unlined canals. Vetiver provided an almost perfect protection to these river banks. HVE has planted 313 km of vetiver for canal bank, drainage and catchment area protection. Approximately 47 km remains to complete the program. At a workshop of some 50 participants it was recommended that HVE establish detailed technical standards to assure that variations in quality are reduced.

HVE has an outreach program that was previously reported on by TVN. This program has expanded considerably since that time and there is an accelerating interest by small farmers living in highly erosive areas in the hinterland of the commercial estates. Currently HVE supports 11 small projects that include schools and communities. In total 50 km of vetiver hedge has been planted. Under these projects vetiver is used for on-farm soil and water conservation, grazing area protection, irrigation infrastructure stabilization, and for stabilization of gullies. Both are successful and are particularly appreciated by participating women. HVE and Labat are also working with Danish and IUCN (International Union of Nature Conservation) supported NGOs who have similar objectives of assisting the rural areas. Other NGOs including World Vision and Biomass Users Network are also expected to accelerate the use of vetiver in their programs. All agencies working with rural farmers and households report great interest by participating clients. The latter are particularly responsive when given adequate training and when made fully aware of all the benefits of vetiver grass including social benefits such as its use for thatch, livestock feed, and herbal medicines. Clearly the potential for expansion is considerable and the Vetiver technology should play an important role in Zimbabwe's conservation efforts.

Jano Labat can be contacted at: Vetiver Grass Stabilization (Pvt) Ltd. PO Box 14, Chiredzi, Zimbabwe. Tel: (263) 31 2245. Fax: (263) 31 3026. He can provide quality planting material, contracting and consulting services.

The World Vetiver Conference - 2000

Tony Tantum can usually be trusted to stick his neck out. At the first World Vetiver Conference held in Bangkok, Thailand last year he offered South Africa as the venue for next conference in the year 2000. The offer was snapped up, and in his normal insightful fashion Tony found the proverbial sitting duck to run with it - me. Three years might seem like a long time but in order to organize an event of this magnitude the planning has to start now. These events also tend to cost a few cents but the benefits that accrue to the host are significant - 300 to 500 delegates each spending a few thousand rands each in our country; local vetiverites exposed to new technologies, and research and applications; and a big multicultural party are a few of the spin-offs. We are busy putting together a motivational proposal and budget in order to secure a sponsor or group of sponsors. If you have any ideas on potential sponsors who have a vested interest in vetiver and who might gain significant exposure from their association with the conference (I think here particularly of the mining companies and international donor agencies) please contact me. (ed.)

Surfing the (Vet) Net

For those of you who have access to a PC that is connected to the internet I suggest that you make contact with the vetiver home page ( There is a veritable mine of information in it including:

In the 'what's new' section there is Dick Grimshaw's report on his visit to Southern Africa (from which I drew the article on Zimbabwe), an overview paper by Paul Truong which is essential reading for the uninitiated or newly converted; and a list of papers delivered at the Thai Conference. Also available are electronic copies of TVN Newsletters # 11 - 16. You will also get an idea of what our own home page might look like with a few modifications to give it a local flavour. (ed.)


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