“I go to the forest to collect wood and get away from my troubles. I like the fresh air. It makes me feel happy. When I’ve returned from the forest, I feel I have received a blessing.” This is how a woman describes her experience of being in the forest near her rural village in South Africa.

The benefits of experiencing and interacting with nature for physical and psychological well-being are well documented. However, these therapeutic benefits of being in nature have received very little attention in developing countries. In dominant frameworks used in development, the environment is not recognised as a requirement for or part of well-being.

If development efforts fail to recognise the relationships between nature and well-being, there is a risk that they will not address the issues in ways that lead to sustainable improvement of quality of life for people. This is reflected in development work that combats poverty and rightly emphasises economic development, housing, and sanitation as top priorities. But these priorities are often traded off against safeguarding access to a healthy natural environment.

Access to culturally important and restorative nature experiences then becomes a luxury, something to enjoy once basic needs are met. Our research in South Africa shows that this has negative consequences for poor people, as accessing nature helps them cope with difficulties in their lives and provides psychological benefits.

The rural areas and urban townships of the Eastern Cape are among the least developed in South Africa. They are characterised by high rates of poverty, dependence on social welfare, high unemployment, poor access to quality schooling and medical care, and high rates of crime, including domestic and sexual violence. The urban areas are shaped by historical segregation and a striking difference in wealth. This is also reflected in people’s access to nature. Poor communities have fewer natural environments within easy reach.

Over the last 10 years, our research has explored the relationships Xhosa-speaking people in urban and rural settings have with their natural environment, which ranges from dense natural dry forest in rural areas to patches of bush in municipal land around towns. Our research includes in-depth, qualitative studies and a questionnaire-based survey of 700 people, across a range of urban to rural locations. The results reveal that regardless of age, gender, or location, most people have a strong appreciation for nature.

Drawing strength from nature

Natural spaces are valued for their contribution to a sense of well-being, identity, and shared heritage. A variety of activities, including herding livestock, harvesting natural products, play and recreation, solitary walks, and cultural rituals, bring people into contact with nature. In our survey, 90% of the 700 respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “when I am in the forest, I feel inspired and revitalised”. Even people with limited access to nature commonly expressed these sentiments.

Some of this can be explained by many people having rural roots and maintaining a connection with their family home, even if they now live in cities and towns. As opportunities for employment are scarce in rural areas, many people seek work in the cities and towns, where they make a meagre living in often squalid and dangerous conditions. Returning home provides the opportunity to connect with family and friends, but also to revisit favourite places in nature and to cleanse oneself, draw strength, and reflect on life.

One middle-aged man described his life in Cape Town and how he had from a young age become involved in gang activities. When he returns home, he visits the river near his childhood home in a rural area: “I think of the dreams I had as a child. When I come out of the water, I feel like a changed man, as though the river has washed my sins away, and I return to Cape Town feeling forgiven and more powerful. Whenever I feel lost or lack motivation in the city, I always return to the landscapes of my childhood. This helps me to navigate my life.”

An older man described dreaming of his rural home while living in the city. “After a long day at work, I come home exhausted and I go to sleep. In my dreams, I am sleeping in my bed at [my rural] home. I can also see myself waking up and walking to the forest. I can feel the breeze of the forest on my skin and smell the strong scent of plants and trees. I feel refreshed and less tired.”

Many respondents described the sensory experience of nature and its various elements as a source of wonder and inspiration. Several recounted spiritual experiences from seeing wild animals and plants, smelling the forest air, and hearing the sounds of rustling leaves and splashing water. Certain natural features such as indigenous forest, deep river pools, mountain peaks, and the ocean have particularly strong spiritual associations. Over 90% of the respondents believed in the presence of ancestral spirits, who act as benevolent guides, mentors, and protectors. These spirits are believed to be present in natural places, and people who spend time in such places often leave feeling blessed and calm.

Many people contrasted the cool air in the forest with the “hot” air in the village – literally and as a metaphor contrasting the calm of the forest to the bustle and troubles of village life. Escaping troubles was a recurring theme when people were interviewed about their time spent in the forest. A young man living in town told us about visiting his favourite place on the communal grazing lands:

“Sometimes I go to that place because I’ve had an argument with someone or when I’m feeling frustrated by the challenges of life. Being a single parent is not easy and sometimes it is difficult to share this with anyone because most of them don’t understand. In such cases, you end up thinking of committing suicide, but somehow you become inspired when you are in such a place. That place allows me to think through my problems and feelings. I am able to think positive things about myself when I am there. I forget many things for a while and focus on what is important in life.”

Similar situations and sentiments, including having suicidal thoughts and finding solace and strength in the forest to persevere, were recounted by many respondents during interviews. Some women also said that they find solace from abusive partners in the forest, and that gathering fuelwood there is a socially acceptable way of escaping. The Xhosa idiom uThixo ulihlathi lam (“God is my forest”) was one of several metaphors we came across that portrayed the forest as providing shelter and protection.

For better and for worse

We asked each of the 700 people about the happiest time in their lives and whether accessing nature featured and contributed to it. Childhood or youth was the most commonly reported best time, often associated with rural life and interacting with nature. People reminisced about stick fighting and traditional parties for young people, safe spaces for teenage courtship in nature, and swimming in rivers and dams.

Other happy times were associated with school or tertiary education and related achievements, marriage and relationships, the birth of children, and men’s time spent in the bush as part of their traditional initiation into manhood. The survey showed that 56% of respondents were spending time in nature during the best time in their life, and 90% of those (52% in total) felt that accessing nature contributed to it being the best time.

A middle-aged woman told us that her best moment was when she was the first member of her family to complete her schooling. Interacting with nature helped her reflect on her achievement and the possibilities it opened up for her: “After passing matric I took time away from the community in the forest to think deeply about my future, and nature made it possible for me.”

In the survey, we also asked respondents to describe the worst time they had experienced in their life. The death of loved ones was overwhelmingly associated with the worst period: 36% of respondents reported spending time in nature during this difficult time, and of these, 75% felt that it helped them cope. Overall, 43% of respondents, across a range of urban to rural locations, felt that accessing nature either helped or could have helped them cope with the worst time in their lives, even if only by helping them temporarily forget their troubles.

An older woman living in one of the townships in East London (South Africa) said her worst time was when her mother passed away when she was 37. She told us that at the time “I used to spend most of [my] time in the forest pretending to fetch firewood but in fact it was a way of relaxing and having peace of mind. Then I would go back with just a few [pieces of wood]. Or I would go to the river to fetch some water”.

A 26-year-old woman said the worst time in her life was when she suffered a car accident in her final year of school, which forced her to repeat the year. She said:

“Nature helps you to easily understand what’s bothering you and how to deal with it. It also helps to fill the void in your heart and helps when you feel lonely.”

Limited access to nature

Unfortunately, with increasing crime rates and urbanisation, access to natural spaces is becoming progressively limited for many people, especially women and girls. Research in two rural villages showed that for girls, especially, fear of crime and competing expectations around the home limited their opportunities to play outdoors in the forest and other natural spaces.

In 2009, a schools’ programme was initiated by Michelle Cocks and Tony Dold, an ethnobotanist and herbarium curator at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, to rekindle young peoples’ connection with nature and their culture through workshops and excursions. Between 2009 and 2016, 4,300 students from townships had an opportunity to learn about Xhosa cultural plant uses in the classroom, 1,750 students were taken on day trips to experience being in an indigenous forest, and 200 teenagers were taken on overnight camping and hiking trips to experience nature.

When asked about their experience of the programme, students highlighted the value of engaging with culture, identity, and nature in the school environment. The outdoor experiences in particular were greeted with appreciation and wonder about the fresh, cool air and peace and quiet away from the noisy township. Their comments echoed the sentiments expressed by many of the people interviewed during our research.

Financial constraints are threatening to bring this project to an end and are a demonstration of the generally low priority given to ensuring access to natural spaces for poor and working-class black people in South Africa.

Understanding the human-nature connection

In our research we were struck by the fact that time and again people described how they found peace, calm, and perspective while visiting the forest. Visiting nature eased feelings of hardship, stress, and loneliness – a reality common for many who are dealing with unemployment, insufficient income, violence, and poor living conditions. Being in the forest helped them find peace and forgiveness, perspective in times of family or marital conflict, and hope when there was little to feel hopeful about.

The multiple benefits of time spent in nature are also being shown in research from other places. Coastal communities in Kenya and Mozambique derive well-being from the environment in many different ways. For example, fishing provides not only food and income, but also a sense of identity, autonomy, and freedom. Mangrove forests are on the one hand important for their provision of material resources such as poles and medicines, but women also benefit from relationships fostered by the experience of collecting these materials together.

Our research supports the argument made by Judith Schleicher and others that the environment should be understood not only as contributing to well-being, but as a fundamental component of well-being. Such an approach should go beyond acknowledging material benefits from ecosystems and recognise the full diversity of ways in which nature contributes to well-being. These include cultural benefits such as place attachment, a sense of belonging, rootedness, and spiritual connections to nature.

In development efforts to reduce poverty, it is thus critical not to overlook the many ways in which nature contributes to well-being. Interventions that sever the connections to those contributions may also threaten the long-term sustainability of ecosystems on which people depend.7 8

This article first appeared on Re.Think.