See the forest for the trees


WORDS Yolande Stander  PHOTOGRAPHS Provided 

 The Southern Cape’s roots are literally disappearing one tree at a time and the once thriving timber industry, born of a rich forestry history dating back almost 250 years, is facing collapse. Although the impact cannot be seen at the sawmills or in forestry communities yet, if drastic measures are not taken soon, thousands of jobs could be lost and a crippling, countrywide wood shortage could follow.

At the industry’s peak, more than 100 000ha of plantations stretched from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth – with more than 80% of those along the Garden Route. Today there are about 65 000ha left, and if the current crisis runs its course without intervention, only 46 000ha will remain by 2020. This will devastate the industry in the Garden Route, where four of its five major plantations will be cleared and not replanted.

At the core of the problem is government’s commercial forestry exit strategy, which is now mired in red tape. In June 2001, government decided to exit 45 000ha of its commercial timber plantations in the Western Cape, saying they were no longer economically viable for the state.

Seven years later Cabinet reversed the decision on half of the plantations after several studies revealed the dire socio-economic impact such a large-scale exit strategy would have. Hailed as good news at the time, the reversal has yet to materialise some six years down the line.

In terms of a government lease, all the plantations earmarked for exit are operated by MTO Forestry (Cape Pine) – the biggest player in the Southern Cape timber industry with more than an 80% share. According to the lease agreement, Cape Pine has to implement the exit strategy on the 45 000ha originally earmarked for exit by 2020, after which the cleared land will be returned to government.

Because of the delay in implementing Cabinet’s reversal, the lease has not been amended and Cape Pine cannot continue to operate on the 22 500ha that have been recommissioned. As a result, the company has been harvesting in certain areas but has not replanted.

It takes about 25 years for a tree to reach maturity before it can be felled, and not replanting these harvested areas means there is already a six to seven-year gap in the market during which saw logs will be extremely scarce. Alien species have also invaded the areas, making them unmanageable for future endeavours.

The end is looming
Industry experts believe the delay in recommissioning the plantations has already caused irreparable damage to this multi-million rand industry.

Sawmilling South Africa executive director Roy Southey says the timber industry in the Southern Cape was worth more than R1 billion – excluding downstream industries, which are estimated to be worth another R1.5 billion.

Although it only made up about 13% of the national forestry sector, it provided direct employment to between 3000 and 4000 people, and a further 4000 indirect jobs.

“Each of these employees supports on average between eight and 10 dependents,” Roy says. This means around 64 000 people or more could be affected if the industry collapses. While sawmills are currently busy, partly because of felling in terms of the exit strategy, most of the affected communities and employees have no idea that their livelihoods are on the edge of a precipice.

“If something isn’t done very quickly, the industry will go past the point of no return. In fact, it may already be there,” says Cape Pine chief executive Patch Bonkemeyer.

Ntuthu Ponoyi, general manager for stakeholder relations, says one of the biggest concerns is how the communities who rely on forestry for their living will survive. “Once we leave, there won’t be any jobs for these people.”

Cape Pine has already announced the closure of its Stellenbosch sawmill at the end of next year as it exits the Kluitjieskraal, La Motte, Tokai and Grabouw plantations, leaving about 300 people out of a job.

Once the company withdraws from the area, other services will also be affected, including road maintenance, alien plant control and firefighting.

“We have our own fire brigade and we don’t just work on our own properties, but also the areas around us. So when we close and move out it doesn’t just affect the footprint in which we operate, but everything around it as well. If there is a fire in Witfontein for example, after we shut everything down around Jonkersberg, we won’t respond because we won’t have anyone there and Witfontein is going to burn to the ground,” says Cape Pine planning manager Willie Brink.

Patch says once the plantations are abandoned, the resultant wood shortage in the Western Cape will affect sawmills, trucking companies, pallet manufacturers, the pole plants, furniture makers and the building industry.

If action is not taken immediately, it will not be economically viable to re-establish the industry in the Southern Cape and as prices rise, it will be cheaper to import wood into the Western Cape, either from the northern parts of the country or abroad.

“Because the biggest impact is still five or six years out, it is difficult to garner support for this issue. Once you get another year or two down the road, and more and more of these areas grow up with wattle, eucalyptus and other nasty things, it becomes uneconomical to re-establish forestry on those areas. And although everyone is still fully employed and logs are flowing freely, it is only because we are exiting these areas.

“Because of that there is a comfort level. But when we pull the last log off, everyone is going to look up and realise we have a problem,” Patch says.

Stuck in a catch 22
Starting from scratch in 2020 is not viable either. Clearing alien vegetation on the exit area will cost around R8 000 per ha. This means investors have to put up R40 million initially and another R5 million a year for 25 years while the newly planted trees mature before they can be harvested.

Patch says to minimise the impact, they have allowed the harvested areas to naturally regenerate, which will give the industry a six to eight-year head start while waiting for feedback from government.

However, if the situation remains unchanged, these trees – valued at about R23-million – will have to be felled in 2020, before they have reached maturity.

Cape Pine has submitted various proposals to government to ensure the industry remains afloat, including that they replant the areas and hand everything back when the lease agreement expires.

“We have not had any answer. I don’t know how much easier we can make it than offering to put the trees in the ground at our expense and give it back to them – the hook being we just want the industry to be here 25 years from now,” Patch says.

Pumeza Nkhwashu, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), says before the recommissioning strategy can be implemented, a plan in line with government’s economic growth and development, transformation and socio-economic objectives needs to be developed. While not elaborating on why it’s taken so long, she says a feasibility study is underway that will provide the basis for this plan.

Although the department could not provide a timeframe for implementing the re-commissioning, Pumeza says the feasibility study – which will assess key technical, legal, social, environmental, land and business issues – should be completed before the end of the year.  The study will also consider various recommissioning models, their cost benefits, key opportunities, risks and the processes to be followed for the recommissioning.

Meanwhile, the industry and the fate of thousands lie in limbo.

Forestry then and now
The Garden Route developed about 250 years ago because of the area’s rich indigenous timber resource. As Cape Town started growing, the demand increased for timber as a resource for building, wagon-building, ship repairs, heating and fuel. The first timber was shipped from the region in the late 1700s.

After the natural forests were depleted, formal forestry was born and indigenous trees were replaced with fast-growing exotics like pine.

Today South Africa has more than 1.2 million ha of forestry plantations, the majority in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. The Garden Route forestry industry supplies mostly sawmilling and pole timber. Cape Pine operates about 45 000ha and PG Bison operates 8000ha. The rest include several small-scale independents.

Environmental sustainability
South Africa has become a front-runner in developing strategies to minimise the impact of commercial forestry on the environment.

“Contrary to popular belief, commercial forestry is an environmentally sustainable industry,” says Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s director for the school of natural resource management, Professor Jos Louw.

Unsustainable exploitation of South Africa’s limited forest resources during the 18th and 19th Centuries, mainly in the Southern Cape, raised concern and led to the creation of an intensively managed monoculture plantation industry, using appropriate exotic species.

South Africa created a viable industry that contributed significantly to the country’s economy. “Many technological developments and research findings can be credited to SA forest scientists,” says Jos.

The industry has long done its own studies on the environmental impact of forestry. Additional water use by fast growing plantations and their impact on biodiversity and soil quality have been well researched.

Debunking misconceptions, Jos says forestry prevents soil erosion and uses less water than other forms of agriculture. “The same goes for the impact on biodiversity – compared to other land uses, it is less severe.”

The industry has developed sophisticated environmental management plans. There are strategies in place to promote biodiversity in plantation ecosystems, including preserving unique habitats, applying ecologically friendly burning policies, controlling alien invasive species, environmentally friendly road planning and creating buffer zones around natural areas, including wetlands and indigenous forests. The industry also monitors indigenous populations of rare species, ensures proper wetland functioning and avoids soil erosion and compaction. It also plays an active role in conserving and managing several red data species.

About 85% of the industry complies with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) criteria such as minimising environmental impact; recognising and respecting the rights of indigenous people and workers; and encouraging the efficient use of forest products and services to ensure economic viability.

Educating foresters

At the centre of the Southern Cape’s forestry industry is the George campus of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), which has been equipping the industry with the necessary skills for more than a century.

Initially the Tokai School for Forest Apprentices – established in Cape Town in 1912 – was responsible for training of foresters. The school was relocated to Saasveld (now NMMU George) in 1932 as the timber industry grew rapidly.

The university offers a range of internationally acknowledged qualifications. The forestry-related programmes, which produce some of the country’s top foresters, include a three-year national diploma in forestry, a diploma in wood technology, a higher certificate in veldfire management, BTech degrees in specialised forestry and postgraduate studies.