World Rainforest Movement

First Steps of the Southern African Plantation Action Network (SAPAN)

In response to timber industry efforts to expand the area of land under industrial timber plantations by 600,000 hectares, a Plantations Campaign was started by a small group of NGOs in South Africa in 1995.

Alien trees, including mainly Wattle (Australian Acacia species), Pine and Eucalyptus now cover more than 3 million hectares in the well watered and agriculturally more productive eastern part of the country. However, as much as 1,5 million hectares of that is made up of abandoned or neglected plantations, or of areas that have become heavily infested with invading plantation tree seedlings. These infested lands represent a major liability to the national economy, consuming scarce water resources and impacting negatively on rural communities and natural biodiversity, but have been largely ignored both by government and the industry that caused them.

The Timberwatch Coalition was established as a local network in 1997, but over the following years it grew into a national NGO coalition of 10 environmental organisations that recognise the need to address the harm caused by the substantial negative social and environmental effects of large-scale timber plantations. Through ongoing involvement in policy processes and by building a supporter network in the timber plantation growing areas, Timberwatch has succeeded in heightening public awareness of the previously hidden or ignored costs associated with plantations. This has led to the introduction of a more transparent and inclusive process to consider applications for licences for new plantations, and has helped to limit their expansion in South Africa.

This local success must however be viewed in the broader context of the southern African region, in which a number of countries have already been affected by plantations. In Swaziland, although a relatively small country in terms of land area, nearly 10% is covered in colonial-era style timber plantations that have effectively forced Swazi people off their traditional land, and undermined community farmers’ opportunities for access to grazing land and water.

There are also established plantations in Angola, the DRC, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique, but in recent developments, it has been suggested by the World Bank and various timber industry players that Mozambique has the potential for an additional seven million hectares. The government there has already approved new plantation projects in Niassa and Manica Provinces, although there appears to have been very little consultation with environmental NGOs and local communities. Nor does it appear that there has been any formal investigation into the harmful impacts of timber plantations on traditional social and cultural values and self-sustaining local economies.

It appears there will be increasing demand for plantation timber for pulp, and biomass for biofuel production is expected to grow quickly as fossil fuel use in industrialised countries is restricted through international pressure to reduce emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. From available information, it appears that plans to convert to biofuel use by European nations largely anticipate the importation of biodiesel and bioethanol from Africa and other regions in the ‘developing’ world. What this means is that most countries in the SADC (Southern African Development Community) are likely to be targetted as cheap opportunities for the establishment of destructive large-scale monoculture crops including tree plantations.

In response to this threat, Timberwatch plans to help establish a broad network of interested individuals and environmental organisations across the SADC region. The idea was analyzed during the Annual Meeting held in Durban on November 18. The group knows that experience sharing is a necessary ingredient for the idea to grow and become a reality. Thus, one of the members of the Latin American Network against Monoculture Tree Plantations was invited to attend the meeting in order to share the successful process that led to the establishment of the network in Latin America.

As a following step, Timberwatch participated in the meeting organized in Mozambique by Geasphere — one of the member organizations of Timberwatch – where delegates of local organizations discussed the negative impacts of large scale monoculture tree plantations (see article on Mozambique in this issue).

It is expected that the Southern African network will increase awareness of the main issues surrounding the establishment or expansion of industrial timber plantations and to help to establish local activist groups within the affected countries. With support and encouragement from the international NGO community, this network will play an important part in preventing scarce African resources from further exploitation by the agents of wasteful Northern consumerism.

By Wally Menne, Timberwatch, e-mail: plantnet@iafrica.com

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