World Rainforest Movement

South Africa: Commercial timber plantations as “take it or leave it” development option for rural areas

The web page, published for the International Marketing Council of South Africa, included in March an article which stated that “South Africa has identified the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces as key for development in the forestry, wood and paper sector, with reforestation a vital part of the strategy”. For those who don’t know the forestry language, it is important to note that in South Africa the word “reforestation” really means planting vast monocultures of alien tree species on native grassland ecosystems. The article was accompanied by a photo with the following text: “South Africa is looking to the forestry, wood and paper sector to boost investment and employment in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.”

After all these years of experience with tree plantations and their impacts on people and the environment, it seems amazing that the industry can seriously talk about plantations as generating employment and that the government can continue to promote them.

The good thing about the article (available at is that it generated an interesting debate. What follows is a message sent by Sinegugu Zukulu, who works for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, describing his own personal experience in Northern Zululand.

Sinigugu starts by explaining why he thinks that “people will welcome this as a great move”: because “it is brought to them as an option or no option. (Take it or leave it development option for rural areas!).”

He then explains why this has already proven to be a bad option:

“I have had an opportunity to look at what forestry has done to Northern Zululand. I once visited a Mlambo family that goes to my church in Mtubatuba in about 1995/6, which was in the middle of Gum [eucalyptus] plantations. All families had converted their land into either sugarcane or Gum tree plantation. The result was that all the springs and local streams were drying up. There were long queues in what used to be a permanent spring. People had to wait for water to come up. When I told them this was because of the gum trees they had planted, they did not believe me. I also predicted that the streams and spring would soon dry up.

Few years down the line they phoned to tell me that my prediction was correct. The grazing lands for cattle were gone, as gum trees replaced all the grasslands. Water in streams that used to flow freely and permanently in places such as Mtunzini were now stagnant and some dried up.

People had to rely on shops for grocery every month. These commercial crops were not food crops. People who had no money to buy grocery went starving. Maize crops surrounded by gum plantations turned yellow, as gum tree roots were spreading all over the place sucking up all water. They were scorched under high temperatures as they were sheltered from cooling winds.

Is this what they want us to be subjected to? Will people be educated about all these side effects or environmental impacts? As it is, we already have more than enough gums and Black wattle [acacia] plantations. It looks like to me, it’s another quick fix solution where no environmental impact assessment has been done to inform the public about implications. What the government of our country fails to do is to implement the wonderful constitution we have, which guarantees us a right to a healthy and harmless environment, and an environment protected for the benefit of future generations. Environmental impact assessments (EIA) are useless unless people have been educated so that they can engage the process. So educating the public is the first step. Our governments take chances of bringing wrong development since they know people are illiterate in rural areas.

I for one would not support this for my community. I would be happy to support anything to reduce the number of gum plantations we already have. This is another scheme to satisfy the greediness of big timber companies such as SAPPI and MONDI. In this country the number one culprits in the loss of biodiversity are timber plantations. They are also the biggest funders in the field of environmental education. I find it very strange that Environmental Education Centres are funded by the same companies who cause the problem. This puts environmental education practitioners in a tight corner for they cannot say anything against the culprits while educating the public. It is ridiculous.”

All the above impacts are not Sinegugu’s inventions. Almost the same impacts are well documented in every single country –from Latin America to Asia- where such plantations have been established. Until when will the pulp and paper sector prevail over people and the environment? Until when will southern governments support this destructive activity? Until when will they continue to lie about employment?

Article based on email sent by Sinegugu Zukulu, who authorized its use by WRM