World Rainforest Movement

South Africa: Differentiated impacts of tree plantations on women

The history of the plantation industry in South Africa can be compared with the development of plantations elsewhere in the South: in Brazil, Aracruz Cellulose was developed under a military dictatorship; Indonesia’s pulp boom was planned and put into operation during the Suharto regime; Cambodia, Thailand and Chile provide other examples of how state oppression has benefitted pulp/plantations companies.

In South Africa, the initial phase affected state-controlled land, from where communities were removed and relocated to other tribal areas by government decree. The 1980s witnessed a wave of new plantations led by timber companies with Sappi and Mondi taking the lead. This development took place mainly on land previously owned by white farmers. Thanks to artificially low input costs, especially wages and land acquisition, as well as generous subsidisation by the government at that time, the local timber industry has grown into a major exporter of wood and wood derived products.

However, the lives and standards of living of local communities have not been improved by the plantation industry. The so-called empowerment deals and contracting opportunities to the communities were not widely distributed, thus becoming a source of differentiation and social division. Furthermore, the encroachment of industrial timber plantations has led to environmental impacts –including the irreversible destruction of grasslands, reduction in streamflow and water quality–, which in typical rural community life is difficult to separate from social, cultural, economic and political issues.

Further down this adverse scenario women suffer the differentiated impacts of various activities in the industrial timber plantations sector affecting them. A number of factors result in greater pressure on women from timber plantations. These factors should be read in the context of the culturally and historically defined division of labour among women and men in a patriarchal society, complicated by colonial economic policies. Rural family life is patriarchal and the status of the male head is unchallenged. It is usually the male head who will make the important decisions in the family. The role of women in these economies is complicated by the lack of mainstreaming of female involvement and participation in broader issues. They are largely considered as reproductive rather than productive.

Women are affected by the timber industry through involvement as workers, as growers, or because they reside close to or inside plantations. Those that work are affected by differential wages or the ability (or lack of it) to access skilled or better paying jobs. Timber growers are affected by their ability to command access to adequate land to ensure profitability, as well as retaining or independently deciding how to use the proceeds from the sale of the wood. Theoretically, and very often in practice, tree growing offers an economic option to rural women who have no other opportunity, provided they have access to some suitable land. However, many woodlots are contractually owned by men, but actually worked by women. Depending on how the contractual arrangements work out, the labour aspects have the potential to boost men’s cash income although women do the work. This money seldom benefits the women and children who did the work as men often consider them already paid by virtue of staying in their homestead.

Problems related to living near or inside plantations have to do with safety. Plantations close to people’s homes have increased safety and security concerns; women get raped and thieves dump their loot in the plantations: “As parents with girl children we worry a lot about the plantations. There are always strange men wandering around aimlessly and many sexual offenses have been reported. So they [girl children] cannot go to fetch water or firewood anymore. Besides, the plantations are used by thieves and robbers to hide and to store their loot. When the police discover these things they come and harass us by searching our houses apartheid style. We are not safe here with these plantations”, said a local woman.

Women’s time is shared amongst a multiplicity of activities, for which production responsibilities (food, the availability of water and energy for home use) compete with the reproduction responsibilities (childbirth, caring for and raising children). The advent of industrial timber planting activities in these rural communities complicates the nutrition and caring role of women. “From a woman’s point of view my biggest problem is that of food. We were not used to buying food from the shops because where we come from we had fields for beans and mealies. There would even be fields for the following year’s crops. You would rotate the fields comfortably because there was enough land. We would buy machines and grind our own corn. We would never buy mealie meal. These are some of the things that remind us of where we are coming from.”

The timber industry has been fairly labeled as the ‘chief water thief’. The question of water and timber plantations is a very important one in a country like South Africa, where water is scarce and also very important for rural communities which were allocated land in the areas they were because the land was not good enough for European agriculture and settlement. In KwaZulu-Natal province, thirsty timber plantations are often situated high up in the water catchments, short-changing downstream water users. In rural community areas the loss of surface water has severely negative implications for people’s ability to survive. Plantations cause small springs, streams and ponds to disappear, and this forces people to move into ecologically sensitive marginal areas to find water for their livestock and vegetable gardening. Also, when water becomes scarce it is women who have to walk longer distances to fetch water. It is women who have to wake up much earlier to get water for the household.

A senior woman in Sabokwe, Mrs Ziqubu, argued: “The thing is that we compete for water with these plantations. They use up a lot of water. I remember when we got here in 1996, the stream close to our garden was running perennially because the eucalyptus trees were not here. This piece of land from here to the road up there was grassland. The company feared that we would plant our crops and build our houses on that land so they quickly planted it to trees. Since then, water has become scarcer. The stream is drying up. The land, which we had to drain because it was swampy, has become very dry. We used to dig very small wells to water the reclaimed land. Now we have to dig deeper and we get the water from far away. Water for drinking has also equally become scarce. We also have to fetch water for our cattle, chickens and goats, besides the water for domestic consumption. This makes the work for women even harder. We have a co-operative garden run by women from this community which we fenced with assistance from the Department of Agriculture, yet we face big problems with watering it. We fetch water in buckets on our heads – and the women’s garden project involves very old women. This is not a way to live and do business. The problem of water is as crucial as the access to land itself. You may get land, but without water there is very little one can do with the land. So we are here in the middle of a desert created by the plantation industry. To think that they do not even assist with drilling of boreholes, construction of windmills or other such water technology. This is why I said earlier that we are left to pay for the costs of these unconsidered impacts of the industry.”

Excerpted and adapted from: A Study of the Social and Economic Impacts of Industrial Tree Plantations in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, John Blessing Karumbidza, WRM, December 2005