World Rainforest Movement

South Africa: Pulping people and places

‘Pulping the South’ by Larry Lohmann and Ricardo Carrere was a watershed publication for many groups and individuals around the world. Concerned people had been aware of many issues and problems associated with the expansion of industrial monoculture tree plantations in Southern countries, but it was this WRM publication that made the world sit up with a jolt. Organisations such as Timberwatch in South Africa started to pay more attention to environmental and socioeconomic issues associated with timber plantations themselves, as well as the negative impacts of industrial processing activities that had escaped the awareness of society at large until then.

One of my first experiences of the horror of pulpwood processing was when there was a public outcry in response to a major toxic spill from the Sappi Ngodwana pulp mill into the Elands River in Mpumalanga Province in 1989. Newspaper headlines screamed the news of how thousands of fish and other aquatic organisms had died gruesome deaths after concentrated chlorine entered the river from the mill. As a consequence of this incident and the negative publicity that followed, the Ngodwana mill was forced to improve control measures, and public anger eventually subsided. No doubt this was not the only time that toxic substances would be discharged into the river illegally, but since then, Sappi has pursued a relentless programme of public relations propaganda to paint themselves a bright shade of green.

Sappi owns and operates five woodpulp mills in the region. Besides Ngodwana, which is the largest, producing over 500,000 tonnes of pulp per annum, there are:

– The Sappi Usutu pulp mill in neighbouring Swaziland (230,000 tonnes);
– The Sappi Kraft mill at Mandeni in KwaZulu-Natal-KZN (350,000 tonnes);
– The Sappi-Saiccor plant on the Umkhomazi River in KZN (600,000 tonnes);
– The Enstra mill in Gauteng near Springs (110,000 tonnes)

The Sappi website informs that a total of 540,000 hectares of plantations can produce sufficient timber annually for 1,690,000 tonnes of pulp, 80,000m³ sawn timber and 830,000 tonnes of paper. This does not include pulp derived from recycling or sugar cane bagasse, which is used exclusively at their Stanger mill in KZN.

Sappi has not been the only culprit in terms of polluting the planet whilst trying to portray themselves as saviours of the natural environment. Mondi, part of the Anglo-American group of companies owns and operates a giant mill at the harbour town of Richards Bay, with a capacity of 575,000 tonnes at present, but is most well known for the notorious Merebank mill at Durban. This is one of the largest individual paper mills in the world with a currently rated annual capacity of 540,000 tonnes.

Mondi takes pride in sponsoring a project to restore degraded or destroyed wetlands on their own estates, and puts out meaningless advertisements such as this one claiming:

“We’re into green. At Mondi Paper we really care about the environment. In fact, we’ve taken a number of steps to ensure our commitment is felt. Like introducing an Environmental Management System, which has been recognised with an ISO 14001 accreditation. We also have FSC Chain-of -Custody Certification for our un-coated woodfree grades of paper and locally we are members of The Durban Chamber of Commerce Environmental Committee and the National Association of Clean Air. NOT to mention we’re also at the forefront of paper recycling. We’re serious about taking care of our planet and if a little green is what it takes to make it better, we’re all for it.”

Corporate green-wash like this typifies the bulk of advertising placed in journals and other media by the timber industry. It is a sad reality that millions of ignorant readers are duped into being uncritical of the timber industry by this kind of impertinence.

It should be obvious to all that the truth about the plantation and milling activities of both Sappi and Mondi is a lot less attractive than how they portray themselves in their advertising, and by sponsoring “environmental education” and books on birds and trees.

Not only behind the scenes, but also often in full public view, these companies exploit people and the environment. They destroy or degrade natural grasslands where their plantations are grown, and damage plants and wildlife in adjacent forest or wetland habitats. They cause the loss of surface water in streams and marshes, depriving people and animals of access to water in the areas where plantations are established. They introduce toxic chemicals that pollute soil and water, and destroy natural processes in the soil. And now they can do all these things under the banner of FSC certification!

Timber plantations have forced thousands of people off the land in the past, and continue to do so in the present time. As access to natural resources is denied rural people, thanks to the encroachment of timber plantations, more and more people must leave their traditional homes in search of a means to survive elsewhere, more often than not in squatter slums around the cities.

The harsh reality is that the timber plantations that are grown to feed wasteful demand for paper and packaging are both socially and environmentally destructive and no amount of industry gobbledygook can change that. They may have succeeded to mislead and confuse the public into believing otherwise for the moment, but the truth must emerge.

In the meantime, both companies have plans to increase woodpulp production

The Mondi mill at Richards Bay is proceeding with plans to expand their annual pulp production by 145,000 tonnes. By some strange coincidence there is also a process underway to seek government permission to increase production at the Sappi Ngodwana mill by 225,000 tonnes or 60% of existing production.

In both cases the plans to increase pulp production are motivated by claims of increased demand for pulpwood products and that the expansion will incorporate new technology that will be beneficial to the environment in numerous ways.

To quote Mondi: “Our expansion will not only increase pulp production, it will also streamline operations in terms of cost and efficiency. The best available technology used in the upgrade will have many positive environmental spin-offs” (press statement 25 March 2003).

The background information document issued by Sappi in July 2003 makes a host of claims in support of their proposed expansion: “Currently the Mill is unable to increase production with the existing equipment as further increases in production would have a negative effect on the quality of the product, efficiency of the plant and on the environment. Therefore in order to increase production to meet the demands of its customers in the paper industry and prevent/reduce the environmental impacts associated with the increased production, the mill has to install state-of-the-art process technology. Due to the increase in demand for its products, Sappi is investigating the feasibility of expanding the Mill to make full use of the potential to produce pulp, by installing the latest technology in the washing, bleaching and drying plant and processes.”
“Sappi has indicated that the proposed production capacity to operate more efficiently and to produce a better quality product to meet the increasing market demand. This project is also important in terms of ensuring that the Ngodwana Mill remains globally competitive and thus ensuring its economical viability into the future. Sappi expects that components of the project such as the increased use of waste paper is expected to have indirect socio-economic benefits by stimulating the development of small waste paper supply businesses. In addition, the proposed increase in production will require additional timber and may result in increased job opportunities in the forestry sector.”
“Sappi expects the proposed project to result in less air emissions per ton of pulp produced. This includes a reduction in total reduced sulphur, and particulate (dust) emissions, which has been a source of major concern to people living in the area. The installation of modern technology will result in less water, chemicals and energy being used per ton of pulp. As a result of the conversion from softwood to hardwood, Sappi expects less solid waste to be produced by the Mill for disposal. In addition, Sappi has indicated that the proposed expansion will be able to use more waste paper, which will have a beneficial effect on the environment”.

One has to laugh at the insincerity of these claims. Most are seriously inaccurate and exemplify corporate doublespeak. The Sappi claim “will require additional timber and may result in increased job opportunities in the forestry sector” is amazing in its audacious modesty. It cannot be disputed that both expansion plans would require additional raw timber equivalent to the percentages of the proposed increases in pulp production. Whether this additional pulpwood is obtained as per Sappi’s claim, by conversion from pine to eucalyptus, or from new plantations is a moot point. The reality is that an additional amount of raw timber will have to be produced somewhere. If we are talking about pine, then the going rate is about a hectare per 3 tonnes of pulp per annum. On this basis it would need about 120,000 extra hectares of pine or a lesser amount of eucalyptus, depending on growing conditions and availability of water and nutrients. The main flaw in both Mondi and Sappi’s expansion plans appears to be that the negative impacts associated with the additional plantation timber needed to feed the mills in order to produce the additional 370,000 tonnes of pulp annually have been ignored.

No matter how clean and efficient pulp production can be the real problems remain where the production of wood in timber plantations takes place. Rural communities and the natural environment will carry the burden of the associated impacts and costs, so that corporate money lust can continue to feed.

By: Wally Menne, Timberwatch Coalition member, e-mail:

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