World Rainforest Movement

South Africa: Research views FSC certified tree plantations as a legacy of apartheid

In South Africa, a thorough research carried out by John Blessing Karumbidza –“A Study of the Social and Economic Impacts of Industrial Tree Plantations in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa”, available at — has identified a host of damaging economic, social and environmental impacts of monoculture tree plantations affecting local communities, water resources and ecosystems.

The introduction of industrial tree plantations in the country witnessed in the 1980s a new wave led by timber companies Sappi and Mondi, both with FSC certified plantations: Mondi Business Paper, with 399,068 ha, and Mondi Millennium Newsprint with 48,530 ha, both through the FSC-accredited certification company SGS; and SAPPI Forests Group Scheme with 76,041 ha, and SAPPI Forests with 383,164 ha, both through the FSC-accredited certification company Soil Association Woodmark (SA).

The growing of large scale monoculture tree plantations was possible thanks to artificially low input costs, especially wages and land acquisition, as well as generous subsidisation of and provision by the government at that time. As a result, two processes were put in motion: the hastening of rural capitalist relations and the intentional use of trees as landscape modifiers. This development took place within the framework of segregation and apartheid policies that have been instrumental to determine the racial and spatial nature of South Africa’s agrarian landscape. Since the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, the primary initiative of the industrial tree-growing sector has entailed two particular strategies: the establishment of out-grower schemes promoted as social or corporate responsibility or as employment creation schemes, and the attempt to bring on board a BEE (Black economic empowerment) component into the existing asset structure of the major industrial tree-growing companies. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these programmes have failed to ameliorate the ever-increasing list of negative social, economic and environmental impacts of the industrial timber plantation sector’s activities.

Timber industry plantations have displaced people from their original homes disrupting traditional livelihood mechanisms and replacing rich and diverse grasslands with a checkerboard of plantations and fields. Soil and water are being polluted by insecticides, herbicides and other chemical contaminants used in timber plantations including fuel and engine oil spilt from vehicles and chain saws. Plantation trees also change soil pH and all plantation tree species used by the industry invade river-courses, forests, grasslands and wetlands, necessitating the use of more polluting chemicals and fuels for their eradication. Plantation workers are seldom provided with adequate safety equipment and are exposed to the fumes from spraying pesticides and heavy plantation vehicles.

However, and despite the problems with industrial tree plantations in South Africa, an area of 1.665.418 Hectares is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as being well managed.

The case of the SiyaQhubeka Consortium, certified by SGS, is mentioned by the FSC as “changing the paradigm of plantation management” (FSC no date). However, the referred study reveals that the joint venture group called SiyaQhubeka is more a Mondi partnership with government (sharing 90% between them) rather than a genuine empowerment deal. There is also no definite time frame put in place for the transfer of Mondi’s shares to the community, and this transfer will come as Mondi’s initiative rather than of the community or government.

It was agreed upon transfer that, wherever possible “local communities and black South Africans are given opportunities to benefit from the industrial activities of the company”. Much of the timber grown by the state South African Forestry Company Limited (SAFCOL) was unsuitable for Mondi’s pulping needs, as it was largely pine and mostly in saw-log rotations. Instead of investigating alternative land uses that could direct SiyaQhubeka towards developing agri-forestry, the land cleared of pines is being quickly converted to eucalyptus, a task that will take five years to complete. The unplanted areas are also being planted to eucalyptus, without the option of any alternative land use.

SiyaQhubeka controls three separate land holdings. St. Lucia plantation in the north has 12,550 ha planted. It runs along the western border of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park and is entirely enclosed within the park game fence. The reasoning behind this was to allow elephant, buffalo and rhino access to SiyaQhubeka’s plantation lands, including 2,171 ha of unplanted areas. North of Richards Bay is the KwaMbonambi plantation which has 6,257 ha of trees and 1,516 ha of unplanted areas. To the south of Empangeni, is the Port Durnford plantation (3010 ha) with 947 ha of unplanted areas. Altogether SiyaQhubeka has 21,817 ha of timber plantations, and 4,634 ha of land not planted to industrial plantations. The unplanted areas are mostly roads, servitudes, service areas, firebreaks and unplantable slopes or wetlands.

In making the decision to award the deal to SiyaQhubeka, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) emphasised that local community members in the three areas where the plantations are found, namely Mtubatuba, KwaMbonambi and Port Durnford, would be sub-contracted to provide services. The key activities around which contracts are sourced are planting, slashing and clearing bush in the plantations and, to an extent, clear felling. Felling trees has recently become increasingly mechanised with the industry acquiring integrated machines that cut, strip and stack the logs, making them ready for loading. Felling is one of the most labour intensive and expensive processes. By mechanising this stage of the timber management process, this limits the potential for job creation in the sector. It is not surprising that the only community contractors that are operational in the former SAFCOL plantations are only involved in planting and cleaning plantations. These are processes that do not require heavy capital investment. In many of the contracts, the workers actually use their own tools. Examples of these include Umbonambi Forestry Services (UFS), which was awarded the contract to plant SiyaQhubeka’s eucalyptus trees at KwaMbonambi plantation. UFS employs only 17 people with one supervisor and expects its team of workers to plant at the rate of 6 ha per day. In the Mtubatuba plantation, Thalaku, a joint ownership contractor of three entrepreneurs from the Khula Village in Dukuduku, is involved in slashing and clearing undergrowth in the plantations. Thalaku employs in the range of 40 to 45 people depending on the size of the contract. It also contracts to undertake pine sapling removal from the St. Lucia Eastern Shores area that is being rehabilitated for conservation purposes.

The author of the study concludes that “in fact FSC is certifying a legacy of apartheid.”

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