In defence of SA’s plantations

2008-11-13 00:00

With reference to the “anti-certification for plantation-grown trees” furore being raised by Timberwatch and reported on by Witness columnists Alastair Paterson (The Witness, November 7) and Inez Wales (The Witness, November 10).

The misdirected and myopic stance taken by Timberwatch in its attempt to thwart timber production and the certification of plantations in the perceived interests of the environment and rural societal integrity is amazing. Advocating the curtailing of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for plantations will not influence the industry locally or globally.

Timberwatch omits a number of important issues when spewing forth its anti-timber vitriol.

FSC certification remains voluntary and self-funded. It is commendable, therefore, that so many South African timber producers have chosen the certification route as a measure of their operations. Clearly timber production will affect the environment in some manner. However, certification plays an important role in guiding timber producers towards sustainable timber production.

Timberwatch paints a picture of swathes of sterile blue gum fields where nothing else grows. Association with certification has ensured that in reality a certified plantation comprises significant areas of grasslands, areas of natural interest, bio-diverse conservation areas and migratory corridors for animals and plants, small and large.

In fairness, any agricultural crop will impact negatively on the environment. The challenge is to reduce the harm and certification provides such guidelines.

Gated estates are having a far higher negative impact on the environment and biodiversity than any certified plantation will have. Paradoxically, the presence of plantations sometimes impedes the development of housing estates to the benefit of the environment. Pietermaritzburg City Forests is a wonderful example of this.

Yes, excess timber is exported from South Africa in semi or fully processed form. However, this sought-after resource creates an important revenue flow for the country which bolsters the economy. The fact is that the timber exported is a renewable resource and excess can be exported again and again in direct contrast with the once-off rampant exploitation and export of non-renewable and strategic resources such as coal and minerals.

No mention is made of the fact that in South Africa timber is the only agricultural-type crop that has been regulated to a complete stop (in terms of potential expansion) by the state. Water permit regulations have put paid to any chance of further significant plantation establishment. Certification demands adherence to state regulation which is causing a decline in the total planted area as plantations are gradually moved away from sensitive areas in adherence to wetland delineation processes.

Examples are cited in the news reports of communities allegedly left in poverty due to timber production. No mention is made of the global trend of individuals from rural communities migrating in increasing numbers to urban centres. People remaining in rural communities gradually become aged and less inclined to do manual labour. Coupled with the health pandemics, it is little wonder that mechanisation is called in. A land reform process seriously “wanting” in post settlement support and a penchant towards community-based land restitution rather than production-based settlement are setting up rural land beneficiaries for failure. It is most certainly not a case of the trees chasing people away from the land.

In a world where consumption rules supreme, there will always be a demand for commodities and products. Timberwatch should focus its considerable energy on educating people to temper their demands and recycle their waste. For an organisation to expend hours towards actively lobbying against certification in plantation management, which is in reality serving as an impartial referee in a critical game of sustainability, just does not make logical sense.

• Rob Thompson holds a forestry degree from the University of Stellenbosch and works for a forestry co-operative in Pietermaritzburg. He writes this article in his personal capacity.

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