'Plantations are not forests'

2008-11-10 00:00

Every three years the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) holds a general meeting in a different city in the world. This year it was held in Cape Town at the ICC in the first week of November. It costs 1 200 euros for a person to attend this meeting and most of the delegates represent the likes of Mondi and Sappi and other “big trees” that can afford to spend over R10 000 per seat.

A day before the conference began, I was invited to a meeting hosted by the Timberwatch Coalition Group at the Waterfront Aquarium. This meeting was also about trees, but the seats were free and the participants were a motley crew — mostly people who like to use the new catch phrase “greenwash” (which means that you take something toxic and present it as an elixir). Standing out like an alien jacaranda among a group of thorn trees was an expressionless man in a suit who had been sent by the “big trees” to keep a watch on things. I was the only journalist.

The problem that this little David organisation, funded by European countries, has with Goliath is that the FSC is certifying monoculture tree plantations as forests and protecting them. “Plantations are not forests and should not be certified,” said Wally Menne, the key organiser. “People think that because plantations are trees, they are good for the environment. But the reality is that these plantations cause astronomical amounts of damage to our country and it is the Chinese who benefit as 70% of the timber is exported.”

He said that what the public mistakes for beautiful forests are in reality green deserts and should not be certified. According to him, these plantations destroy natural grasslands and ecosystems which took millions of years to create. The trees create a canopy which prevents plants from growing between them and when they are cut down rainwater washes away the exposed topsoil. The worst part, said Menne, is that ordinary South Africans do not benefit from the timber production because the land is owned by a few companies which monopolise the land.

Studies have found that it takes up to three years for water supplies to be replenished in plantation areas as the roots of eucalyptus trees can extend up to 50 metres. The natural water supply becomes depleted, the biodiversity is destroyed and the land becomes sterile. This problem affects ordinary consumers in that these vast tracts of land could be used to produce food. South Africa is facing a food production crisis and yet the government condones the land being raped by a few monopolies, said Menne.

This introduces another problem: social responsibility. Catherine Ross from Richmond attended a meeting hosted by the Department of Water and Forestry earlier this year at the ICC in Durban. “They took us in buses to Richmond and Ixopo to show us their flagships of social responsibility. When we arrived the small community came dancing out of their shacks and sang their praises to the Mondi rep who was in charge of us. The community was grateful for the compound which had been donated to them. But all we saw was an abandoned hostel with broken windows and no infrastructure.

“One of the delegates on the bus told the community to stop thanking Mondi, because she had information that the company had been reimbursed for the land. An older woman emerged from a shack and said that they felt like they had been given a bus but did not know how to drive. They did not have the skills or equipment or safety measures to farm the small piece of plantation.”

Ross said that this misrepresentation was an example of “greenwashing”.

According to Timberwatch, the large companies claim to create employment when in reality very few people are employed and hi-tech machinery is used to cut trees and strip logs. The greatest demand is for drivers for the timber trucks that are part of South Africa’s road safety and infrastructure damage problems.

The counter argument is that plantations are required to produce the raw materials for furniture, pallets and paper. Timberwatch feels that this argument is nullified by the fact that most of the wood is exported. Blessing Karumbidza from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, is studying the effects of plantations on the community. He said, “Twelve years ago South Africa exported food and now we have to import food. Plantations are grown for up to 30 years and the land cannot be used for anything else in the interim. The local economy will be boosted when people produce what they consume and consume what they produce. The excess can be exported.”

Philip Owen from GeaSphere is based in Limpopo and showed evidence of the direct impact refineries and plantations have on the South African environment. “The destruction of grasslands contributes to the fact that the Oribi buck and Rudd’s Lark are now among the most threatened species in South Africa. The Sappi Ngodwana Mill [in Mpumalanga] pumps its chloride effluent directly into the Elands River. In dry spells this toxin cannot be diluted and farmers are unable to use the water for irrigation. This toxin also filters down into the underground water table.”

“People who live near the mills suffer from the pollution. It is a crisis for people with HIV who do not have a strong enough immune system to survive the pollution,” said Thelma Nkosi, also part of GeaSphere.

The Timberwatch members were in Cape Town to give the Forest Stewardship Council delegates a letter urging them not to certify plantations. I asked why they were not protesting and alerting the public through the media. Although Ross and Owen felt this would help alert the public, the other delegates disagreed. They said that the average South African would not understand what they were doing and they first needed to spend the next 1 000 years discussing the issue in little groups and then educating the people.

Later I was informed that after I left the meeting the man in the suit offered the Timberwatch delegates free seats to the FSC meeting. Brilliant really, to keep the opposition cooped up and quiet inside. It may cost a few thousand rand for the seats, but it would save the FSC millions in the long run, as the public continues to think that plantations are forests and good for the environment.

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