GroundTruth team members monitoring the health of a stream on Mondi land.

Partnerships and collaborations with researchers, expert consultants, environmental NGOs and other external stakeholders has helped Mondi Forests ensure continuous improvement in its environmental performance.

These partnerships have contributed to the development of tools that the Mondi Forests’ team are using to manage the conservation areas on their landholdings, to assess the impact of their forestry operations on the environment with more accuracy, and to base management decisions on best practice and good science.

Mondi manages 254 000 ha of landholdings across KZN and southern Mpumalanga, including commercial and conservation areas. This comes with a responsibility to the health of the environment. It also comes with the responsibility to ensure that the forestry operations do not compromise the integrity of natural ecosystems on Mondi land and, where possible, beyond its boundaries.

This is also tied in with Mondi’s sustainable forestry model, where healthy, functional ecosystems – specifically the availability of water and healthy soils – are critically important for the long term sustainability of Mondi’s tree growing operations, and ultimately its core business.

Mondi’s pioneering collaboration with WWF in the study and protection of wetlands across South Africa goes back more than 25 years. This has not only improved wetlands management on Mondi land, it has also provided guidelines for wetland delineation, clarified the technical definition of wetlands and their buffers, and raised awareness among wider stakeholders of the critical importance of wetlands and the ecological services they provide.

Checking a rehabilitated wetland area on Mt Gilboa during a field day.

Water is the ultimate shared resource, and so Mondi’s partnership with WWF has evolved from the WWF-Mondi Wetlands Programme into the WWF-Mondi Water Stewardship Partnership. The focus is now on including engagement with other land users and key external stakeholders, and the launch of catchment-wide water stewardship initiatives such as the uMhlathuze Water Stewardship Partnership. (To get more info on this visit www.nbi.org.za).

“Water is the biggest risk to the whole forestry industry, and it is getting more acute,” commented David Lindley of WWF. “Mondi is going beyond its fenceline and even beyond the catchment as we need to work in a strategic and more collaborative way with all stakeholders to improve water stewardship.”

Thus WWF is increasingly focusing on the country’s strategic water source areas, where forestry is sometimes the dominant land user. David said that 10% of the land produces 50% of SA’s water resources. “The forestry sector is critical to help secure these areas,” he said.

Mondi is also a founder participant of the New Generation Plantations initiative, co-ordinated by WWF, a global platform for sharing ideas and information on responsible plantation management. Its focus is on how plantations around the world – when well designed and managed – can contribute to resilient landscapes, local socio-economic imperatives and conservation of priority conservation areas.

Closer to home the Mondi team, in collaboration with external specialists, has improved its wetland and freshwater assessment and monitoring tools. A cost effective, streamlined wetlands monitoring approach is being applied strategically at selected sites in each operations unit, the results of which are then used to inform management actions.

In Mondi’s freshwater monitoring programme, water quality is assessed at the points where selected rivers enter and exit Mondi plantations, using biomonitoring indices and water chemistry parameters as identified in collaboration with the freshwater consulting company, GroundTruth.

GroundTruth checking water quality.

Mondi Forest’s certification and environmental manager, Brent Corcoran says that at the exit point the water quality should be the same or better than it was when it entered the plantation. If not then corrective action is required.

The next step is to do activity specific monitoring at strategic sites – e.g. before, during and after clearfelling – to gauge the impact of operations on freshwater quality.

Mondi is also working with GroundTruth to test the use of drones in assessing riparian and instream habitat integrity, and the early results are positive.

The focus of this work is on ‘closing the loop’ – ensuring that the results are analysed and used to direct management actions so as to maintain or improve environmental performance going forward, said Brent.

“Forestry is often seen as being detrimental to the environment, but if it’s done properly it can even improve river health,” commented Dr Vere Ross-Gillespie, who heads up GroundTruth’s Rivers Division.

Mondi is experimenting with drones to monitor river health (Photo courtesy of GroundTruth).

Supporting ecological networks research
The Mondi Ecological Networks Programme, a partnership with the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at Stellenbosch University, is engaged in pioneering research into the functioning of the unplanted corridors (known as ecological networks) on forestry land.

According to the head of the programme, Prof Michael Samways, the research findings have been developed into a set of key principles around the shape, size and placement of the ecological networks, and how they should be managed to optimise their effectiveness in conserving biodiversity. Although most of this research takes place on Mondi land, he says the principles are applicable to forestry land anywhere.

Prof Samways said that the Ecological Networks are seriously important for conserving biodiversity and maintaining sustainable ecosystem services on production landscapes like forestry.

The presence of dragonflies are an important indicator of river health.

“If correctly placed and managed they effectively expand the network of areas contributing to biodiversity conservation, including protected areas,” he said.

This world leading research is feeding into national initiatives like the National Biodiversity and Strategy Action Plan developed by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, and has also attracted international interest.

Out of this research several design and management principles have emerged that the Mondi team will use to assess the ecological networks across all of their plantation landholdings.

A healthy stream and buffer zone maintained between planted areas.

Invasive alien plant control
Control of invasive alien plants (IAPs) is another area of focus at Mondi. IAPs, which have a negative impact on water and biodiversity and constitute a fire hazard, are notoriously challenging and costly to control. Mondi has implemented a large-scale IAP management programme over the past 10-12 years to control IAPs across their landholdings. More recently, some significant improvements in Mondi’s Zululand operations and in SiyaQhubeka’s operations have been achieved and the lessons learnt have been shared with other business units.

Mondi has collaborated with the Richmond and Zululand Inland Fire Protection Associations to mobilise resources required to improve the control of IAPs. These initiatives have had a positive impact on the region by reducing fuel loads, restoring natural vegetation – as well as strengthening the FPAs themselves.

“We have to find a balance between maintaining the economic value of our forestry landholdings while maintaining and enhancing the environmental values and reducing impacts,” said Brent. “It is a process and a journey that is about continuous improvement in environmental performance in these production landscapes,” he concluded.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, November 2019

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