SA Forestry journalist-at-large JUSTIN NYAKUDANGA chats to small-scale growers and a transport contractor, to find out how they are doing amidst the carnage of the Covid-19 pandemic, the subsequent Lockdown, depressed timber markets and a severely disrupted economy.
By Justin Nyakudanga
Forestry businesses and activities in South Africa are predominantly located in rural areas where the income generated pivots the local economies by creating jobs and enhancing infrastructure and social services.
For many small-scale timber growers in South Africa income from timber sales forms part of their safety net as timber is a long-term crop – unlike seasonal or annual crops. Hence many small-scale tree farmers rely on other forms of income for their daily needs, such as social grants, occasional livestock sales, gifts and remittances from relatives who migrated to the big cities to seek work. The money they can earn from timber sales at the time of harvest provides a periodic (every eight years) income top-up that gives them an opportunity to upgrade their homesteads, buy a vehicle, start a small business or pay for education, for example.
The current crisis is hitting these rural areas hard, and many small-scale timber growers are likely to fall through the safety net. So for many during this period, the key word is ‘survival’.
Sincelo Hadebe is the head of a family owned farming cooperative business called Busobengwe, located near Highflats in southern KZN. The cooperative owns one farm called Hemsley Estate and leases a second farm called Thuthuka Timber from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.
Hemsley Estate has 150 hectares of timber and Thuthuka Timber has 372 hectares with both plantations predominantly planted to eucalypts (gum).
The business employs 15 permanent and 45 casual or seasonal workers. Both farms are contracted to supply pulpwood to Sappi Khulisa, which has reported that annual timber purchases are being cut by around 50% due to market disruptions and constraints.
“Before the first case of Covid-19 was announced in South Africa, many of us here in the rural areas believed that this was a ‘rich man’s disease’ as in most instances we would hear from the news that the casualty had previously travelled abroad to China or Europe,” said Sincelo. “We never thought it would affect us in any way as we don’t have passports and cannot afford to go overseas. Now that the Corona virus has reached the South African shores and deaths were recorded, perceptions and behaviour quickly changed from being lax to circumspect and in some instances fearful.
“For the first two weeks during and after the first case was reported in South Africa, we experienced a spike in absenteeism at work. Workers were fearful and thought that the virus was airborne like flu and that they would catch the disease at work and most likely die. During the lockdown operations almost ground to a halt because spares could not be sourced. Most spares shops at Umzinto, which is the closest town, were closed and the farm supplies shop didn’t stock tractor spares of the make we have on the farms. We had to resort to backyard spares from a friend who knows a friend in Durban.
“During the first week of lockdown there was some confusion around transportation of farm labour that is the numbers that could be transported and the permits required. Fortunately the local Sappi Khulisa forester helped us draft the correct permit format and we managed to carry on with business.
“Most of our timber operations are manual, thus the management of workers around issues of personal hygiene and social distancing will have to become a norm. Another aspect to also deal with include mental health of workers as many are overly fearful and worried. Some of our employees have basically absconded work altogether.
“We as small growers are concerned that since pulpwood markets are depressed our annual sales orders are likely to get reduced or cut altogether, leaving us with no income and livelihood for the remainder of the year,” said Sincelo.
TBS Holdings Pty Ltd
Sihle Sibisi is a self-taught sugar cane farmer and forester. He runs two farms registered as TBS Holdings on behalf of his family. Both farms have sugar cane and timber as the primary commodities, and employ 70 people. The farms, which total 476 ha, are located next to each other near the Jolivet rural village in southern KZN.
The Sibisi family benefited one farm from the government land reform programme and managed to buy the second farm from the proceeds generated by the first farm.
“When lockdown was announced in March, we had just paid our employees and released them for the pay weekend,” explained Sihle. “Many of them left the farm and went back home to see family and could not return to work because they had no work permits. This affected our operations negatively as we had to adjust and scale down our timber harvesting operation, fire break preparations and weeding. We have had to recruit temporary labour to fill the gap in order to catch up, but this too has not been easy.
“The constrained pulpwood market has seen our annual sales order reduced significantly. This has definitely impacted our annual income and will affect operations drastically. We will have to rationalize operations and seek alternatives so as to keep the farms afloat,” said Sihle.
“In order to prevent the spread of the Corona virus at the work place and also maintain social distancing, we came up with a working method which we called ‘single tasking’. We have temporarily done away with supervisors for now, so each employee takes his/her work orders for the week straight from the farm manager. The quality, volume of work and the time frames are agreed upon by the two parties before each individual sets off to do his job. The farm manager will then follow up alone to check on the work. We also provide workers with face masks, soap and washing water infield in order to maintain good hygiene,” concluded Sihle.
W Wanda – small-scale grower
Mr W Wanda is a small timber grower based in Umbumbulu rural area and owns a 0,9 ha plantation. The 73-year-old is also the secretary of the Umbumbulu Timber Growers Association and Chairman of the Ongangwini Agricultural Cooperative.
According to Mr Wanda, when the Lockdown was announced in March the timber contractor and her eight workers, upon whom Mr Wanda relied for his forestry operations, packed their bags and returned home. He said that the contractor, from uMzimkhulu, was afraid of being stuck far from home in the event that she ran out of money, chainsaw spares or food.
This resulted in all planting and harvesting operations grinding to a halt in that area.
Umbumbulu Association has 25 timber growers farming timber on an average of 1,2 hectares of land each. The average age of the growers is 70, with most of them now in their third rotation. Most of them were contracted to supply Sappi in the early 1990s and back then relied on family members to plant and harvest their crops.
It is also important to note that the forestry sector faces high levels of rural to urban migration, and the reverse takes place when there is a crisis such as Covid-19 when unemployed individuals in towns return to their rural homes. This puts more pressure on rural households, and increases the risk of the spread of the Corona virus from urban to rural areas which have limited health care resources.
Niresh Sirewan – timber transporter
Niresh Sirewan owns two code 14 timber haulage trucks and is based in Richmond the KZN midlands. His business, known as Diverse Transport Services, has been operating for eight years and mainly hauls timber for small growers supplying NCT, Sappi and Treated Timber Products.
Niresh indicated that since late February 2020 his business has experienced a downward slide in timber deliveries. He is currently hauling only 40% of timber volumes compared to his normal operating capacity.
“The depressed timber markets and the subsequent scale down of timber purchases has negatively affected my business.”
Naresh said that during level 5 lockdown truck workshops were closed down making it difficult for him to operate, especially when one of his trucks broke down. Spares were also difficult to source during this period resulting in some down time.