Small-scale growers delivering their timber to a roadside depot in southern KZN. Certification will bring these growers improved market access and a premium price for their timber.

By Steven Germishuizen, Craig Norris and David Everard

SAFAS (Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme) has taken great strides during this Covid-19 lockdown towards levelling the certification playing fields. With this ground-breaking approach, a system has been developed that will allow responsible plantation owners of all scales to access markets requiring certification in a credible and systematic way while addressing the key risks to sustainable forest management. The project has been generously supported by the SANBI – UNDP Biodiversity and Land-Use Project, Forestry South Africa, Sappi, NCT and TWK.

To achieve this SAFAS developed a tool to assess and rank a particular plantation’s risks to sustainable forest management. For example, one plantation may be in an area where a number of factors makes fire risk high, while the soils and topography may result in a low risk to soil erosion. Understanding the relative importance of risks is vital when deciding how much effort to allocate to a particular management activity. As a certification tool it demonstrates to the certifier and manager which aspects are irrelevant or have negligible risk so that focus can be on the important issues. The system is called the Value-Based Platform because it is designed to help protect the values that exist within a particular forest setting.

There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the introduction of the SAFAS certification programme to Sappi plantations and NCT member’s farms.

The NCT experience
In the first phase of rolling out the SAFAS system, 21 private farms and two communal areas have been assessed against the SAFAS certification requirements using the Value-Based Platform. In this phase the growers completed a questionnaire covering important aspects of their operations, allowing SAFAS to determine the key risks for each operation. The operations range from a mixed farmer growing 20 hectares of wattle, to a grower with over 600 hectares of gum and wattle, as well as wood-lot owners in two tribal authority areas.

A checklist for each operation has been generated and a programme of farm visits set up to cover the important aspects that need verifying on the ground. Based on the responses, some of the smaller operations appear to meet all of the requirements of the standard.

Operations that are addressing their key risks to sustainability can be certified under the SAFAS certification programme, which has been endorsed by PEFC international, the largest certification system in the world.

Craig Norris, Forest Technology Manager, NCT.

Examples of how the system works
Grower A is a mixed farmer in the Greytown area with tribal authority lands and extensive grasslands on the northwest boundary. This grower’s efforts need to be directed towards maintaining a good relationship with that community because a number of risks such as fire, poaching and timber theft depend on it. In this case the farmer works with the community to burn a fire break on their boundary. This farm is mostly flat with few wetlands in the timber areas. Soil erosion and impact on water resources are low risk and this is reflected in the risk assessment. This frees up the farmer to deal with the essential management aspects.

Woodlot owners in a communal area only have management control of the portion of land that is allocated to them by the Tribal Authority. In such cases the system takes this into account, guiding the woodlot owners to those aspects which are under their control.

Phase 2, field verification, was due for completion at the end of July. After this, growers that comply will be certified under SAFAS. Phase 3, third party verification will happen once the international flight ban is lifted, allowing third party auditors, based in the UK to evaluate the scheme. At this stage growers can sell to PEFC markets.

The Sappi experience
Broad sense sustainability is a goal for Sappi Forests, as it should be for all long-term timber producers. However, with rapidly changing economic social and environmental conditions true sustainability is a complex goal that is not easily achieved. The Value-Based Platform for sustainable forest management and certification developed by SAFAS provides a structured, flexible approach that has been successfully used by Sappi to improve management on its plantations. In 2019 the SAFAS Forest Management Standard formed the basis of its internal environmental audits. The simple language used by this standard and the logical approach to forest management made this standard a favourite for the Forest Managers. It proved to be a completely adequate standard for preparing for the external FSC audit that took place in November 2019.

PEFC certification through SAFAS will give large scale growers, like this operation in Zululand, improved market access as well as tools to improve farming practice on the ground.

Sappi Forests is now in the process of becoming SAFAS (PEFC) certified having successfully completed a stage 1 audit by Soil Association in April. In preparation for this audit, and to make full use of the flexibility of the PEFC’s approach to group scheme management Sappi decided to adopt the SAFAS Value-Based Platform. In spite of being under level 5 Covid-19 lockdown the approach proved to be very workable and provided each FMU with a clear indication of its strengths and weaknesses with respect to sustainable forest management.

The process began with communication of the steps involved and what would be expected from forest managers and service departments. This was followed by the distribution of a risk assessment questionnaire which was completed by each FMU manager. The results were reviewed by way of a discussion between the FMU manager and the Sappi Forests Environmental team. It was during these discussions that it was realized that this approach and tool really works, in that it:
• Places the management required on the FMU in the social, economic and environmental context in which that FMU exists;
• Showed in a logical and structured way where the risks to sustainable management are and where attention is needed and where it is effective;
• Helped all of us at Sappi to understand how the various standards and requirements (SAFAS and FSC) relate to sustainable forest management on the ground.

To illustrate the usefulness of the risk assessment and the value based approach, Garett Nel, Forestry Manager of Twello Plantation said; “I enjoyed doing the risk assessment because it forced me to look into more detail on certain audit items that we usually pass off to other departments and don’t usually go into the detail and understand it ourselves such as the planting permit versus actual hectares planted that we usually just refer auditors to planning.”

Daniel James, Forestry Manager of Lothair Plantation said “the risk assessment is a great tool one can use to prepare for both internal and external audits in the sense that it helps one to identify high risks and get mitigation measures in place to reduce the risk. Also once the risk assessment was done I knew what the high risks were and could better manage them. It gave me a better view of the environmental, social and economic aspects and where one needs better management for future sustainability.”

Steve Germishuizen of SAFAS and Dave Everard, Divisional Environmental Manager, Sappi.

Focusing on the risks
In summary, the Sappi 2020 internal audit check sheet which was based on the SAFAS Forest Management Standard was prioritised according to each FMU’s risk profile and sent out to the FMU. This allowed the manager to focus on risky areas and not waste time on issues irrelevant to that particular FMU. In the past all certification requirements were treated equally whether they contributed to the sustainability of that FMU or not. It has been so successful for the Forestry Managers, that many have asked for permanent access to the risk assessment tool so that they can continually update their profile as things change.

“Sappi has worked hard to expand forest certification for all growers including our Khulisa growers and has helped introduce PEFC into the country, based on the need for additional certification from our customers’ requests for PEFC labelled products,” commented Alex Thiel, Sappi Southern Africa CEO.

Related article: SA Forestry Assurance Scheme set to transform certification landscape



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