Finding solutions in the southern Cape
Forestry, timber supply, jobs, government imperatives, invasive alien plants, fire risk, water resources, biodiversity, conservation … a potent cocktail of competing interests in the southern Cape are finding common ground and embarking on a journey to tackle the challenges that are holding the region back. THEO STEHLE reports …
Forestry, together with local stakeholders and conservation organisations, is playing an increasingly pivotal role in conservation efforts in the southern Cape. Attitudes are changing and former adversaries are finding common ground and working together to control the spread of invasive alien plants in the mountain catchments, which are having serious impacts on fire risk and water resources. The complexity of this task is amplified by government’s strategy for forestry in the Western Cape, which has veered from exiting 45 000 ha of forestry to partial reversal of that strategy, and the resulting delays which have disrupted normal forestry and conservation operations. Added to this is the lack of resources and capacity of state organisations to effectively manage land handed back to the authorities by forestry in terms of its exit strategy. At stake is the economic viability of the forestry and downstream timber industry in the region, and the health of the catchments themselves.
The main issues are –
• The Government’s forestry exit strategy and the lengthy delays in re-commissioning exit plantations subsequently earmarked for return to forestry; and its inability to manage exited plantation areas handed back after clear-felling;
• The dwindling timber industry;
• The effects of climate change and increasing drought on water resources and fire risk;
• Alien invasive vegetation infestations and their negative impact on water resources, biodiversity and fire risk.
Central to the decline of the timber industry, and environmental and forestry problems relating to unmanaged forestry land, is the Government’s forestry exit strategy, and its implementation.
When MTO Forestry (MTO) won the bid in 2005 for the lease of State plantations in the Western Cape and western portion of the Eastern Cape in 2005, the Government concluded two lease agreements with MTO, one being the sustainable lease for approximately 37 000 ha of plantations and the other the exit lease for the approximately 45 000 ha of plantation land to be converted to other land uses – mainly conservation.
In 2008 the Cabinet reversed its earlier decision – upon recommendation by the VECON study report – approving the re-commissioning to forestry of about 22 000 ha of this land.
This was followed by seven years of indecision and inertia by Government, partly because of lack of budget, resulting in a long term replanting backlog and the loss of some half a million m³ of wood increment.
Eventually sense prevailed and in 2014 the Industrial Development Corporation was approached by DAFF to advise them on how best to implement the Cabinet decision. IDC recommended that a feasibility study should be commissioned with the broad aim of ensuring “that the long term growth and stability of the forest sector in the Western Cape is secured by aligning it with the broad based poverty alleviation and local economic development objectives of Government.”
LHA Management Consultants was appointed to do the study, the report of which was tabled in September 2014. Paramount in its recommendations was the urgent appointment of a contractor or agent (preferably MTO) to replant the unplanted exit reversal areas.
Service level agreement
It is now common knowledge that MTO was, at the end of 2015, appointed for two years (2016 -2017) in terms of a Service Level Agreement with DAFF to begin replanting unplanted areas (target 2 000 ha), as well as silviculturally managing about 2 000 ha that had been allowed to naturally regenerate after clearfelling. The funding is to be derived from land rehabilitation fees, which MTO was meant to make available for the (now unnecessary) handing over of clearfelled exit areas in a rehabilitated condition, originally mainly for conservation land use purposes. R80 million has already accumulated in an advance account ready for immediate use.
LHA identified a number of ‘key principles’ to guide the restructuring and transfer process, viz. community involvement and empowerment, wide participation, sector transformation, unlocking the financial value of the land, facilitating BBBEE, and the fast tracking of processes to defuse the crisis in the timber industry.
LHA premised its primary recommendations on maximum benefit and involvement of communities most directly impacted by forestry operations and processing businesses. Community interests were to be central to the restructuring (as was provided for in the White Paper on Sustainable Forest Development of 1996 and the National Forests Act).
It was proposed that –
• The Western Cape areas to be re-commissioned be divided into five regional packages;
• A detailed socio-economic analysis process be conducted for each package to identify and finalise community structures;
• Community trusts (CTs) be established;
• DAFF enters into a community forestry agreement with each community;
• Rental income accrues directly to CTs;
• DAFF and CTs jointly follow an open tender process for the establishment of a new company that will be responsible to operate the plantations of each package;
• The mandate and shareholding structure of the new company be decided on by the CTs and this to be integrated into the tender.
Two business models were suggested by LHA. The first option was for a community trust (CT) to become a shareholder in a going forestry business, the second was for the CT to retain “ownership” and manage the forestry land itself or by appointing a contractor.
An important recommendation by LHA was that DAFF should favourably consider the extension of the exit lease contract with MTO by four years to 2024. This would mitigate the fluctuation in the flow of raw timber, as MTO is currently harvesting at an accelerated rate to meet its deadline in 2020. This creates a surplus of timber that the processing industries cannot absorb, whereas after 2020 there will be a complete slump in supply which will leave private processors without raw material for a number of years. This extension has not been forthcoming to date.
Indications are that the identification of beneficiaries/communities qualifying for rights to the State plantations could be a time-consuming and complicated process. Time is of the utmost essence, as unnecessary delays in these processes will further disrupt the sustainable flow of timber after 2020.
Furthermore there are numerous tough challenges involved in setting up appropriate community-based structures to engage in forestry business, not least of which is the availability of funding when return on investment is only forthcoming 25 years down the line.
Add to this the fact that a high proportion of the plantations are not on the best growing sites, with some sites, especially in the Boland, rather marginal, coupled with long transport distances to the mills, and it becomes clear that the viability of some of these plantations have to be carefully looked into.
To add insult to injury, wildfires have damaged 1 700 ha of plantations in exit areas designated for re-commissioning in the Grabouw Plantation, 300 ha of which were between 15 and 20 years old. This area alone represents 25% of the Boland area to be re-commissioned, adding to the interruption of the sustainable supply of timber after 2020. The fire-damaged timber has to be salvaged, and decisions still have to be taken about where it will be processed. An analysis of the situation indicates that DAFF may have to make strategic decisions regarding the future viability of commercial forestry in the Boland.
Moreover, as indicated previously in a related article in SA Forestry (April 2014), it will quite likely not be viable to continue with forestry under the long term sustainable lease in the Boland, as clearing of exit lease plantations will be completed in 2020. After 2020 Jonkershoek (600 ha) will be the only plantation in the sustainable lease. With the Stellenbosch Sawmill already closed down, there will only be small private sawmills left in that region. LHA has suggested that the Jonkershoek plantation be taken out of the sustainable lease and added to the Boland re-commissioning package to be put out to tender, which would make this package more viable.
All systems go for replanting
In the meantime it’s all systems go for MTO to replant the exit reversal areas, the priorities for the next two years being to concentrate efforts on recently clearfelled areas and the spacing of natural regeneration. This is an opportunity for job creation, poverty alleviation and capacity building in communities. MTO is now assembling a dedicated organisation for this task, with a project leader and five forestry managers. Contractor labour teams will be recruited through an open tender process from local communities in collaboration with the Extended Public Works Programme, and MTO will provide training via its Concordia Forestry Training Centre near Knysna. MTO has budgeted R18 million for 2016 for replanting some 1 100 ha, as well as spacing of 550 ha natural regeneration, in the Western Cape.
The Witfontein State Plantation of about 530 ha, adjoining the town of George, which was to be converted to other land uses including urban residential expansion, was not included in the plantation areas approved for re-commissioning. By default it remained DAFF’s interim responsibility since it had been handed back to DAFF by Safcol in 2006. Most of this plantation succumbed to a wildfire in about 2002, and has since, owing to incessant delays in attempting to find a receiving agent, become a major liability to DAFF in terms of fire risk, security, and pests and diseases, mainly Fusarium, in naturally regenerated, unmanaged young Pinus radiata stands.
The George Municipality has since relinquished its claim to Witfontein for urban expansion. In 2014 DAFF decided to put out a tender for the clearfelling of the neglected plantation and disposal of the timber, but this did not materialise. At the same time LHA recommended that the plantation be included in the Jonkersberg plantation re-commissioning package. Clearfelling may be delayed until after 2020 in order not to aggravate the already oversaturated timber supply situation, and to even out supply post 2020.
Basic management services, including control of invader plants, pests and diseases, roads, access, security and fire risk, for not only Witfontein but other VECON areas not forming part of the MTO exit lease, are now also included in the Service Level Agreement with MTO. This is seen as a step in the right direction by surrounding forestry owners, the local municipality, George residents, the Southern Cape FPA and the Eden District Municipality Fire Brigade and Disaster Management, who have sharply criticised DAFF for not complying with its own laws, e.g. the National Veld and Forest Fires Act.
Witfontein is by no means an isolated case in this respect. Clearfelled exit areas that have been released to DAFF for transfer to CapeNature in the southern Cape and Boland, together with other “No-Man’s Land” areas under DAFF control, are not being managed and are developing into alien infested zones which pose a serious fire hazard. The problem is that CapeNature has been reluctant to accept these areas without the funding needed to rehabilitate them to an accepted standard, whereas DAFF has neither the funds nor the in-house capacity to manage these areas.
SANParks, on the other hand, despite having accepted responsibility over exit areas transferred to it, lacks the resources to rehabilitate them.
“The deteriorating state of water catchments in the Outeniqua Mountains makes the residents of the southern Cape the biggest losers in the impasse between DAFF and CapeNature,” says Cobus Meiring of the Southern Cape Landowners Initiative (SCLI). “Whereas private landowners and conservation minded entities are trying their utmost to ensure that their land is managed in accordance with environmental legislation, critically important mountain catchments are getting totally overgrown with runaway plantations.”
Cobus says that water shortages are already being experienced in the region “and a lot of water loss can be ascribed to catchments, streams and rivers falling victim to pine and wattle jungles, which will cost millions to clear and maintain”.
This state of affairs has in 2014 induced the SCLI to report DAFF’s transgression of the Biodiversity Act regarding Witfontein to DEA’s Green Scorpions, which served a compliance directive on DAFF.
Cobus Meiring, is the CEO of Natural Bridge Communications, endeavouring to bring together role players from all spheres of society to collaborate on environmental matters. In the southern Cape it entails bringing together role players involved with the natural environment between George and Knysna.
With extensive experience in some of the country’s most successful environmental projects, like some of the Working For- programmes of the DEA’s Natural Resources Management section, Cobus has realised that the task of combatting the pine and wattle infestations of catchments between George and Knysna has to involve many stakeholders.
For this purpose Cobus founded the SCLI in 2011, a forum which is the confluence of local conservation entities, forestry firms, environmental project managers, field managers, researchers and communication experts. It has proved to be the most successful partnership and conservation constituency builder in the domain of invasive alien plants (IAP) and natural infrastructure conservation in the region.
He is also the founder of the non-profit company Natural Infrastructure Services (NIS), an implementing agent for DEA’s NRM Programmes (primarily Working for Water and Working for Wetlands). This is because Working for Water (WfW) is not able to on its own make a significant impact on the management of the IAP problem.
In the past funding was accessed mainly from the Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP) of the Department of Public Works. However, implementation has not proven to be that effective, for in spite of the fact that the DEA NRM Programme has ample budget available, the payment of committed funds to the NIS projects is unreliable, with consequences for continuity of employment of workers.
Apart from facilitating communication between key government stakeholders like CapeNature, SANParks, DAFF, DEA, Eskom, SANRAL, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), and forestry firms like MTO and PG Bison, SCLI through NIS is partnering with WfW and WWF-SA to undertake the work.
Meanwhile the Sustainability Research Unit (SRU) of NMMU’s George Campus is contributing towards solving some of the environmental problems in the southern Cape, which are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The SRU and SCLI are jointly facilitating the Kaaimans-to-Touw Eco-Restoration Forum (KTT) which is about people – multiple role players – involving all the collaborators already mentioned participating in the SCLI forum, as well as the broad public, promoting social-ecological restoration and invasive vegetation management in the Garden Route.
The catchments of the Kaaimans and Touw Rivers, in which the NMMU Campus is situated, are to become an open air laboratory “to learn about strategies for invasive weed management in a manner that promotes ecological restoration and green economic development”.
An important recent development is the recognition that although forestry is a major contributor to the spreading of pines and gums into natural veld, it has an important role to play in providing raw material for the timber industry and in local economic development.
According to Dr. Brian van Wilgen of the Centre for Invasion Biology, University of Stellenbosch, forestry plantations fulfil an important conservation role by taking pressure off natural forests.
“Globally plantation forests represent 5% of forest cover but account for 40% of the commercial wood and fibre production”. However, “the fact that pine trees can both be useful and harmful in the same region has led to schizophrenia in policy formulation and conflict between land managers”.
This reflects a very different view compared to the inflexible stance taken towards forestry in the Western Cape by the Centre for Invasion Biology a few years ago.
By convening a meeting of all the players with an interest in the management of pine trees in the Cape Floristic Region in May 2015, WWF-SA laid the foundation for finding common solutions for these potential conflicts. A follow up meeting was held in November 2015, and there are more to come.
In the southern Cape WWF-SA harbours concerns regarding the conservation of critical water source areas. In partnership with the local implementing agent NIS, SAB-Miller, Working for Water (WfW), the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and local hops farmers, WWF-SA has embarked on a cooperative project to remove pine infestations that have the potential of reducing river flow by 40%, from the Herold and Waboomskraal sub-catchments on the north-facing slopes of the Outeniqua Mountains. Funding has been obtained from the Table Mountain Fund and DEA’s Land User Incentive Scheme.
WWF-SA’s Dean Muruven has intimated that his organisation is seeking to engage with role players in Government, particularly DAFF’s senior forestry management, to discuss how DAFF can assist and be assisted in contributing towards finding common solutions to the problems of neglected State forestry land in the Western Cape.
WWF, with its global New Generation Plantations initiative, is another conservation organisation that has gone from outlawing forestry as a source of negative environmental impacts, to acknowledging the positive role it can play. In their own words: “Plantations can have net positive environmental and social impacts. (It) is about being competitive in business while at the same time creating social and environmental benefits in regions where you operate.”
MTO's seven point plan
At a recent SCLI seminar on IAPs Irvine Kanyemba, General Manager of MTO Cape, set out a seven-point strategy:
1. Eradicate category 1 weed species on leased State forest land;
2. manage plantations responsibly by controlling dispersion of IAPs beyond plantation boundaries, by the compilation of management plans, the commitment of resources and second and third party audits, fulfilling FSC requirements;
3. phase out commercial species that are invasive, and clear conservation areas like riparian zones of IAPs;
4. rehabilitate exit areas weed-free when handing them over to DAFF;
5. cooperating with third parties to control IAPs on adjoining land;
6. collaborate with Working for Water and Working for Wetlands programmes;
7. cooperate with the Plant Protection Research Institute on biological control to curb the spread of pines.
A recent shift in approach towards forestry as a land use role player by environmental stakeholders in the southern Cape is evident.
MTO has proven itself to be a serious role player in the conservation field, and this has earned the respect of the environmental fraternity, not least because it has been willing to commit funds to actively control invader plants. According to Irvine Kanyemba, “because of the susceptibility of Pinus radiata to the Fusarium pathogen, and the undesirable invasive nature of both P. radiata and P. pinaster, these two species are being phased out and replaced by the hybrids P. patula x P. tecunomanii and P. elliottii x P. caribaea which are sterile, as well as P. maximinoi.”
Much lambasted by those with a genuine concern about the spread of IAPs the recent SCLI conference commended the forestry industry for its strict adherence to the FSC guidelines. "The SCLI recognises that the forestry industry is in the best position to address the unabated spread of pines in the Outeniqua Mountains, with entrenched management capacity and experience to deal with invasives,” said Cobus Meiring. “Core to the argument is the fact that a healthy, viable and managed forestry industry has a positive effect on the way the mountain catchments and ecology are managed.
“With limited input from the WfW Programme in controlling the spread of invasives in the southern Cape, we will have to explore all possible large scale options in tackling IAPs, and forestry is a strong partner in these efforts,” continued Cobus.
At the same time efforts are under way to turn around the declining fortunes of the forestry industry in the southern Cape. The industry, once the most important driver of the George and Knysna economies, has been in sharp decline over the past two decades, said Cobus.
Estimates are that the forestry industry’s contribution to the George economy has declined from 80% in the 1980s to a mere 15% today.
The realisation that the resources required to maintain a healthy natural environment is to some extent dependent on a healthy forestry and timber industry, has led to the founding of the George Millers Forum (GMF) by the SCLI in October 2015, to give the timber industry and downstream value chain a collective voice. One of the aims is the revitalisation of the timber industry.
The SCLI is already reaching out to the Knysna Timber Initiative (KTI) which has similar aims.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, April 2016