Singisi: Balancing forestry and community

March 2, 2013

Balancing the demands of forestry and sawmilling in a highly competitive industry with the need to uplift stakeholder communities and support rural development ...

Every seventh row is cut during thinning operations at Matiwane. Note the aftermath of 278 mm of rain during the previous month.
Picturesque Mabeleni Dam at Matiwane, a popular destination for trout fishing enthusiasts.


Travelling along the shiny new highway to Mthata after leaving the forested mountains of Ugie and Maclear behind, I am convinced I am on the wrong road. My destination is the Matiwane plantation at Langeni operated by Singisi Forest Products, subsidiary of Merensky Holdings, but there is not a tree in sight.

Eventually, I reach the edge of an impressive escarpment and the empty, treeless landscape gives way without warning to forests, rivers and deep gorges. The Matiwane plantation hugs the wet, south-east facing slopes of the Matiwane range, beyond which the land quickly flattens out and becomes treeless again.

This, I am told by Fred Basset who heads up the Matiwane forestry operations, is the best tree growing area in the country, with deep soils and plenty of rainfall, and I can believe it. Last month alone (October 2012) they had 278 mm of rain. Deep in the gorges in between the plantations are patches of thick, dark indigenous forests that were once heavily logged by woodcutters for the magnificent hardwoods that grow there.

The plantations were established way back in the 1930s by the South African Department of Forestry, and were subsequently transferred to the Transkei's Forestry Department during that territory's brief period of 'independence'. After the democratic elections of 1994, they once again fell under the authority of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, until the privatisation of the 'Category A' plantations in 2001.

Merensky submitted the winning bid for the hotly contested tender, and signed a 70-year (two rotations) lease for the Matiwane plantation that comprises 23 000 ha, 16 500 of which is planted. Situated on the edge of the plantation. the Langeni sawmill was already operated by Merensky through its subsidiary, Singisi Forest Products.

Most of the plantation is planted to pine, including P. patula, P. eliottii, P. taeda and a bit of P. ell/carr. Recently, some southern P. greggii was planted. About 10% of the plantation is eucalyptus and there are just two compartments of wattle.

The sawmill is self-sufficient, with the Matiwane plantation supplying the bulk of its sawlog requirements. Fred tells me that Singisi has a swop agreement with PG Bison which operates the NECF plantation and board mill at Ugie, situated 45 kms up the road, sending pulp timber and wood chip waste from the sawmill to the board plant and receiving pine sawlogs in return.

The Eucalyptus is sold for pulp and poles, including a few transmission poles.

Harvesting is done by own operations, using skylines for extraction in the many steep areas and skidders in the flatter areas. They also operate a mechanised harvesting unit using a Tigercat LH 830 levelling harvester equipped with the new Logmax 7000C head, working in tandem with a Tigercat forwarder. The Tigercat is a zero tailswing machine with an extension on the boom ideal for thinnings operations.

The eucalyptus harvesting is outsourced to a contractor team (see separate article on page 24).

The silviculture operations are a 50/50 split between contract and own ops. The timber transport operations are outsourced to contractors.

The plantation extends for 110 kms from end to end along the escarpment, and Harvesting Manager Johan van Heerden tells me that shorthaul is "part of our lives" due to the difficult terrain. Apparently, there is a shortage of good gravel in the region and this, combined with the exceptionally high rainfall, makes road maintenance a challenge.

According to Fred, sirex has not been too much of a problem at Matiwane, and they try to practice good silviculture to keep the trees healthy.

Fred says that his team has been doing a lot of catch-up work over the past 10 years to get the forests into shape, since it was somewhat neglected prior to the commencement of their lease. Some compartments had never been thinned, and temporary unplanted areas constituted around 15-20% of the plantation area when they took it over in 2001. TUP area is now down to around 4,3%.

Because of the remote location of the plantation, the Singisi team has developed a high level of self-sufficiency when it comes to fire fighting and have their own helicopter, although the recent establishment of an Eastern Cape Umbrella Fire Protection Association will help to mobilise and co-ordinate fire fighting resources. The FPA is based at Stutterheim, and includes as key members the NECF, Amathole Forests and Matiwane plantations. A Working on Fire team is also based at Matiwane to help with fire fighting.

The Langeni sawmill was built in 1972, while the forests are leased from DAFF in terms of a lease agreement. The Operations Manager for the sawmill and the forestry is Phillip Tshikhudo, an experienced sawmiller who first joined the company in 1998, then did a spell with Global Forest Products at Jessievale, and returned to Langeni in 2008.

The sawmill has two lines: a bandsaw for big logs (29 cm diameter and bigger) which produces structural timber, and a chipper line which utilises the smaller logs producing a range of structural and industrial timber. The sawmill products are sold to major markets throughout the country.

The mill takes 300 m3/day from NECF and 664 m3 a day from the Matiwane plantations and employs 577 people. The forestry operations, which are FSC-certified, employ 450 people, including contractors. Fred tells me that they also supply roundwood to several bushmills operating in the area.

Community relations

Singisi's Community Development Manager, Charlie Scott, is one of the busiest people at Matiwane. This is not surprising as the plantation is surrounded by 162 villages, and all of these communities are stakeholders in the business through the Singilanga Directorate Trust which is a 10% shareholder of Singisi Forest Products. The other shareholders are Safcol (7%), the National Empowerment Fund (9%), the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (14%), and Merensky Holdings (60%).

Many of these communities were moved off the land by the government of the day to make way for the plantations, and as a result, there are 14 land claims lodged over the plantation land, 11 of which have been settled to date. Thus, those communities are also the landowners.

Singisi pays a rental for use of the land to DAFF, who are custodians of the lease, and DAFF in turn distributes the money to the landowners through their own community property associations.

Thus, the communities benefit from dividends from the business, as well as from the rentals.

Singisi won the tender to operate the plantation not only on the basis of its track record, resources, sawmilling expertise and capacity, but also on the basis of its strategy to benefit the local communities. This requires extensive liaison between Singisi staff and communities, and support and assistance across a broad front that goes way beyond the call of duty.

As Charlie says, Singisi is the biggest employer in the area (90% of staff are drawn from local communities) as well as a business 'partner'. They are called upon to help out on an ad hoc basis for community functions, sports events and the like, but also to facilitate development in a region where local and regional government lacks capacity and resources, and service delivery is not always the best.

Liaison committee meetings with each community are held monthly. Matters discussed range from areas of mutual interest (and potential conflict) like fires and stray livestock, to assistance with mobilising resources for community development projects.

Education and training is a key focus area. Singisi provides 54 bursaries for community members to attend tertiary education institutions, 55 learnerships and 16 trade apprenticeships. In addition, they take about nine students a year from FET colleges for in-service training, and provide extensive support to Fort Cox, which is transforming its social forestry course into a commercial forestry course.

Singisi runs fire awareness programmes with communities, assists with the burning of their firebreaks, supports four clinics and three schools, builds bridges to improve community access and supports job creation projects like citrus farming and bee keeping. They work together with DAFF to patrol the indigenous forests in the area, and have established a network of cooperation with NGOs, municipalities and government departments.

Charlie says that government frequently uses Singisi's liaison structures when it comes to implementing their infrastructure and development projects.

"The needs of the communities are vast so we have to pull in all available resources to address them. There is also a high level of politicisation in our area as people have been dispossessed of their land. Plus, there is a lack of infrastructure on the government's side so they look to us to help," said Charlie.

After hearing all this, it's hard to believe that Singisi's primary function at Langeni is to grow timber and produce sawn lumber. Only by doing this efficiently in a highly competitive industry are they able to fulfill their obligations in uplifting stakeholder communities and supporting rural development.

op manager for manager
Operations Manager Phillip Tshikhudo. Forestry Manager Fred Basset.
Ace harvester operator, Angelo Knock, with the Tigercat and new Logmax head, working in burnt timber.
The harvest in action.
Langeni mill's bandsaw line cutting large diameter logs.


Published in December 2012

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