Can Safcol save Pietermaritzburg’s plantations?

January 10, 2024
This is how parts of the Pietermaritzburg city plantation looks like today, where Illegal dumping and timber theft is rife.

The forests that surround Pietermaritzburg should be – could be – one of the city’s finest assets. If well managed they can yield a sustainable annual harvest of some 25 000 tons of timber and bark, provide visitors and residents with endless recreational opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, trail running and bird watching, while providing free ecological services in the form of fresh, clean water from the numerous streams that run through it.

Instead, over the past five years or so under the ‘management’ of the Msunduzi Municipality, the forest has become a major fire risk, a major alien plant infestation, an illegal dumping ground, rife with timber theft, and rapidly becoming a liability that produces little or no revenue for the city coffers. It has also lost its FSC certification, a globally recognised standard for responsible and sustainable forest management.

This scenario has been repeated in other municipal owned plantations in KwaZulu-Natal – such as Richmond – where forest assets have become seriously degraded under the management of municipal officials who appear to have little interest in sustainable forest management.

However after years of indecision, some sanity has at last prevailed and there is hope that the Msunduzi plantation forests may be salvaged. The good news is that the City has signed a three-year plantation management contract with the state-owned forestry company, Safcol, which has considerable experience in plantation management.

Whether the Safcol team has the will, the budget - and the time - to turn this plantation around, remains to be seen. Forestry is a long term business. Eucalyptus trees take eight years to reach maturity after planting, wattle trees take 10 years, and pine trees grown for sawlogs more like 25 years. So there is not a lot anybody can do in three years, unless the aim is just to extract value over the short term by harvesting standing trees.

Harvesting operation on the go back in 2012. The city plantations are located on the hills around the city with deep soils and good annual rainfall, and have the potential to be highly productive.

It would take years of work and significant capital investment to rehabilitate the plantation, fix the roads, put in fire breaks, clear the alien invasive plants encroaching on tree compartments, conservation areas and wetlands, while all the time carefully re-planting every hectare that is harvested with good quality material. This is a job for forestry professionals with a long term interest. Getting the plantation back onto a sustainable management footing would generate significant revenue for the city, boost its image and tourism potential, and create dozens of additional jobs both on-site and downstream.

It is understood that Safcol will have an option to renew the contract at the end of the three years, provided they can demonstrate an acceptable level of service. This is the rationale behind the current short-term contract, which hopefully will become a more realistic, longer term commitment after the three years is up.

According to a Safcol spokesperson, the Msunduzi plantations will be managed by Thabo Ndhlovu and his team from Safcol’s Ngome plantation in KZN.

Commenting at the signing of the service level agreement with Safcol, Msunduzi city manager Lulamile Mapholoba acknowledged the difficulties the city faced in their efforts to manage the plantations, and lauded the agreement with Safcol as a “very significant development in the history of the city”.

FSC surveillance audit on the go back in 2012 … the Pietermaritzburg plantations were part of NCT’s group certification scheme, but have subsequently lost their certification status.

Established in 1910
Pietermaritzburg’s commercial plantations were established way back in 1910 by the municipality, and originally comprised almost exclusively of wattle. Over the years some of the wattle was phased out and replaced by Eucalyptus and pine as the timber markets changed. The trees were removed entirely in some areas, to create the suburbs of Northdale and Woodlands. It currently covers an area of some 2 000 ha, 1 500 ha of which is planted to Eucalyptus, wattle and pine.

The plantation was managed by NCT Tree Farming from 1988 up until 2017. Under NCT’s management the plantation achieved FSC certification, a globally recognised standard for sustainable forest management.

During this period the NCT team, working in conjunction with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, started clearing the riparian areas inside the plantation, and embarked on a programme of planting indigenous trees. A number of local schools participated in the tree planting efforts, and the Wildlands Trust donated over 20 000 trees to the initiative.

Photo taken in 2012: Forester Rajesh Ramsamy and Steve Germishuizen of the SANBI Grasslands Programme (now with SAFAS) view a clean riparian zone between compartments where indigenous trees have been re-introduced by NCT and the City Parks Department. This zone was previously planted up with commercial trees, the stumps of which are still visible.
Photo taken in 2023: This conservation area is overgrown with alien invasive plants, but many of the indigenous trees planted by NCT and the City Parks Department some 12 years ago are still surviving.

This served to create a beautiful, natural environment that attracts a variety of birds and animals, and also creates a canopy that discourages the growth of invasive alien vegetation, thus making future maintenance of these areas easier and cheaper.

Unfortunately these open areas inside the plantation are now choked with weeds after the years of neglect, but the good news is that many of the indigenous trees planted during NCT’s time have survived and are still visible in between the bugweed, lantana and American bramble.

Plantation audit
A report compiled by the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS) team in 2020 following an audit highlighted the poor state of the plantations. The audit yielded 13 major non-conformances with the SAFAS standard. “This represents a drastic failure in plantation management,” stated the Report’s author, Steve Germishuizen.

The audit highlighted irregularities in the contractual arrangements regarding the silviculture operations and timber harvesting that was taking place at the time; dangerously high risk for severe fires due to poor plantation management; roads in very poor condition and getting worse; inadequate control of timber theft and the management of illegal dumping; lack of a programme to control and eradicate listed invasive plant species in conservation corridors, wetlands and buffer zones; and harvested areas not being re-established.

“It is clear from the findings that the Msunduzi plantations are in a severely degraded state and urgent action is required before the costs of restoring them become prohibitive and the plantations become a threat rather than an asset to the city,” concluded the report.

Despite the fact that the city officials had requested the audit by SAFAS in the first place in the hopes of achieving PEFC certification, they failed to respond to the Report and the SAFAS team never heard from them again.

The fact that Safcol is now managing the plantation provides a glimmer of hope that it can be rehabilitated to the point where it can once again become a productive asset and a jewel in the crown that serves the city of Pietermaritzburg and its residents.

Photo taken in 2023: Bugweed flourishing inside the plantations.
Photo taken in 2023: Erosion ravaged plantation road.



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Gilbert Plant
Gilbert Plant
3 months ago

When NCT's contract to manage the City Forests was not renewed, unbelievably, an ACCOUNTING firm was taken on to manage the asset!! The degradation of the forests is a stark demonstration of municipal dereliction of duty. Hundreds of sustainable jobs could have been in place over the years, and desperately needed income generated.

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