Support services for more efficient forestry

April 30, 2011

The area of forestry land stretching from Commondale through Piet Retief to Amsterdam is one of the largest concentrated plantation areas in South Africa. It is farmed by both corporate and private farmers with some of the main products being hardwood, pulpwood, treated poles and sawtimber.

Environment Management Services owner Environment Management Services in the field
Graham Shand of EMS, providing a range of support services to timber growers. Graham Shand and Esau Hadebe busy with a soil survey.

The current trend in the industry, especially in the corporate sector, is to outsource many plantation services. However, progressive farmers have found that some of the services provided can also benefit them. In some instances, these services are essential for improving yields, reducing costs, maintaining FSC certification and just adhering to the law of the country. Foresters are also well aware that water licensing of plantations is regulatory and it is incumbent on all owners of land planting commercial forestry to have a water license.

A discussion with Graham Shand of EMS (Environmental Management Services) based in Piet Retief revealed that there are still a number of issues on which farmers and companies lack clarity. Forestry, as an extensive land-based operation, is difficult to manage without accurate resource data, the basic requirement being a map of the farm showing the compartments and related natural resource data.

With a wealth of conservation, farming and forestry experience, Shand started his business EMS in 2006 around the time that his brother Andrew Shand, a well- known forestry consultant, passed away. Graham and Andrew had often assisted each other in their business efforts and it was a natural progression for Graham to incorporate Andrew's business with his own. Graham acknowledges his brother's enormous contribution to forestry in the country.

Shand's area of work can be generally classified into forestry planning services such as GPS mapping, enumeration, valuation, delineation, FSC-related matters and other environmental and enviro-legal work.

In an industry that is subject to water license restrictions with specific requirements and complexities, EMS has developed the capability to assist land owners to apply for water licenses, be it for new afforestation, to legalise existing plantations planted pre-1972, or convert water licenses from agriculture to forestry and vice versa. It is noted that the time period for registration granted by government has expired, however, one may make a late registration and pay a fee.

Based on a due diligence process, which includes analysing historic and current data, a guidance and application service is provided for prospective buyers of farms, inheritors of property and those who have not yet registered their plantations with the Department of Water Affairs or have been identified by the authorities as being in contravention of water and environmental laws. This is going to become more critical in future as government applies the compulsory licensing process.

The implications are that if one does not have a valid license or are not registered then one doesn't qualify for a license. This means the plantation will be deemed illegal with related consequences. The compulsory licensing process has already commenced in the Mhlatuze Catchment, a clear sign that timber growers should make sure that they have the necessary paperwork in place to avoid costly implications.

Complying with the law
Infield work is required to gather plantation resource information, with the key element to collating the information (for a meaningful and application-based system) being GIS. Shand says: "Many people are clueless as to what a GIS actually is. What I have started doing is linking a complete database to the map. In essence creating a complete information and planning package." (Hence his terminology: Geo-spatial Information System or Geo-spatial Planning system).

"This can be run as a 'live' system based on any one of a number of mapping programmes (e.g. MapWindow), depending on the client's needs. It is linked dynamically to spreadsheets and graphs and is instantly and continually updateable either by the client or myself (should the farmer be technologically challenged!).

Each system can be individually designed and personalised according to the needs of the client and can be as involved or simple as required. The amount and type of information that can be stored and the answers derived from such a system are limited only by imagination. This is ultimately used to maximise financial viability of the enterprise. The above is not limited to forestry and can be applied in any form of land use."

A good map with relevant information is the basis of a number of positive business and sustainability decision-making processes. Accurate compartment areas, road distances and agricultural lands can save one considerable expense with regard to seedling purchases, fertiliser and herbicide orders and labour productivity per unit area. In the case of paying a silviculture contractor to perform services based on hectares, an accurate map is a must. In forecasting yields, income projections and buying standing timber, an accurate map gives one the confidence that one is not over-paying or under-recovering.

Avoiding over-insurance
Many properties are either under- or over-insured due to incomplete maps/data. Both scenarios cost. If a landowner is over-insured then he is probably paying too much in premiums. If under-insured then the landowner could lose heavily in case of fire as the insurance company will only pay out to the value of actual cover. Accurate mapping together with yield estimates are the only way to avoid this. EMS also provides a fire damage valuation service.

In addition to physical features, one can also map soils data and any other spatial data, in order to effectively link site to tree species for optimising growth potential. In the same way, one can upload wetland delineation data and any other environmental or geographic data and ensure that future tree plantings will avoid wetlands or other sensitive areas.

EMS carries out this type of mapping using Trimble Pro XR and XRS GPS's linked to TSC1 data loggers, with the ability to achieve sub 0,5 m accuracy. The two operators that have been trained in this regard are Mbuthi Dlamini and Mlungisi Hlatshwayo. They are a team that operates under the capable supervision of Esau Hadebe.

Once the data is downloaded, it is differentially corrected through Pathfinder office software and then imported into ARC GIS for the purposes of building a map. Various layers can be established for business-related decision-making. The layers are also overlaid over geo-referenced aerial photography to ensure data integrity. These layers can then be exported in a format that the landowner himself will be able to utilise in an interactive map system. In other words, he will be able to change and query data and interactively manage and print his own maps according to his requirements.

Another component needed by plantation management is the volumes of timber being grown. The EMS team is trained in enumeration work to verify standing volumes for timber purchases, compartment volumes for annual harvesting planning and to determine volumes for insurance purposes. Most of the enumeration work is based on a 3-5% sampling rate carried out by placing out random circular plots that are then enumerated. A number of height pairs and diameters are measured as a representative sample. This information is then given to the client as raw data or where required, processed to provide volumes. Various instruments are required for this purpose, hypsometers, compasses, measuring tapes, distance meters and radios. Specialised software to process the inputs was developed by Shand's brother and is utilised for making the calculations and outputs.

Wetland delineation
An area of specialisation which EMS has developed over the years is that of wetland delineation. Shand has a keen interest in soils. He also has many years of experience in the southern Mpumalanga area carrying out delineation on behalf of landowners. He estimates that he has carried out 3 000 km of work in this regard, auguring soils along potential wetland zones, analysing and mapping them. This work is carried out based on the forestry industry's commitment to sustainable timber production and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) principles. Not all landowners are necessarily aware of the importance of this process from a certification point of view. When compulsory licensing is applied, the landowner is obliged to provide a water management plan for property with timber, including wetland delineation.

EMS carries out other environmental and GIS work linked to coal mining companies in the area. EMS also participates in the catchment management forum. It is conveniently located close to Swaziland to provide mapping and other linked services such as brokering lease agreements. Another project that Shand engaged with was a preliminary map for the district municipal area indicating properties under land claim. He says that the map needs refining and would add significant value to stakeholders within the area, in order to gauge issues related to support, fire risk and socio-economic potential. As yet, there has been no funder to complete this work. Shand is keen to compile a full set of maps for the area showing all land use and related activities. This would include such issues as water, fire control and planning, emergency services and developmental and socio-economic activities.

The role of an independent third party working with timber buyers, dealing with issues arising through licensing and fire insurance, dealing with land claimaints etc. has been established as an emerging practice in the industry, especially in avoiding conflict of interest scenarios. With relatively low overheads and the flexibility of a small business, this type of small enterprise is well placed to provide cost effective services and support in the agroforestry industry.

Published in April 2011

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