Forestry past, present and future

The International Day of Forests 2021 will be celebrated around the world on 19 March. The theme for 2021 is ‘Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being’.

Participating countries are encouraged to undertake local, national and international efforts to organize activities involving forests and trees, such as tree planting campaigns. The aim of this event is to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests.

In South Africa we have around 400 000 ha of closed canopy natural forests, the biggest concentration being located in the Southern Cape around Knysna and Tsitsikamma. In addition there are patches of natural forest scattered across the wetter regions of South Africa (above 525 mm annual rainfall) - especially on moist, south-facing slopes – on private, state and communal land.

These natural forests were heavily logged by the early settlers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to provide timber for railway sleepers, construction, furniture and farm tools and implements etc. Uncontrolled exploitation of the natural forests was gradually reined in from the 1880s as authorities realised that the natural forest timber resources in South Africa were limited.

This ultimately led to the development of plantation forestry in SA, utilising fast growing exotic trees mainly Pinus, Eucalyptus and Acacia species. These plantations, now covering 1.2 million hectares, provide the timber and fibre requirements of the country, taking the pressure off the indigenous forests which are now protected in terms of Section 7 of the National Forests Act.

All the forest types present in South Africa have an important role to play in sustaining and conserving life on the southern tip of Africa:-

Natural forests: protect biodiversity and soils, provide a carbon sink to combat climate change, clean and purify water and air, provide a refuge for an array of plants, animals and insects, provide timber, plant medicine and wild food, provide aesthetic value boosting tourism and creating opportunities for wilderness adventure activities. Logging of natural forests does occur on a small scale in certain specified areas under strict management protocols that target dead or dying trees and minimize disturbance of the sensitive forest environment.

Plantations: provide timber and fibre raw materials for a vast array of useful products from structural timber used in building to poles, fuelwood, charcoal, mining supports, paper, packaging, fabric and various materials used in industrial processes. Plantations create jobs and generate foreign exchange through chip and pulp exports. Many industrial timber plantation have natural forest patches within their estates, which are conserved and protected, and are not logged. Plantations have in most cases replaced natural grassland and therefore do have an impact on the environment. However good management can mitigate the impacts, and forest certification systems like FSC and PEFC are utilised to assure consumers that forests are responsibly and sustainably managed.

Woodlands: these are natural landscapes dominated by trees that have open spaces in between allowing sunlight through, and are differentiated from forests in that they do not create a closed canopy. These woodlands provide a range of environmental services like soil protection against erosion, carbon sequestration, create a habitat for insects, plants and animals plus providing fuelwood and building wood for local communities.

Urban forests: Take a look at Pretoria, Cape Town or Johannesburg from above, and often all you can see is trees. These urban forests play a huge role in making cities and urban areas more pleasant places to live and work in. They beautify the landscape, provide shade and cool the temperature, bind the soil and provide habitat for plants, insects and animals.

Fruit, nuts, natural medicines and essential oils: we haven’t even mentioned the contribution of trees – both cultivated and natural – that produce fruit, nuts, medicines and essential oils. These are mostly grown commercially and provide the raw materials for diverse economic sectors. Avocados, apples, pears, grapes, macadamia and pecan nuts, tea tree … the list is endless. These trees are often grown in combination with crops in agro-forestry systems, or in communal areas by subsistence farmers who rely on them to provide food security and supplement their income.

Alien jungles: these are exotic trees (primarily wattle, gum, pine and bugweed) that are spreading uncontrolled and unmanaged around southern Africa at a terrifying rate. They are replacing indigenous species and using up precious water resources, reducing biodiversity and creating a fire hazard. The reason why they are able to out-compete indigenous species is because they evolved elsewhere and therefore have no natural biological enemies that would help to control their spread. There are numerous alien tree clearing projects on the go in SA, like Working for Water, some of which are utilising the wood from these invaders to make charcoal or chipped as a mulch to be used in agriculture. Clearing alien invasives is a costly exercise requiring years of follow-up operations.

Guardians of the Earth

If you think about it, forestry was the original industry upon which the world as we know it was built. In between us humans fell in love with concrete, oil and plastic, but now we’ve woken up to the fact that wood fibre is a superior material that can fulfil many of the same functions – and it is renewable, sustainable and organic. It does not pollute. All it needs to grow is sunlight, water and soil. Trees are the Guardians of the Earth, and forestry – as we are beginning to realise - is the industry of the future.

So get out there and plant a tree to mark the International Day of Forests. Watch the video here ….

Related article: First PEFC endorsed certification in South Africa

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