Forestry at the core of flagship Umgano project

February 27, 2012

The Umgano project is a shining example of how commercial forestry can provide a launch pad for sustainable development, setting a poor rural community on a development trajectory that has the potential to transform the lives of many.

Southern KZN forestry project
Umgano project community forestry Traditional leaders involved in Umgano project
Revenue from forestry is being ploughed back into the community trust to kickstart further projects. Traditional leaders from KZN and Eastern Cape meet with iNkosi Baleni (extreme right) to find out more about the Mabandla forestry project.
Mabandla Community Trust chairman Umgano Project key players
Mabandla Community Trust chairman Mayford Jaca with community members employed to work on the landcare programme. Key players in the Umgano Project (left to right) Bill Bainbridge, Mayford Jaca, Peter Nixon and Johannes Gcwelu.


In an out-of-the-way corner of southern KwaZulu-Natal, there is a rural community that is proving that it is not only possible to establish an afforestation project from scratch, but also to use it as a platform for further development that will create jobs and protect the environment in the process. This has been achieved with relatively little money, good leadership, discipline, hard work and sound mentorship and advice.

"We have turned a grant of R11 million and a loan of R2 million into a sustainable income of R10 million a year, and this is just the beginning," said Peter Nixon of Rural Forest Management, who is one of several key figures in this remarkable story that proves that South Africans can actually work together. But Peter is not one for taking the credit, and points to the leadership and vision of the local inkosi as being pivotal to the success of the project.

The story began some 16 years ago when foresters Peter Nixon and Themba Radebe, then employed by Mondi, were scouting for suitable land to establish plantations in what was then Transkei. The lower slopes of Umgano mountain looked promising, so they arranged a meeting with the traditional leadership of the local Mabandla community. At that meeting, Nkosi Sidoi expressed keen interest and went on to play a leading role in mobilising community support and commitment around the project. His successor, Nkosi Baleni, has continued in that role, their leadership providing the glue that binds the community – and the project – together.

After Mondi withdrew from the project, Peter and Themba went out on their own to continue the work they had begun, and established Rural Forest Management cc for that purpose. They eventually raised R11 million through a 'Subsistence Land Acquisition Grant' from government on behalf of the community. A total of 3 200 Mabandla households committed to the project (some 80% of the community) and signed over their shares of the grant to the newly established Mabandla Community Trust (MCT). This required a massive leap of faith, especially considering the long-term nature of forestry projects meant that the returns on their investment would only begin to be realised 10 years into the future.

After a four-year struggle to secure planting permits from government, and with no previous forestry experience, the Trust successfully established 880 ha of gum and 440 ha of pine on the hills above the Mabandla village. Rural Forest Management provided technical expertise and, crucially, management expertise, coaching and mentoring. The Land Bank subsequently came to the party with a R2 million low interest loan, and the IDC provided an additional loan to help them purchase equipment.

They started their first harvest in 2008, and are currently harvesting 90 to 100 ha a year and supplying the Sappi Saiccor mill in Umkomaas. The forestry project provides 94 full-time jobs and 30 part-time jobs, and generated R10 million in revenue in 2010.

Prior to forestry, the only employment options for Mabandla community members was to sell their labour in faraway towns and cities as part of the infamous migrant labour system.

The forestry project has now reached the point where the community Trust, under the watchful eye of Trust Chairperson Mayford Jaca, is taking increasing responsibility for running the business. The Trust is responsible for the administration of the 7 000 ha under its management. It receives income via a rental fee of R12 per hectare, providing the Trust with an annual income of R120 000.

The RFM team will gradually phase out their involvement – this was always part of the plan. The Land Bank loan will be fully paid off in two years time and the project will be debt-free.

The Mabandla plantation is in rotation, and FSC certification has provided a measure of market security. The distance to the mill is far and so transport constitutes a large chunk of their expenses. This year, a Mabandla community member, sponsored by the Trust, is completing his forestry studies at Saasveld, and will soon join the business. Another two community youngsters will be selected to commence forestry studies to ensure a constant supply of expertise coming into the business in the years ahead.

The decision to plant pine under a sawlog rotation was a good one, as it will create an additional resource to generate more jobs and more revenue. Plans are in the pipeline to establish a small sawmill in partnership with an experienced sawmiller when the trees reach felling age.

But like Peter said, this is only the beginning. The initial project has expanded to include a groundbreaking conservation initiative, an eco-tourism project, a cattle farming project and an HIV/Aids clinic. It is now known collectively as the Umgano Project.

Conservation initiative

When the RFM team was busy obtaining a planting permit for the Mabandla forestry project, Peter Nixon commissioned renowned conservationist Bill Bainbridge to conduct the EIA. On visiting the site, Bill realised the astonishing natural biodiversity in the grasslands and patches of natural forest, and subsequent studies confirmed it. Bill calls it a 'biodiversity hotspot of international importance'.

So began a process of developing a groundbreaking conservation and development initiative, under the umbrella of the Umgano Project, utilising the community structures established for the forestry project.

The Umgano Project is an initiative of the Mabandla Traditional Council, initially under the leadership of Nkosi Sidoi, but now under his successor, Nkosi Baleni.

The project area covers 7 000 ha, located in the Umzimkhulu Municipality between Coleford and Ntsikeni Nature Reserves. Most of the area is state land on lease to the community; the balance is communal land.

The project area includes three primary zones: a commercial afforestation zone (1 500 ha), a conservation zone (1 500 ha) that includes natural forest, grasslands and wetlands, and a livestock management zone. The project area is administered for the Mabandla Traditional Council by the Mabandla Community Trust, a wholly-owned legal entity of the community, and its management company. This structure makes it possible for the Mabandla community to access government funding and commercial loans for the purposes of entering into a range of business opportunities. Importantly, it also facilitates the equitable distribution of benefits.

The Mabandla community, comprising 20 000 people, was part of the Eastern Cape but was recently transferred to KwaZulu-Natal. Since the transfer, the community has received considerable support from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which is now one of its key partners, the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development (DAEARD) and the Umzimkhulu Municipality.

Support from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife included the provision of five weeks of intensive training for five field rangers, who are currently employed by the forestry company to patrol the project area and look after the timber and the biodiversity. They are currently receiving training and mentoring in bird and plant identification.

The project mission is to manage and conserve the project area for the benefit of the people of Mabandla through the promotion of sustainable land uses in order to provide a sustained flow of business and employment opportunities, ecosystem services and other benefits from within and beyond its boundaries.

DEARD has provided significant funding for fencing, control of invasive alien species, erosion control and for the establishment of commercial pecan orchards along the Ngwangwana river.

Following a biodiversity assessment, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife invited the Mabandla community to become members of its Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. This partnership brings a range of support, including expertise and funding. The Conservation Zone has been earmarked for formal Nature Reserve status, and the SANBI Grasslands Programme is also on board.

The commercial plantation is playing a pivotal role in the project, providing a platform for the community to build capacity to pursue business opportunities, creating employment and generating income. The plantation is FSC-certified and managed responsibly in accordance with accepted management principles.

The Mabandla experience

The Mabandla Trust has partnered with African Insight to set up a cultural tourism project to bring groups of young people to Mabandla to experience the culture and hospitality of rural South Africa. The tourist groups, aged between 14 and 25 years of age, stay with Mabandla households for four nights and must undertake a community project. They get to experience life in a rural village without modern conveniences like electricity and flushing toilets. The Mabandla Community Trust provides training to the Mabandla families who host two young people at a time and are paid R1 400 per visit. Every year, new host families are trained to participate in the project so that the benefits are spread around fairly.

The cattle project

The MCT has established a Livestock Association that aims to set up a Nguni livestock business. Chairman of the association is Johannes Gcwelu, who says that in the past, the community's cattle were regularly stolen and chased off their land as it was unfenced and uncontrolled.

He says that community members will receive shares in the cattle business based on the number of cattle they donate to the project. These cattle will be managed within fenced areas and used to generate income and breed pure Nguni cattle.

The DEARD has already assisted with funds for fencing, and Johannes says the department has agreed to supply pure Nguni bulls.

"Within four generations, we will have a pure bred Nguni herd. These cattle will fetch much higher prices than the cattle we have now," he said.

The carrying capacity of the land is between 500 to 600 head. The cattle contributors will be shareholders in the business, which will pay a rental to the Trust for use of their lands. The benefits of the initiatives are already being felt within the community. The forestry project provides 94 full-time and 30 part-time jobs, while the conservation projects support another 70 part-time jobs. The project has also made it possible to establish an HIV/Aids clinic at Mabandla.

Studies have found that household incomes in Mabandla are significantly higher than those in surrounding communities. However, there are still some serious challenges. One third of the households are still living below the poverty line, and the rising expectations of the community will require careful management.

The Umgano project is regarded as a model for sustainable development, and regularly receives visits from other communities interested in following a similar path.

Published in December 2011

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