Forestry projects taking off in Eastern Cape

November 5, 2012

The announcement by government a few years ago that it was targeting 100 000 ha of new afforestation in the Eastern Cape was greeted with scepticism from many in the industry who believed it would never happen given the poor infrastructure, lack of funds and a mountain of red tape. But now things are starting to happen, and trees are going into the ground.

khoarai coop
Members of the Khoarai co-op, part of the Mabenyeng forestry project near Matatiele, weed around their young eucalyptus trees.
khoarai village
A view over the Khoarai village with young saplings in the foreground. The snow-capped Drakensberg mountains are visible in the distance.


This signals a seismic shift for remote communities that up until now have practiced survival agriculture and have relied on money sent back home from migrant labourers working in mines, factories and offices in far-away cities.

The driving force behind a number of community-owned forestry projects in the Eastern Cape is Sappi, whose chemical cellulose mill at Umkomaas requires a constantly expanding supply of timber. Sappi has deployed a team of development-focused foresters in the Pondoland area of Eastern Cape to engage and partner with communities keen to revitalise existing plantations or establish new plantations.

Sappi's Hugo Pienaar said the company is targeting 30 000 ha expansion in the Eastern Cape. These include small grower projects, although the focus is on larger community projects involving tripartite agreements between Sappi, community trusts or co-ops and the Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development. Hugo said that Sappi would provide mentoring and facilitate development so that communities should be in a position to manage their own forestry business in five to 10 years.

Allen Mhatu, Sappi's Forestry Manager in the Eastern Cape, says there are afforestation projects for a total of 6 400 ha currently at the EIA stage, while communities have agreed to afforestation projects representing a further 4 500 ha.

He said the DTI has come on board to fund the EIAs, which has cleared the way for the processing of water use licenses and planting permits.

Pelepele project

One of the flagship small grower projects in the Eastern Cape is Pelepele, near Bizana. There are 67 growers who planted a total of 77 ha in 2000 with help from Sappi's Project Grow. This project has recently come to fruition with the first harvest taking place this year, resulting in a R1,3 m in profit being paid out to growers.

Members of the nearby Inyaka community are involved in a similar project, and have started harvesting their trees.

Mabenyeng afforestation project

The Mabenyeng community lives in a string of rural villages situated between Matatiele and the southern Drakensberg mountains. In 2001, project founder Lentsoe Gidwell Thene, a Mabenyeng community member who works for Liberty Life in Johannesburg, approached Sappi for help in establishing a community plantation. In 2005, the community applied for planting permits for 881 ha which were approved in 2009, and in 2010, they started planting E. nitens. To date, they have planted up 593 ha on the rolling hills around the villages. They have applied for permits to plant a further
1 500 ha.

Lentsoe explained that the extended community comprises some 67 villages, but not all of them wanted to be involved in the forestry project. Those that were organised themselves into village co-ops, each of which plant and tend their own trees, which are planted in blocks. There is no other forestry in the vicinity, so this is the first time that the community has been exposed to the industry. There are 19 villages involved in the project.

Sappi helped with the licensing process, provided free seedlings as well as technical expertise, mentoring, administrative support and training. They also obtained soft loans from Sappi which enable them to pay themselves for on-going establishment and maintenance work.

SA Forestry magazine recently visited the Khoarai co-op, whose six members were busy hoeing around their trees to keep the weeds and grass from competing with the saplings which they planted last summer. They were wrapped up against the cold wind blowing down from the snow-capped Drakensberg mountains, but were extremely positive and up-beat about their forestry venture. Their block covers 26 ha.

Right across the dirt road is another 46 ha block belonging to the Likhetlanye co-op, which has 11 members. A wide firebreak surrounds the plantations to protect it from wildfires.

Sappi's foresters in the area are Norman Dlamini and Wongeka Kutshwa, who liaise regularly with the community's forestry committee and keep an eye on the forestry operations. Kutshwa said that the co-op members were keen to expand their plantations as soon as the planting permits are approved.

Sinawo and Mkambati Projects

Both these projects were facilitated by the former AsgiSA Eastern Cape, now the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency. During the process, Sappi was introduced to these communities as a potential strategic partner. Sappi has now developed a working relationship with both these communities and the projects are beginning to flourish.

The Sinawo project, situated about 15 kms from Port Edward, comprises 10 000 ha claimed by the community and now owned by a Community Property Association. The old Transkei Agriculture Corporation established 1 300 ha of mostly eucalyptus plantations on the land over 20 years ago. Sappi has now partnered with the Sinawo CPA to help them get the plantations back into shape. They started clearfelling old E. grandis coppiced compartments just over a year ago and are re-establishing with E. dunnii.

Further south, close to Port St Johns, is another land restitution project. The land claim was for a total of 17 000 ha, which has been transferred to the Mkambati Land Trust representing seven communities and comprising more than 5 000 households. The land claim includes the 6 000 ha Mkambati Nature Reserve and some 650 ha of existing plantations established by the former Transkei Government.

Sappi is busy helping the community to clean up the neglected compartments, some of which are being clearfelled and re-established from scratch. Sappi's forester in the region is Kevin Nxosi, who supports the Mkambati and Sinawo communities. The road between Mkambati and the N2 at Port Edward is long and tortuous, but there is an expectation that the planned N2 extension will shorten the distance considerably.

Lentsoe Gidwell Thene (centre) with local villagers Sthembiso Gqwabaza (right) and Mxolisi Manginingini.
khoarai coop
The Khoarai co-op forestry members in their plantation.
gidwell and kutsha stakeholders
Lentsoe Gidwell Thene, founder of the Mabenyeng project, with Sappi forester Wongeka Kutshwa. The stakeholders of the Mkambati project, Eastern Cape.


Published in August 2012

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