SA’s biggest land reform forestry project

December 18, 2012

Some 19000 ha of state forest situated on either side of Lake Sibaya in northern KwaZulu-Natal is set to be transferred to three communities in the single biggest land reform project in the history of the South African forestry industry.

small grower maput
Nesta Mbonambi is a small grower being assisted by Sappi's Project Grow. This is the third rotation on her five ha plot, which is part of a small grower block of timber established with help from Sappi. The money she earns from her plantation at harvest time provides her with a useful cash windfall that she can use to improve her life.

timber biz

Harvesting operation at the Manzengwenya plantation. The timber is sold to Sappi in terms of a supply agreement until 2018. Small grower timber being sold at a yard in Manguzi, near the Mozambique border.


This project represents a gigantic opportunity for the Tembe, Mbila and Mabaso traditional councils to establish a significant forestry business, which they plan to use to kickstart local economic development in a region where there is very little economic activity besides forestry.

The Mbazwana and Manzengwenya plantations are situated on either side of Lake Sibaya in Maputaland. These plantations were established by the then KwaZulu Department of Forestry in the 1960s, planted mainly to pine. However the pine did not do well and most of the areas were subsequently re-established to gum, mainly Eucalyptus grandis.

The land is owned by the Ngonyama Trust, and is leased by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), which owns the trees. A community forestry agreement will be entered into between the State and the community, allowing them access to the resources and to engage in a forestry business.

The traditional councils of the three communities have formed a joint trust, known as the Tembe Mbila Mabaso Trust (TMM Trust), which has been negotiating with government for almost 10 years in a bid to take over the Mbazwana-Manzengwenya plantation lease.

Russel Tembe, who is leading the negotiations with DAFF on behalf of the TMM Trust, believes the transfer of the plantations will take place soon. He says the Trust has a good relationship with Minister Tina Joemat-Petterson, who is supportive of the project. The Trust's legal representative, Mandla Ntuli, says the transfer of the plantation to the TMM Trust could take place by the end of this year.

Sappi currently has a supply agreement with DAFF for the timber being harvested from the Mbazwana-Manzengwenya plantations until 2018. Russel told SA Forestry that the Trust would honour that agreement, but that they want to retain a portion of the timber to provide the raw material for their own community businesses, such as pole treatment plants and bush sawmills. He said that The Trust would allocate the profits generated by the forestry to the Tembe, Mbila and Mabaso traditional councils who would use them to fund development projects for each community according to their needs. He said that the Tembe's had prioritised education as a key to uplifting their community.

The Trust would also look at establishing co-operatives to establish forestry-linked businesses like ground-nut growing, peanut butter processing and honey production.

The Tembe, Mbila and Mabaso communities that stand to benefit from the forestry project total 30 000 households, or approximately 163 000 individuals. This is one of the poorest regions in KwaZulu-Natal with soaring unemployment.

Russel said that forestry was the only economic activity in the region that had proved to be an effective means of generating income and jobs for the local people. He said there had been lots of talk about opportunities in tourism and agriculture, but nothing was happening in these sectors.

Thus the Mbazwana-Manzengwenya plantation represents the most realistic opportunity that the community has to spark economic development in their region.

According to independent forestry consultant, Rory Mack, who undertook a review of the plantations just over a year ago, the Trust will need a massive injection of capital in order to restore the plantations to an acceptable level of productivity. He said that the plantations have fallen into a state of disarray with 60% of the total area temporarily unplanted. The only way forward would be to clear fell and re-establish from scratch, using improved planting material better suited to the prevailing conditions.

A recent visit by SA Forestry to the Mbazwana and Manzengwenya plantations confirmed Rory's assessment. I saw sections of the plantation that have been ravaged by fires, and others where uncontrolled coppicing has taken place. Some of the compartments look like little more than gum jungles. A harvesting team was busy harvesting timber in one compartment that looked pretty good, with decent sized timber coming out. Another compartment has recently been re-established but is overrun with grass and weeds – it looks like a fruitless operation. The forestry field office is run-down and the overall impression is that this is a plantation operating on a shoe-string. For every year that goes by under the current arrangement in which the plantations are effectively 'in limbo', the money needed to rehabilitate it would escalate exponentially.

The TMMDT has been in discussion with government agencies in an effort to mobilise the capital that will be needed to rehabilitate the plantations, estimated to be around R350 million. Without this capital injection, the project would be doomed to failure.

Small growers

Forestry is not new to the Tembe, Mbila and Mabaso communities. Many of them have been growing small blocks of timber for 15 years or so with assistance from Sappi and Mondi's small grower programmes. The region stretches from Sodwana Bay in the south to the Mozambique border in the north, and is bounded on the east by the Isimangaliso Wetland Park Marine Reserve.

Sappi's Project Grow is actively involved with almost half of the small growers. Local forestry company Awethu Forestry Investment (AFI) is supporting independent growers through timber marketing linkages with, amongst others, Khulanathi, a business set up by Mondi Zimele. AFI is also investigating alternative support initiatives for the benefit of the small scale grower community.

Most of the small grower plantations in this area are in their second or third rotation and are fully operational. Sappi's policy was to establish a minimum of five hectares for each grower, as this would provide a meaningful cash injection for the owner when the trees are harvested. Many of these five-hectare stands have been planted adjacent to each other in blocks and are currently well maintained. Sappi provides support to the growers who are part of the Project Grow programme by supplying free seedlings, technical advice as well as assistance with harvesting and transport. The growers have access to interest-free loans to enable them to work in their plantations. These loans are repaid when the timber is sold to Sappi at market-related prices.

Dozens of small timber contracting and transport businesses have sprung up around these plantations, creating a pool of forestry entrepreneurs who have learnt how to survive in this remote environment.

Thus the total area under forestry in the Maputaland region is close to 28 000 ha, made up of the Mbazwana and Manzengwenya plantations and the small grower plots.

Efforts to obtain water licenses to plant more land to forestry over the past decade have been fruitless. A special committee has been set up by the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) to investigate the availability of water in the catchment to support afforestation. The results of the water study will be available in 2013, and the stakeholders will then be in a position to make a decision on the way forward.

The land is flat with reasonable soils and varied rainfall, and appears to be well suited to forestry. However the 200 to 250 km lead distance to the Richards Bay mills adds considerably to the cost of delivered timber.

Russel Tembe, who has 150 ha under forestry in his own right, says that he is optimistic that a means will be found to enable the small growers to expand their plantations legally.

He says he is aware that plantations use up water, but this is the only economic activity that the community has to enable them to survive.

Tapping the sap from a lala palm to make palm wine is one of the ways local people scrape together a living in Maputaland.

burnt timber

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2 years ago

Let's revive the microeconomy of this beautiful blessed area. I have new ideas

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