Small growers planning for bigger things

May 6, 2013

The contribution of small growers to the forestry industry is often under-estimated. Most of them have small patches of commercial plantations, ranging in size from one ha or less to several ha, which they maintain with hand tools only. The money they earn from selling their timber provides them with a much-needed cash windfall once every eight years or so (depending on species). In between harvests, they may get a bit of timber from thinnings or coppice reduction for use as building poles, fencing posts and firewood.

women port d
Busi Mnguni (centre) with Nakeni Mkwanazi (left) and Zethu Mkwanazi are part of a group of women who grow trees in Port Durnford, and want to acquire a bigger, commercial plantation.

 

Yet between them the small growers contribute significant tonnages of fibre every year, and their potential to increase production levels is enormous. There are an estimated 20 000 small growers in KwaZulu-Natal province alone.

The cash income that most individual small growers get from timber is thus not sufficient to live on, but the cash windfall that comes in at harvest time is hugely important because it enables the grower to pay off a debt, pay for children's education or other essentials. For many small growers, the income from selling timber is the only source of cash income, besides a bit of cash they may earn from selling crafts or surplus vegetables from their gardens.

Surprisingly, a high percentage of the small growers operating in South Africa are women who are juggling their domestic responsibilities with a little vegetable farming and timber growing. Unlike growing vegetables, farming timber is heavy work but the rural women who engage in it are more than up for the challenge. Many of them are the sole breadwinners in their households.

SA Forestry magazine recently visited three feisty women growing timber in the Port Durnford area of Zululand. The only road to Port Durnford is littered with deep potholes and is in such poor shape that it is a disgrace. Whoever is responsible for maintaining roads here has little regard for this poor rural community. By comparison, the roads serving the surrounding farms, plantations and towns are like super highways.

But despite the condition of the roads, the women are upbeat and determined to take their timber growing activities to a higher level.

Busi Mnguni is the spokesperson for the local timber farmers, as she is chairperson of the uThungulu Small Growers Association. She manages her own small plantation of around two ha, and sells timber to Mondi's Richards Bay mill. She works tirelessly for her community and interacts with Forestry South Africa, DAFF and the local municipality on their behalf, mostly at her own expense. Her aim is to get support for local timber growers, and to develop markets for their craftmaking activities.

Nakeni Mkwanazi is a no-nonsense woman and mother of seven who has planted around 6.5 ha of gum on her own. Her plantation is planted in two blocks a few hundred metres apart and is one of the best in the district. The trees will be ready to harvest in a year or so, and she plans to do all her own harvesting. She will use local transport to get her timber to NCT's woodchip facility in Richards Bay.

A big concern in this part of the world is fire, with patches of commercial timber interspersed with homesteads, vegetable gardens and grazing land. There are no strategic firebreaks around here, and a recent fire stopped just a few metres short of Nakeni's plantation. She knows she is going to have to defend it resolutely during the upcoming fire season, and has done a good job of clearing the brush that had accumulated under the canopy to reduce the fuel load.

Zethu Mkwanazi is another woman small grower living close by Nakeni and Busi. She has just one ha of gums, which has coppiced once and looks to be in need of some attention.

All three of the women said that their children were not very keen to work in the plantations and so they have to hire labour from the local community. Many of the people have worked in forestry at some time or another, so their experience is invaluable to the small growers.

One of the problems in this and other small grower areas is that there are a lot of abandoned patches of timber which quickly become fire hazards and are invaded by noxious weeds. These abandoned plots are the result of poor succession planning, and are an indication of the younger generation's lack of interest in forestry and rural lifestyles. Once abandoned, these plots don't just become unproductive – they become counter-productive. It's easier to establish a new plantation than to re-establish an abandoned plantation.

Busi is convinced that the women growers in her area like Nakeni and Zethu have the capability to run a bigger, commercial plantation. She has got together with a group of 10 women and they are busy negotiating with DAFF and the Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs to find a suitable plantation, and to find the necessary funding to buy it and start a proper forestry business.

Considering how these women run their own small plantations with limited resources, little support and barely usable infrastructure, I am convinced that they deserve to be taken seriously and that they get an opportunity to operate on a bigger scale.

Published in April 2013

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