Uses and management of natural forest wood in the Wild Coast

April 30, 2010

Many people think that natural forests along the Wild Coast in the Port St Johns area are getting lost, but what is their real status? Sizwe Cawe from the Walter Sisulu University in Umtata and I visited one household and adjacent forest in 12 natural forest/village complexes in three forest management units around Port St Johns. We assessed what people use from the forests and why, how they impact on the harvested species and forests, and whether the forests can provide for those needs, sustainably.

by Coert Geldenhuys, forest ecologist

Wildcoast, SA natural forests Changes in building style and use of wood (above and middle). Recording the collected firewood piles, poles and laths used in construction of the traditional hut.


A household covered the houses, the home garden and the livestock enclosures of one family. The main uses were construction material (poles) and firewood.

Our study showed important shifts in building style, away from the traditional thatched roof round mud-and-pole huts, which resulted in changes in resource use: 16 houses with thatched roofs, 21 with corrugated iron roofs; 19 round huts and 21 square houses; and 25 built with poles, laths and mud, and 15 with bricks.

The traditional houses consume a lot of wood, including poles and laths for construction and firewood for cooking, warmth and social gatherings.

They used 30 species in house construction and 24 species in fence construction, mainly Umzimbeet (Millettia grandis), Sneezewood (Ptaeroxylon obliquum) and 12 other species which included aliens such as eucalypts, pines and ink berry (Cestrum laevigatum).

For firewood they used 26 species but the main species were Sweet thorn (Acacia karroo) and Dalbergia sp but also Umzimbeet, Sneezewood, eucalypts, ink berry and three other species.

Poles and laths were harvested from 56 tree and shrub species, mainly for hut construction, fences or craftwork, but the species were also used for food and traditional medicine. Umzimbeet was the most intensively harvested (20% of all stems cut). Sneezewood and 19 other species had five or more stems harvested along the short forest walks. Most stumps were less than 20 cm diameter, but much larger trees of Umzimbeet and Sneezewood were cut. Debarking (21 species) is mostly for medicine, but Umzimbeet and Dalbergia bark is also used for fibre. Most cut stumps were old except for two species (Teclea natalensis and Brachylaena discolor), but several other species, including Umzimbeet and Sneezewood, are still being harvested.

Forest condition was reasonably good in four forests but poor in the other eight forests, but all were recovering. Some species regenerate better in intact forest, but several species require more open conditions for good regeneration (from seed and through coppicing). Generally, there are many smaller stems but a sharp decline in numbers of larger trees (regenerating over-utilised forests).

The most used species, Umzimbeet and Sneezewood, are clearly more light-demanding and are favoured by the degraded condition of many forests. Umzimbeet was present in all 12 forests with abundant regeneration (seedlings, saplings and poles) on the forest margin and in old forest gaps, but mostly absent in closed canopy forest. Sneezewood was present only in some forests with abundant regeneration in the proximity of larger trees, but only outside the forest margin, in forest gaps, in parts of degraded forests, and even under eucalypt belts along the forest margin.

The abundant regeneration of both species suggests no need for special planting programmes; just regeneration management to provide for the resource use needs.

Most species respond through coppice regrowth, but their rate of regrowth varies. Umzimbeet and Sneezewood, and also Forest bushwillow (Combretum kraussii), coppiced vigorously in gaps, severely degraded forest and open areas and mere cutting is unlikely to eliminate them from the forests.

A coppice management system, to be developed in collaboration with local resource users, is a potential approach to ensure regular harvesting of laths and poles as well as survival of the species. Selective thinning of stems on cut stumps can initially provide laths, later small poles, and eventually trees.

Invasive alien plants are present in variable density in many forests, particularly those that were partially cleared during the early 1990s, but also in large gaps. Some provide useful substitute resources. The alien invaders, particularly bugweed, guava, black wattle and ink berry, also facilitate recovery of the forests (see SA Forestry magazine May-June 2006) and several species targeted for use. The local Working for Water programmes need to consider this very carefully in their alien clearing activities.

The question is how to manage the natural forests and their targeted species? Firstly, integrated management between natural forest resource use, plantation management, agricultural development, and provision of services that impact on daily livelihoods (housing, electricity, etc) is essential. Planted belts and commercial stands of alien tree species already substitute some of the timber and small poles that would otherwise be cut from the forests, and they nurse regeneration of forest species. Poor agricultural extension services lead to clearing of mature forest but abundant regeneration of Sweet thorn in abandoned agricultural fields. Provision of affordable electricity and more durable and affordable construction materials would reduce pressure on the forests for poles and laths, but need to take into account rural traditions and cultures.

Secondly, different approaches to alien plant control are needed, particularly for those aliens with good local use and nursing abilities. Such systems need to be applied with discretion to ensure that resource use pressure will not be turned back onto the natural forests.

Thirdly, the natural regeneration of intensively used target species, either from seed or coppices, need to be managed as alternative resources, particularly along the forest margin and in forest clearings, in close collaboration with specific user groups.

In conclusion, we need a different mindset to assist local resource users to develop alternative resource use strategies; to understand the interactive nature between different forest development stages; and to take a much more integrated approach to development, forestry, agriculture, and nature conservation.

Published in April 2010

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