New policy restricts development in natural forests

December 31, 2010

The National Forests Act of 1998 protects all natural forests, and no forest trees may be cut without a license. This Act also states that forests may not be destroyed, save in exceptional circumstances.

by Izak van der Merwe, DAFF

New forest policy in South Africa New policy restricts development in natural forests

Left: A cottage built illegally in a natural forest. Right: Natural forest cut down illegally to make way for development.


It has been described as one of the strongest legislative instruments on forest protection ever. Implementation of the Act is a challenge, however. Pressure for development is acute in coastal areas where many of the natural forests occur, and the Act itself does not clearly specify under what exceptional circumstances forest destruction may be allowed. A policy document was therefore drafted to guide all decisions on development that may affect natural forests.

The Policy Principles and Guidelines for Control of Development Affecting Natural Forests was re-affirmed as formal national policy at highest level in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) by the Departmental Executive Committee in April 2010. This policy has been applied by officials dealing with inputs into Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for the past two years, and strengthened in KwaZulu-Natal by a Memorandum of Understanding between the former Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the former Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs. The policy determines that only land uses of national and regional strategic significance could be allowed in natural forests, where no feasible alternatives exist. In such cases, off-set arrangements to compensate for the intended impacts have to be considered.

Narrowing down the definition of 'exceptional circumstances' effectively means that residential and industrial development will not be allowed to extend into natural forest areas anymore. Natural forest is the rarest and most fragmented biome in the country, covering only half a percent of the land surface. It also has the highest plant biodiversity per hectare of all the biomes, hence the increasingly strict legislation and policies governing their management.

Several recent development cases handled by various government agencies strengthens the policy and its approach, apart from the strong Act on which it is based. At Hawaan Forest near Durban, a tribunal found that a buffer area had to be maintained between the forest and a proposed development, based on evidence led by specialists on the importance of maintaining the forest margin. The main challenge is to maintain such forest margins in urban areas, which ideally requires occasional fire to prevent bush encroachment. Another proposed residential development inside coastal forest at Pennington had to be altered and units moved outside the forest, following appeals against the environmental authorisation that was granted.

The policy, together with the National Forests Act, provides DAFF with a strong hand when dealing with development proposals affecting natural forests. Should a developer receive environmental authorisation for development by default, DAFF still has the right to refuse a license to cut forest trees.

Mr Izak van der Merwe

Published in December 2010

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