Putting certification within reach of small-scale growers

September 5, 2022
Small-scale growers harvesting wattle in Matimatolo, KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. (Photo courtesy of SAFAS)

Free certification for small-scale growers operating on communal land – this is the goal of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS), a non-profit company on a mission to promote sustainable forest management and ensure that all timber growers in South Africa have fair access to certification.

SAFAS intends to make this achievable through the establishment of a Landscape Certification Programme - that functions like a co-op and focuses on relevant risks - to make certification accessible and affordable to all timber growers, including small-scale growers on communal land.

This is just one of several innovative initiatives that the SAFAS team has introduced in the past few years to promote sustainable forest management in Africa. Key among these is the Value Based Platform (VBP), a web-based platform that integrates data from a wide range of sources. This helps to provide integrated, locally relevant solutions to the broader challenges facing sustainable development, such as habitat degradation, inequality, poverty, poor governance, and accelerated climate change. This enables forest managers to identify and prioritise the key risks in their operations in the context of the landscape within which they operate.

Another innovative SAFAS initiative is the Community Label. This is based on the concept of forestry businesses being a part of the wider community with a responsibility to play a positive role in their development for mutual benefit through timber procurement, providing market access and promoting sustainable management practices on the road to achieving certification. The Community Label promotes the forging of mutually beneficial partnerships between larger forestry organisations and community forestry enterprises.

These initiatives are not just sugar-coated wish lists as they are beginning to gain traction on the ground through practical implementation.

In 2020 Sappi utilised the Value Based Platform to complete individual assessments on all 25 of their forestry plantations in South Africa, covering some 370 000 ha, becoming an essential internal auditing tool to enable the Sappi forestry team to prepare for the formal certification process. Sappi’s South African plantations are certified by both FSC and PEFC.

Earlier this year Sappi used the VBP to assess a group of private timber suppliers in southern KwaZulu-Natal against the requirements of the SAFAS standard. The assessment included 12 private commercial timber growers, two land reform timber farms and 100 small scale growers grouped into two clusters.

According to SAFAS General Manager Steve Germishuizen, the assessments produced some surprising results:-
• The small-scale grower groups were the least risky in terms of overall sustainability.
• The most consistent risks across all suppliers were related to health and safety, training and management of contractors.

Steve said that the VBP allowed the growers to engage with the certification process in a positive way that helped them to see it as a potential benefit and not just an administrative burden.

NCT Forestry is also using the VBP to assess their growers’ sustainability risks and to prepare them for certification under their PEFC group scheme.

Mechanised Eucalyptus harvesting operation, Mpumalanga. It is efficient and highly productive, but this system does not maximise job creation.

About SAFAS
The SAFAS certification system has been developed in South Africa by local stakeholders and is endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), a globally recognised forest certification system.

It is the culmination of years of work behind the scenes by local stakeholders including Forestry South Africa, SAPPI, NCT, TWK and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. The motivation behind the SAFAS initiative stems from the realisation that most small-scale and family-owned forestry operations typically have moderate or low environmental impacts while providing significant social benefits directly at the local community level, yet they have been largely unable to achieve certification. Large commercial forestry operations on the other hand, which have a greater environmental impact and limited local community employment footprint, are almost all certified.

This anomaly means that small-scale growers located in under-resourced rural areas in Africa may be denied access to premium fibre and wood product markets by virtue of their inability to get certified.

Now forestry operations joining the SAFAS Landscape Certification Programme (LCP) have an easier pathway to being certified. The overhead costs associated with certification will be shared amongst members of the programme according to the scale of the operations.

The ultimate goal, according to Steve, is for small-scale timber growers on communal land to have free certification. Revenue generated by the LCP will be used to promote sustainable forest management or reduce the annual costs of certification for the members. It is essentially a cooperative system and members will have a say in how their money is spent.

At the heart of the LCP is the Value Based Platform which helps forest managers to identify and prioritise the key risks in their operations, in the context of their landscape. The platform links the risks up to the relevant indicators in the certification standard. By eliminating irrelevant and low risk indicators, the platform vastly simplifies certification.

Upon joining the LCP, a timber grower undergoes a risk assessment that provides a prioritised list of risks, along with supporting information and the documentation required to mitigate those risks. The grower then knows exactly what is needed to achieve or maintain sustainable forest management standards and certification.

SAFAS also provides the training, support and resources required to tackle any technical and managerial challenges associated with achieving sustainable forest management certification through PEFC.

Labour intensive Eucalyptus harvesting operation on a community-owned timber farm, Eastern Cape.

What sets this system apart is that the risks to sustainable forest management of each grower member are determined according to the landscape within which the operation is located. This simplifies the certification process which focuses on the actual risks that the forestry operation faces.

This system works because site and socio-economic factors define, to a large extent, the risks and opportunities that forestry operations face. These factors characterise the forestry landscape and shape the nature of forestry businesses.

It is unsurprising that in areas of similar topography, climatic and socio-economic conditions forestry takes on a very similar structure and appearance. This realisation is critical when measuring forestry against a national or global standard. What is good or normal practice in one landscape would be unacceptable in another. Understanding the landscape context is the best away to understand these differences. For example, it is much harder to control alien plants in a steep, high rainfall area, with a subtropical climate, dominated by woody vegetation, than in a flat high altitude grassland area that is prone to fires and frosts. It is therefore necessary to understand that context when making an assessment of the effectiveness of an alien plant control programme.

Below are examples of two very different forestry landscapes and some of the risks and opportunities the forestry operations in those landscapes face:-
• High production on flat land: High national economic importance, high productivity, high efficiency, global competitiveness, high impact, limited biodiversity, low ecosystem services, limited local employment
• Communal multifunctional: Multiple benefits for local communities, high potential for ecosystem services, low impact operations, moderate biodiversity, low national economic importance

Joining the LCP allows timber growers of all scales to get certified as part of the landscape they operate in. The LCP provides all the documentation, supporting information and SAFAS works with the growers to maintain compliance.

SAFAS GM Steve Germishuizen surveying the biodiversity that is still thriving at Ozwatini, KZN midlands, where small scale tree farmers grow wattle and Eucalyptus and practice mixed farming with vegetables, crops, cattle and goats.

Five steps to certification with the LCP
• Complete a Risk Survey on the Value Based Platform after which you will have access to your risk assessment detailing the key risks faced by the operation in context of the landscape.
• You receive a report detailing what is required to comply with the SAFAS standard.
• You will be guided through the LCP management system, which contains all the documents and supporting information necessary for certification.
• Once compliant with the SAFAS requirements you will be included in the programme to be certified in the 3rd Party audit by the Certification Body.
• Once the 3rd Party audit is completed you will be certified under the PEFC.

“What makes PEFC-endorsed national forest certification systems so relevant and valuable is that they are locally developed and owned,” commented Ben Gunneberg, former CEO and Secretary General of PEFC International. “They respect the country’s operational and cultural conditions and are accessible to forest owners of all sizes, with a particular emphasis on smallholders.”

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