The changing face of forestry in the Lowveld

May 3, 2018

A familiar sight in the Lowveld … timber plantations being cleared to make way for macadamias.

A lot of attention was focused on timber theft and related crimes in the Lowveld over the past few years, and many a guesstimate was made as to what it was costing the timber industry. But now there is a much bigger threat to the sustainability of the small to medium timber growers, the mills, contractors, transport companies etc who depend on forestry for their livelihood.

By Joey Lascelles, CEO of United Forest Products

It is estimated that, just over the past year, roughly 650 ha of forestry plantations were converted to more lucrative crops such as macadamia and avocado in the White River, Hazyview and Sabie area alone, and significant areas are still in the process of being converted. Timber as young as two to three years is being clear-felled and areas de-stumped to make way for the new orchids.

The economic benefits that these new crops bring to the land owners and to the region far outweigh the returns from forestry. Roughly 95% of the South African macadamia crops are exported and the weak Rand ensured very good returns to macadamia growers.

Information obtained from the Southern African Macadamia Growers’ Association (SAMAC) website indicates that in 2016, 2 027 ha of new macadamia orchids were established in Mpumalanga alone. A total of 3 870 ha of new macadamia orchids were established in South Africa and Swaziland. Considering that Mpumalanga has about 495 000 ha of timber, the loss of forestry land to other crops may not seem significant, but the concern is that the timber industry is losing its important, private, small to medium timber growers.

The majority of the small to medium timber growers have been bought out by timber corporates and other prominent farmers of other crops. Many of these farms, in the past, provided opportunities to small forestry contractors, for whom access to timber is now rapidly diminishing. These smaller contractors serviced the smaller mills which are now struggling to secure timber, and are having to compete with bigger saw mills.

There are also strong indications that over-harvesting is continuing as a result of a general shortage of timber. Growers are felling younger and younger trees in an effort to honour supply agreements, some of which carry hefty penalties. There is this double edge sword. Don’t deliver your agreed timber volume and carry the hefty penalty for non-delivery - or cut the young trees down now and stand to lose much more a couple of years down the line.

Some tree farmers are also so cash strapped that they are just harvesting to try and generate some cash flow.

Tight economic conditions and poor forestry practices in some areas are contributing to an increase in temporary unplanted areas and neglected plantations.

Land claims
The majority of farms that have changed ownership as a result of land claims have all been stripped of commercially viable timber. All these factors, including the continuing timber theft, are all contributing to the overall shortage of timber in the area.

At a recent meeting between SAFCOL and mill owners, SAFCOL indicated that they will only be able to supply roughly 50% of all the mills’ timber requirements in the area. These projections were not well received by mill owners who are desperate for timber supply and, in the absence of alternative timber sources, are depending on SAFCOL for their livelihoods.

Historically, prices of pulp round wood in the Lowveld has been significantly lower than that offered by mills in KwaZulu-Natal. More often than not, small growers are offered a lower price at the local mills compared to corporate growers who get a higher price due to volume agreements. The significant increases in the minimum wage of forestry workers, though necessary, added to the pressure on the viability of timber farming, especially for the small growers.

Mix in farm security and the ever-present fire danger, and the outlook for forestry in the Lowveld looks bleak for the small to medium timber grower. Only time will tell whether the imminent shortage of timber will see local mills increase their prices significantly in a bid to secure timber.

It is unfortunate though, that even a significant shift in the timber prices will not see the return of the small to medium scale timber farmers to the Lowveld.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, March 2018

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