Responsible forestry - the antidote to plastic

While life without plastic might be hard to imagine, there is a renewable, recyclable and sustainable alternative to single-use plastics and many other fossil fuel derivatives: wood from responsibly managed plantations and forests. This is the message from Forestry South Africa (FSA) ahead of the 54th annual Earth Day (22 April 2024).

“Since inception in 1970, Earth Day has grown into one of the largest civic events. Against the theme Planet vs Plastic, the need for solutions to ensure the health of the planet could not be more urgent, especially when it comes to dealing with the proliferation of plastic,” says FSA’s Dr Ronald Heath, adding that farmed trees have the unique potential as the starting block for countless materials.

A host of fossil-fuel derived, energy-heavy materials can be substituted with wood-based derivatives such as timber in place of steel and concrete, and specialised cellulose for textiles like viscose and rayon. Paper packaging is finding its way back onto supermarket shelves as brand owners make the switch from plastic. Cellulose and nanocellulose can be used as food additives, functioning as thickening agents, stabilisers or emulsifiers, providing a natural alternative to synthetic additives. Lignin, a by-product of papermaking, can be used as in agriculture, construction and for dust suppression.

“Our sector can even make polymers and chemicals out of wood. And, of course, wood and pulp provide the ingredients for everyday essentials like furniture and toilet paper,” notes Heath.

While wood holds promise in various industries due to its renewable nature, biodegradability and versatile properties, the key to a wood-based revolution is its sustainable, responsible production, the theme of FSA’s new video “What is responsible forestry?”

Across South Africa, from Limpopo and Mpumalanga, through KwaZulu-Natal, to the Eastern and Western Cape, there are 1.2 million hectares of commercial forestry plantations, more than 85% of which are certified as meeting the stringent environmental and social standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®). In addition, 40% of these plantations have international PEFC certification through the recently established Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS).

From these plantations, more than 15 million tonnes of wood and fibre are harvested annually and for every tree removed, another is planted in its place. This wood, grown using carbon dioxide (CO2), keeps carbon stored long after harvesting and transformation into timber for beautiful buildings, cellulose for high-end fashion, additives for food and pharmaceuticals, and bio-chemicals. One cubic metre of Eucalyptus wood removes around 880kg of CO2 from the air, storing around 240kg of carbon.

“South African forestry should be recognised as part of the solution for climate change, plastic pollution and rural unemployment. Wood is a renewable, low-carbon alternative to many of the drivers of climate change. Globally, forestry is considered an integral role player in a green economic recovery: certainly, this is the case in South Africa. It is time we promoted it as such, explaining what responsible forestry looks like and how it can be part of the solution to the environmental crises we currently face,” says Heath.

In an article by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, titled Time to realise the potential of sustainable wood for the planet, the authors make a strong argument for wood as a solution to climate change, believing wood can play a key role by substituting single use plastics such as drinking straws and food packaging as part of the global movement to end plastic pollution.

Responsible forestry goes way beyond the trees. As a rural industry in South Africa, forestry creates employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in some of the country’s most impoverished communities. Through social initiatives, it delivers education, health care, infrastructure and hunger eradication programmes.

Amid the forestry landscape, countless wetland, grassland and biodiversity conservation projects are underway in the 305 000 hectares of unplanted, natural areas within forestry landholdings. seeks to end plastics for the sake of human and planetary health, demanding a 60% reduction in the production of ALL plastics by 2040. According to a recent study in the journal Science Advances, around eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced over the past six decades, 90.5% of which has not been recycled, explains Aidan Charron from

“Our reliance on plastics could be the biggest gamble in the story of human health in history. We are all ingesting and inhaling microplastics. They are everywhere. Are we just hoping they are safe, or is even the remotest possibility they might be toxic so terrifying that we can’t contemplate it?” asks Kathleen Rogers, president of

The Great Woodchip Fire of 2023 … what now?

2nd October … smoke plume visible for miles around.

It has been dubbed ‘the Great Woodchip Fire of 2023’. It destroyed 200 000 tons of woodchips at NCT’s Richards Bay facility, severely damaged infrastructure and will leave a big hole in the forestry and wood processing value chains. But South Africans are a tenacious bunch, and as soon as the smoke had cleared the hard work of mopping up, assessing the damage and planning the repair and rebuild began. The optimistic expectation is that the timber at the NCT facility will be flowing on one chipping line within eight months, and business will be back to normal production within a year to 14 months.

Chip pile fires are notorious for their ferocity – especially when fanned by hot, gale-force winds – and they are always very hard to extinguish. And so it turned out at NCT’s chipping and export facility in Richards Bay when a fire broke out on a chip pile on the last day of September, and raged for 10 days straight, consuming two massive chip piles and threatening to spread to neighbouring businesses and suburbs. Fire fighters from far and wide, local businesses and the people of Richards Bay rallied around and finally extinguished the blaze on October 12.

NCT general manager Danny Knoesen and his team have spent the past few weeks tirelessly shuttling between the fire ground zero, the post-fire mop-up and rebuild war room, member tree farmers and NCT customers on the other side of the world to keep everyone informed, on board and to come up with alternative arrangements to mitigate the disruption to business that the fire has wrought.

2nd October … burning through the night.

According to current estimates it will take around eight months to get one chipping line going, while the team is considering the possibility of getting temporary chipping capacity in place even sooner. Current estimate is that the facility could get back to normal production levels in a year to 14 months. NCT’s plan pre-fire was to build a third chipping line by 2025, and this is still on the cards.

Good news

The good news is that the fire has been completely extinguished, and nobody lost their lives or their homes despite the highly dangerous conditions faced by NCT staff, firefighters, neighbouring businesses and local inhabitants.

The not-such-good news is that 200 000 tons of woodchips and round logs – i.e. all of the stock that was in the NCT yard at the time of the fire – has been destroyed or so badly damaged as to be worthless. There is also extensive damage to infrastructure including conveyers and gantries on both the wattle and Eucalyptus chip lines. It is nothing short of a multi-billion rand catastrophe.

4th October … fire still going strong.

NCT has declared ‘force majeure’ with three large export customers in China and Japan, and has already met with them to explain the circumstances and try find a way to mitigate the disruption to their businesses until NCT can get back to the business of supplying them with chips. Force majeure is a clause that is included in contracts to remove liability for unforeseen and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and prevent participants from fulfilling their obligations in terms of the contract.

Impact on NCT member tree farmers

Then there is the inevitable slow down in timber flowing from NCT’s 2 000 member tree farmers who supply the co-op with their raw material, whose cashflow will be severely dented as a result of the fire. This will have a ripple effect, impacting on contractors and other suppliers who feed goods and services into this forestry value chain.

Danny admitted that the tree farmers are in a difficult situation as a result of the loss of stock and damage to the export facility, but the NCT team is hard at work to find ways to mitigate the impacts on them.

4th October … both chip piles burning.

“The wattle growers need to be able to harvest so the bark can be stripped and passed on to the bark factories at UCL and NTE, so we are by and large encouraging wattle members to continue to harvest, and to hold their timber stock in depot. We will add a few more ships to our Durban operation to try to mitigate the lack of wattle business for the upcoming season, and we think that TWK will do the same. So we could try and capture about 90% of the wattle season.

“On the euc side we will chase domestic markets to see what we can do to try and improve the euc offtake from our members – but that is going to be a challenge, especially for our smaller growers. We are looking at ways to mitigate that, but we don’t have all the answers yet,” said Danny.

As to the longer term impacts on the business, Danny believes they will not lose any of their regular customers as the demand for NCT’s woodchips will continue to be strong.

“We know our export customers will wait for us. We are an important cog in their wheel and NCT is a vital supplier to the pulp and paper sector in Asia, and once our facility is up and running we hope to get back to business as normal,” he said.

A commitment has been made by NCT to retain all their staff, who will be re-focused on recovery and rebuilding efforts. NCT employs 700 people.

7th October … excavators spreading and cooling the chip pile. Conveyor system damage visible.

Containing the fire

Another piece of good news: the fire didn’t spread to the chip pile at the TWK woodchip export facility situated right next door to NCT despite numerous incidents of spotting which were quickly extinguished. Nor did it spread to Foskor, a major manufacturer of fertilizers, located behind TWK. Foskor has stockpiles of sulphur and ammonia housed in their yard that are used in their manufacturing process, which could have caused extensive damage had they caught fire. Sulphur is highly toxic, and ammonia is like gunpowder.

More good news: despite the fact that at the height of the inferno burning debris was being blown by gale-force winds across the John Ross highway and igniting the brush and threatening nearby houses, these flare-ups were contained by firefighters from the municipality and local businesses as well as local residents armed with buckets of water and makeshift fire beaters.

7th October … nearly there.

Fish kill

Not-such-good-news: fish were reported to have washed up dead in a canal close to the NCT yard that is connected to the sea, possibly as a result of the water used in the firefighting activities that entered the storm water system which discharged into the canal. NCT has been issued with an environmental directive by the environmental authorities and they are responding to that directive. In the meanwhile NCT has called in Ground Truth, a multi-disciplinary consulting company with a specialist focus on issues surrounding water resources, biodiversity and environmental engineering, to help evaluate the causes of the fish die-off and limit the damage.

“We suspect at this stage that it was dissolved oxygen deficiency in the water, but we will wait for the results of the tests,” said Danny.

So what caused the fire in the first place?

Progress of the fire

Apparently it started under a conveyer system on the side of a chip pile that was not running at the time and had not been in production for 10 days prior to the start of the fire. The NCT team believe that it was not caused by equipment or the conveyor, it was not an accident and it was not arson and it was not caused by human intervention, and it was not internal combustion as it started on the outside of the chip pile. So at this stage it is a bit of a mystery.

In the meanwhile a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire is on-going, and hopefully it will come up with answers.

But what we do know is that a small wisp of smoke at the chip pile was first detected at 12.44 pm on Saturday 30 September. Within 10 minutes the NCT fire crew was on the scene under the command of NCT Operations Manager Ryno Martin.

Weather conditions at the time were hot, dry and windy. Despite the fact that the chips have a 30% moisture content, the fire, which started quite small, spread rapidly.

A second proto team arrived soon after with extra equipment. According to reports it looked like the firefighters may be able to contain the blaze, but at 4.45 pm the wind suddenly switched around from north east to south west, blowing at around 50 km/hour. This overpowered the good work that had been done and the fire got away.

Aerial water bombers despatched by the Zululand FPA were unable to attack the fire due to the dangerous conditions.

By 11 pm that night the second NCT chip pile was ablaze, and by Sunday morning the scene was like ‘hell on earth’ with the smoke plume visible for miles.

Additional fire fighting resources from all over started arriving during the day including from uMhlathuze Municipality, Transnet, Mondi, South32 and Sappi to assist the now exhausted NCT fire fighters. Fixed wing fire fighting aircraft from the Zululand FPA and the KZN FPA based in Howick as well as helicopters from Working on Fire and specialised units from ADT joined the fray.

Due to the heat of the fire and the weather conditions they were unable to contain the main blaze, and the focus shifted to preventing the nearby TWK chip pile from catching fire and setting off another chain of destructive fire events.

8th October … mopping up.

Under control

By 9th October the fire was under control and excavators were deployed to spread out the chip piles, further cooling the blaze. By the morning of the 10th October, the fire was finally extinguished.

The manner in which local people and businesses and authorities all came together during the crisis to assist and support the fire fighting effort was quite remarkable, and has not gone unnoticed. NCT sponsored an entire supplement in the local newspaper to thank everybody for their good will and their support during the fire.

Now it’s all hands on deck to get back to business, and to rebuild the facility - with enhanced fire fighting capacity. Many hard lessons have been learned from the Great Woodchip Fire of 2023, and hopefully these will prevent future fire catastrophes.

NCT General Manager Danny Knoesen (pictured) and his staff have got a big job on their hands to get NCT back to business as usual.

*All fire photos by Neels Reyneke

Monitoring & reporting emissions empowers growers

There is a lot of carbon locked up in the growing trees and roots as well as the harvested logs, and even the harvest residue lying in-field.  Emissions generated during the harvesting operation and the burning off of harvest residue will be off-set against the carbon locked up in the wood to calculate the carbon balance.

Plantation owners in South Africa with more than 100 ha of trees in the ground are required to report their carbon emissions on an annual basis, in terms of Greenhouse Gas regulations gazetted in 2017.

This requirement is likely to send a shiver down the spines of tree farmers, who are already burdened with dozens of laws and regulations requiring their attention and compliance. More red tape, more admin … and calculating carbon balance is a daunting prospect as it is not something they learned in forestry school. This is why only a few big plantation owners in South Africa are currently reporting their carbon emissions, while the majority of growers have not yet complied with the GHG reporting regulations.

And don’t for a moment think that you can bury your head in the sand and wait for the carbon reporting thing to go away. It won’t! It is going to become a bigger issue going forward all around the world as greenhouse gas emitters come under increasing pressure. They will be taxed, punished and eventually shut out of international markets.

But fear not! The Sustainable African Forestry Assurance Scheme (SAFAS), in collaboration with the Paper Manufacturers’ Association of South Africa (PAMSA) and the Department of Forestry Fisheries & Environment (DFFE), has unpicked the knot and developed a protocol to make carbon reporting for plantation owners do-able, effective and relatively simple.

“But forestry is sustainable, renewable, it sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in the wood, and so why do we now have to jump through these carbon reporting hoops?” I hear you cry.

Exactly! Forestry is located on the positive side of the carbon equation and this is going to become a massive advantage for this sector going forward. But first we have to monitor our emissions, calculate our carbon balance, so that we can access those advantages and reap the full benefits of growing trees. This process is going to become a way of life for foresters.

Sappi mill of the key aims of the SAFAS protocol is to enable wood processors to offset the carbon locked up in third party timber against their carbon tax.

Dave Everard, chair of the SAFAS Council and former Group Environmental Manager at Sappi Forests, has been involved in the development of the SAFAS carbon reporting protocol. He gave a very succinct presentation at the recent SA Institute of Forestry AGM on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of carbon reporting.

Some background: PAMSA approached the SAFAS team a few years back with a request to develop a carbon reporting protocol for forest owners that is accurate and verifiable. PAMSA’s motivation is to enable wood processors (pulp mills, sawmills etc) who are required by law to pay a carbon tax, to offset the carbon stored in the timber they use as raw material. Currently processors can only offset the carbon sequestered in their own timber that they grow themselves on their own farms. As it stands now, mills cannot offset the sequestered carbon contained in third party timber that they buy in, and over which they do not have operational control.

Why? Because there are concerns around the chain-of-custody and how to verify the carbon claims of third party growers. This is a big problem for the processors who must procure timber from outside of their own business to keep their mills running. It’s going to get costly.

It’s also a big problem from the point of view of plantation owners who may experience declining demand for their timber as a consequence.

The SAFAS carbon reporting protocol is therefore designed to not only facilitate accurate, do-able carbon reporting for timber growers, it must also be verifiable so that it can be endorsed by the tax authorities. The first part has been achieved – the protocol is up and running and the system has been tested (and verified) on 20 farms in a pilot study.

According to Dave the SAFAS protocol is currently being presented to Treasury and is awaiting their approval to allow third party timber to be included in the carbon tax calculations of processing mills. The protocol has been developed in close collaboration with DFFE, so Dave is confident that this endorsement will be forthcoming.

Dave described a simple five-step process that growers can follow to achieve carbon reporting compliance.

Step 1
The grower registers on the SAFAS Value-Based Platform (VBP), provides some simple data on their tree growing operations including info about tree species, MAIs, stems per hectare, age distribution and utilisable standing timber. The Carbon reporting tool on the VBP provides estimates of the volume of leaves and branches, litter layer, root volume and harvest residues required for the stock calculations. The grower must also indicate whether they burned their residues, used fertiliser or had any wildfires so that emissions can be calculated.

Step 2
The Platform calculates the carbon stored in the plantation based on the info provided, utilising global carbon ratios (Tier 1), South Africa generic ratios (Tier 2) or compartment specific data if this is available (Tier 3). This calculation determines the carbon stock of the plantation for that year. Note that the carbon stored in harvested timber sold to the mill is not included in the total carbon stock. Carbon stocks less emissions gives you the carbon balance. The carbon balance from the current year less the carbon balance from the previous year indicates whether the plantation has sequestered carbon (carbon positive) or has maintained the stored carbon (carbon neutral) or has lost some carbon (carbon negative).

Step 3
Verification of the carbon stocks and emissions on the plantation during the protocol will be done by SAFAS. Note that DFFE may require some of the submissions to be independently verified by an accredited verifier, but this is post reporting and outside of the protocol. The protocol makes this verification process a simple procedure for the grower.

Step 4
The grower receives a report and signs off if he/she is happy with the calculation.

Step 5
The SAFAS VBP transfers the carbon data to the official carbon reporting platform, SAGERS, and the carbon reporting process is completed.

This process needs to be done annually. Most of the information required for Step 1 is the kind of info that a forestry manager would have recoded in the normal course of business, said Dave. It is required for FSC or PEFC certification purposes anyway.

This process not only enables the forest owner to comply with current carbon reporting regulations, it also serves as a useful management tool for the responsible farmer who wants to reduce GHG emissions going forward.

Once Treasury has endorsed the protocol and the carbon sequestered in third party timber can be verified and offset against mill owners’ carbon tax, the grower’s timber becomes more valuable as a feedstock.

Dave concluded his presentation with the following points:-

• Carbon reporting will become a requirement for forest certification, both FSC and PEFC.
• The forestry sector’s role in the carbon issue should be seen as an advantage.
• Forestry has a legal and socio-economic obligation to report and manage GHG emissions.
• Carbon reporting is likely to become a pre-requisite for accessing many markets, both local and international.
• The SAFAS protocol has been piloted with 20 farms supplying Sappi, Mondi and NCT, and the system works!
• The SAFAS Value Based Platform offers many other benefits to growers, including risk assessments that address sustainability issues as well as a pathway to certification.

Dave Everard … in the field.

Climate change & forestry sustainability on research radar

Sappi Research Chair launched at Wits (left to right) Dr Tracy Wessels (Sappi Ltd), Prof Mary Scholes (Wits) and Giovanni Sale (Sappi Forests).

Professor Mary Scholes is heading up a research initiative on climate change and plantation sustainability at Wits University, supported by Sappi …

Sappi Southern Africa and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) have established a Sappi Chair in Climate Change and Plantation Sustainability. This initiative aligns with Sappi’s drive to generate technical and operational solutions which mitigate against climate change risks and to enhance reporting on carbon emissions, climate change and sustainability.

Professor Mary Scholes, an internationally recognised authority on tree physiology and climate change and who is affiliated with the research platform in the Wits School of Animal, Plants and Environmental Sciences, will act as the Research Chair.

The work by Wits will help to enhance Sappi’s planning process and overall competitiveness.

“Because forestry is a long-term crop, the industry needs to know well in advance where to direct their resources and investment and needs the most accurate climate models to rely on,” says Prof Scholes.

She will identify critical research needs and develop research outputs related to climate change, which is one of the University’s eight research priorities. She will also lead the development of capacity to manipulate and interpret climate modelling data.

Speaking at the launch, Tracy Wessels, Sappi Group Head of Sustainability and Investor Relations, commented: “The creation of this Chair demonstrates Sappi’s commitment to building a thriving world through strong partnerships, supporting innovation and investing in future research capabilities.

“Like all other agricultural crops, the trees in the 399,996 hectares of land we own and lease are negatively impacted by climate change. While we practise climate-smart forestry and while our research teams have been hard at work developing drought resistant genotypes, the temperatures over the South African interior are projected to rise at about 1.5 to 2 times the global rate of temperature increase.

“In addition, there is increasing global pressure to account accurately for greenhouse gas emissions from forests, land and agriculture. Against this backdrop and in line with our commitment to UN SDG13: Climate Action, the need to develop climate solutions has intensified, which is why our sponsorship of the Sappi Chair in Climate Change and Plantation Sustainability makes sound business sense.”

Sappi’s initial sponsorship of the Research Chair will run until 2026.

Sappi’s association with Wits is not new: In 2020, Sappi began working on a project with other industry members and the Wits Global Change Institute on a project which involved the generation of raster climate surfaces for the entire forestry domain of South Africa, at a resolution of eight kilometres, with monthly time resolution, for the years 2020, 2030 and 2040 to 2100.

‘Our roots are in timber’

Safire CEO Pierre Bekker (left), with Gareth Smallbones, Manager: Agriculture.

Safire has evolved from specialist timber insurer to offering a diversified range of insurance products, providing protection to clients in an increasingly volatile world …

Pierre Bekker, CEO of Pietermaritzburg-based Safire Insurance, discusses the dynamics of the current insurance market, and acknowledges the solid foundation created through their timber insurance business.

“Global insurance has been very difficult for the past few years, both in terms of claims expenses from natural catastrophes and the supply side of the business,” says Pierre. “There have been dramatic and costly events such as vast fires in Chile (2023), Greece and Siberia (2021), where 18 million hectares of forests were burned, and the Australian wildfires in 2020 and 2022, where 12.6 million hectares of both natural and commercial forests were destroyed, as well as the Californian wildfires of 2020-2021. There have also been severe wind storms in Europe. In addition, flooding and earthquakes have caused widespread devastation around the world.”

Charts courtesy of Munich RE, NatCATSERVICES.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme report from 2022 entitled Spreading Like Wildfire, “climate change and land-use change are making wildfires worse”, with a warning to anticipate “a global increase of extreme fires even in areas previously unaffected”.

Violent wind storms are amongst the most damaging natural hazards in Europe, with annual loses reaching approximately € 5 billion in the EU and UK, with the highest absolute losses experienced in Germany (€ 850 million/year), France (€ 680 million/year), Italy (€ 540 million/year) and the UK (€ 530 million/year).

“Premiums collected by any insurer will never be sufficient to cover policyholders’ claims in a year of severe natural disasters, so insurers have to hold capital to meet the obligation to pay policyholders for possible claims that may or may not materialise. This capital comes at a cost and when interest rates increase this cost of capital increases,” explains Pierre. This is what Pierre refers to as the supply side of the insurance industry. Simply put, it is the amount of insurance capacity available and both the amount and cost of such capacity is inextricably linked to global financial markets.

“After COVID, there was an almost unprecedented reduction in interest rates and capital flowed into the insurance markets,” he says. “This resulted in significant increases in the insurance capacity available which further softened the insurance cycle, leading to unsustainably low premiums. Just as the term ‘zombie firm’ refers to a company that doesn’t earn enough to cover its interest costs yet continues to operate, so the market has seen a rise in so-called zombie insurance capacity during the era of easy money. This refers to insurers extending their capacity to writing business at technically unprofitable levels and for classes that they do not normally participate in.”

However, the days of easy money are over and the sudden rise in interest rates is now reversing this trend in no small measure. “The supply side constraints would on their own have a hardening effect on insurance markets, pushing rates up in conjunction with the increasing cost of capital,” says Pierre. “But combine this with the devastating natural catastrophes of the past few years, which have resulted in massive claims costs for insurers, and we have a perfect storm playing out in the global insurance markets. Predictions are now pointing to a severe hardening in the markets, the likes of which have not been seen since 1992.”

Safire came about because of the high cost of timber insurance in South Africa in the 1980s, a situation created by the cost to global insurers of devastating fires in South America and elsewhere in the world. Timber grower Bailey Bekker, Pierre’s father, conceived the concept of a timber insurance co-operative, with individual timber growers contributing to a pool of resources shared by other low-risk timber growers.

A special feature of commercial forestry is that, compared to other crops, plantations have a significantly extended growth period, depending on the tree species, geography and timber product in question. Accordingly, the related capital is bound and the trees are exposed to various risks for an extended period of time. However, despite their long risk exposure periods, only a small percentage of the world’s forests are currently insured.

“It is impossible for an individual timber grower to completely self-insure effectively”, says Pierre. “Forestry risk is considered to be low frequency and high catastrophe in nature. Because of this, the pooling effect of insurance is vital. Many timber growers that pool their premiums together pay for the very large, severe losses of the few. This is exactly why Safire was founded and continues to serve this purpose to this day.”

Although insurance markets are facing the ‘perfect storm’ on both the supply and claims expense fronts, Pierre explains that Safire offers protection against this market volatility for the following reasons:

  1. Relationship with reinsurers
    Our reinsurers have long agreed to treat our forestry pool of risk outside of the major volatility in the open markets. This has come about because of a reciprocal loyalty we have to each other that transcends hard and soft market cycles. This loyalty could only have been offered to our reinsurers on behalf of our insured members because of the loyalty of our members to supporting the pool during good and bad times.
  2. Performance of the pool
    The loss performance of our pool has consistently out-performed the market and we have shown really good results for our reinsurers over an extended period of 35 years, since Safire was started in 1987. This is in no small part due to a very selective underwriting approach where only well-managed risks are allowed access to the pool.

Pierre continues, “We are not completely immune to market forces but we have serious protection against extreme volatility, which in recent years has led to no insurance capacity for some commercial timber growers in our local market.”

Insurance is based on the number and frequency of natural disasters with actual and anticipated events being considered as per actuarial science models. ”Interestingly enough, our data shows that, locally, fires are not getting worse,” says Pierre. “Plantation fires in South Africa have not necessarily been more severe or brought about higher losses since the devastating fires of 2007 and 2008 that severely affected industrial forestry plantations.”

Weather models are now predicting South Africa to be moving from a typically wet (and unusually extended) three-year La Niña cycle into a dry El Niño period with the possibility of dry weather conditions bringing about low volatility in terms of natural disasters but potentially increasing the risk of fire.

Since its beginnings as a local timber insurer supported by the prestigious Lloyds of London, Safire has expanded to provide a diverse range of short-term insurance products. The company has seen an impressive 20% growth for the past few years, and while forestry only accounts for some 10% of the business these days, growth and diversification has enabled Safire to provide even better timber insurance services on a much more sustainable basis, in addition to its wider short-term insurance offering. But Safire’s timber clients are still close to Pierre’s heart. “It’s where our roots are, and for many years we were the only true suppliers of timber insurance to the local timber growers. It’s a partnership that we value…”


More red tape, more taxes, more climate challenges, more opportunities for forestry …

Warming stripes graphic depicting annual mean global temperatures (1850-2018, from World Meteorological Organization data), produced for the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) provisional State of the Climate report. Image © Wikimedia Commons

“We are already in trouble … climate change will just make it worse.” These sobering words from Prof Eugene Cloete, microbiologist, water expert and recently-retired Vice Rector Research & Innovation at Stellenbosch University, set the tone for the opening of the Forestry & Climate Symposium held at the Department of Forest & Wood Science at Stellenbosch University in October.

Prof Cloete said that urbanisation across the world is continuing at an unsustainable rate, outstripping our capacity to provide the essential infrastructure. Pollution and poverty are on the rise. He says the world can support 1.2 billion people – not the 8 billion people we have now.

“We are exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet by 25%,” he said.

One of the consequences of this scenario is that the migration of people is accelerating. “It’s a natural phenomenon – people move to where there are more available resources,” he said.

But this only creates more problems. Borders are closing, nationalism is on the rise, social instability is increasing.

It’s an “ecological principle”. Increasing competition for resources leads to war.

We have to drastically reduce our consumption to get a shot at surviving, says the Prof. That’s what Covid did – it pushed us back into the carrying capacity of our planet, but it’s not sustainable.

He says that the ecosystem regulates the carrying capacity of the world. He predicts that there will be a shortage of water going forward, and we will have to re-look at how we manage this precious resource.

We also need to develop clean energy for the future. “Technology alone is not the solution – behaviour change is necessary.”

“We are on a non-sustainable path that could lead to disaster and even extinction. This is either our last century – or the century that marks a big change in our behaviour to ensure our future.”

Forestry perspective
Executive Director of Forestry South Africa, Mike Peter, provided some context on where the forestry industry stands in relation to climate change.

He said climate adaption at a business level is essential. The climate in regions where we grow trees in South Africa is already changing, and stakeholders are planting different species that are better adapted to the climate reality, he said.

The Carbon Tax has its origin in the non-binding Kyoto protocol of 1997, then in 2013 came the rise of RED and RED+ following the realisation of the impact of deforestation, but RED was not a “silver bullet” that would stop the build-up of emissions in the atmosphere. You can’t have a RED+ project in an area where we would have established forests anyway.

Then at COP 15 the then SA President Zuma committed South Africa to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020, and 40% by 2050. Why did he make this commitment? Because he was pro a nuclear build that would have netted him and his cronies millions, said Mike.

Then our government proposes a carbon tax, but they wouldn’t open up the market for renewable energy. It took President Cyril Ramaphosa until 2022 to open up the playing field for the generation of renewable energy at scale.

The carbon tax came into effect in 2020 – in the middle of a pandemic! Land-based sectors like forestry and agriculture were granted five years’ grace and will have to commence paying the carbon tax in 2025.

Mike said that the forestry sector is a very small emitter of greenhouse gases, and anyway it would cost the government more to collect the tax than the carbon tax revenue would be worth.

“We are locking up CO2 in our plantations. We want government to accept that biomass is carbon neutral. We don’t want plantations to be regarded as a carbon sink. We are carbon scrubbers,” he concluded.

Carbon tax is coming
However forestry companies that are involved in manufacturing are already reporting their emissions and paying carbon taxes. Jacob Crous of Sappi provided some insights into the complexities of carbon accounting and the challenges it brings. This is something that all businesses engaged in forestry work – including growers and contractors – will have to come to terms with after 2025.

SA signed the Paris Agreement (COP15) which committed the country to mandatory reporting of GHG emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The relevant legislation governing the reporting of emissions and carbon tax inside South Africa are the Air Quality Act 39 of 2004, and the Carbon Tax Act 15 of 2019.

Forestry companies will have to take into account all emissions and removals, above ground, below ground and in harvested wood products. They will have to calculate forest carbon pools vs carbon flows and the annual change in mass balance.

Agriculture and Forestry Emissions and Removals / Land use / Land use change. Graphic Courtesy of the IPCC 2006 report, Volume 4, Chapter 1.

By way of example, Sappi’s Scope 1 GHG emissions in 2021 (cradle to mill gate) excluding biogenic C emissions/removals were made up as follows:-

Transport – 19.8%
Harvesting – 15.1%
Fire (non CO2) Harvest residue – 24.7%
Non CO2 residue decomposition – 16.7%
Land use change – 9.8%
Fire (non-CO2) grassland – 8.1%
Fire protection – 0.2%
Management – 1.5%
Roading 1.9%
Establishment – 1.4%

Some useful pointers from Jacob:-

• Change in carbon stocks is calculated as the difference between the starting stock and ending stock.
• The actual carbon stocks (storage in tree crops) are not taken into consideration - only the change.
• Managed land proxy: all emissions from any management action must be reported (harvest residue decomposition, natural disturbance losses, management of conservation areas) – baseline natural emission from grassland burning is not recognised.
• Natural disturbance losses reduce standing carbon stocks, and add to non-CO2 emissions.
• Carbon is deemed to be emitted to the atmosphere when trees are harvested.
• Conversion from forest land to grassland (delineation) results in large carbon losses as CO2 loss also included in land use change (not measured against original natural vegetation).
• Land use change removals normally discounted over 20 years.
• Corporate accounting: obtain Scope 3 emissions/removals from external suppliers (upstream) and products (downstream).
• Adapt management systems to facilitate GHG reporting.
• Standardise accounting across the industry.

According to Jacob, the ‘rule of thumb’ is that around 90% of the carbon stored in wood as it enters the mill gate is the positive carbon balance after taking into account the emissions generated through the planting, tending, harvesting and transporting of the logs to the mill. This puts forestry squarely on the front foot in the climate debate and creates a world of opportunities going forward.

However the calculation for processed products like packaging, fabrics or bio-plastics gets a lot more complicated.

Value of woody biomass
Johann Gorgens, Professor in Chemical Engineering at SU, said that woody biomass will become way more valuable going forward. This creates a new paradigm for growth, global investments. He said every plastic produced by fossil fuels can be produced from bio-based sources.

“Sustainable carbon will become a scarce commodity in future.”

According to Associate Professor Ben du Toit, preliminary studies show that the carbon content of soils usually increases after commercial afforestation of grasslands. Minimum tillage and below-ground carbon allocation in trees appear to contribute to this result.

Forestry consultant Martin Herbert provided info on how York Timbers are adapting to climate change by breeding trees better suited to a warming climate for their pine plantations along the Mpumalanga escarpment. He said back in the 1970s the climate in the region was significantly cooler, and warmer temperatures are already a reality. “It’s a rapidly moving situation, and the temperature change is evident throughout the seasons.”

He said when it became evident that Pinus patula wasn’t thriving, York started exploring different pine species and hybrids that would be better suited to the changing climatic conditions.

In 1975, MAT on the escarpment was 16.820 C. In 2020 it was 18.080 C. In 2050 it is projected to be in the region of 19.360 C.

In order to be prepared for the changing climate, he said tree breeders need to know 15 or 20 years in advance what the climate will be doing. “It’s not just temperature – it’s a whole spectrum of climatic conditions,” he said.

System change and behaviour change are more necessary than ever. “We are on a non-sustainable path that could lead to disaster and even extinction," says microbiologist Prof Eugene Cloete. Image © Ivan Radic / Wikimedia Commons.

Ecological networks
Rene Gaigher of the Mondi Ecological Networks Programme provided useful insights into the benefits of incorporating ecological networks into plantations. She said these networks of unplanted, natural conservation areas should link areas of high biodiversity such as wetlands, grasslands and natural forest across the landscape.

She said a mosaic of ecological networks are essential to develop resilient ecosystems and are an effective mitigation measure against climate change. These networks allow species to move and are critical for their survival.

The key principle is to conserve large amounts of high-quality habitat that is functionally connected across the landscape.

Also of importance – create artificial ponds or dams (they support 75% of aquatic beetle, bug and dragonfly species found in natural ponds). Ponds increase population resilience against drought.

Grazing and fire regimes that mimic natural conditions are best for biodiversity – mosaic burning and grazing patterns are ideal. Invasive alien plant control helps to conserve ecosystem functioning.

Complex areas support significantly higher plant and anthropod diversity (i.e. areas with complex topography, elevation, different vegetation types etc). Narrow unplanted corridors, while not ideal, have value as movement conduits that increase connectivity in the landscape.

Wood buildings vs concrete & steel
According to Brand Wessels, Associate Professor in the Department of Forest & Wood Science at SU, using wood building materials instead of energy intensive bricks, concrete and steel, can make a massive contribution to a reduction of carbon emissions. This creates a great opportunity for the forestry industry to collaborate with stakeholders to promote the construction of wooden buildings and provide the raw material resources.

Buildings are currently responsible for the biggest slice of energy-related carbon emissions at 39%. By comparison industry is responsible for 31% and transport 23%.

Considering that demand for saw timber in South Africa is already outstripping the supply, it is critical that plantation resources are maximised in order to support the construction of ‘green’ buildings.

Carbon 0 – money talks
Prof Guy Midgley, Acting Director of the School fort Climate Studies, provided a different perspective on the science of climate change and forestry.

For the last 450 000 years, the world was a much colder place than it is now, he said. Trees almost become extinct in cold periods, because trees need carbon to grow. In the ice age trees and forests were carbon-starved.

As we gradually increase C02 we push the planet back to more forests, it becomes more tree-friendly.

There is a lack of research around carbon pools and carbon flows – particularly in Africa, he said. We need to know more about how different African landscapes sequester carbon, how Eucalyptus plantations affect the carbon balance etc.

“We don’t have the research – we have not invested,” said the Prof.

“We need to get to carbon 0 by the end of the century – it’s a very difficult thing to do.”

He demonstrated a fascinating climate solutions simulator developed by a group of leading scientists that allows users to explore the impact of key policies on future climate scenarios. The En-Roads Climate Solutions Simulator is freely available on the internet at

It comes up with some surprising results.

On our current trajectory the world’s average temperature will increase by 3.60 C by 2100. That will make the world a much more difficult place to live in … for humans.

If we could stop deforestation completely throughout the world and plant 3 trillion trees, it would only make a miniscule difference to this global warming trajectory, reducing the projected temperature increase by a mere - .0110 C by 2100.

Clearly this alone is not enough to make a significant impact. What is required are major changes in policy and consumption patterns that are unlikely to be made voluntarily.

However if you increase the carbon tax price on the dashboard, there is a big step change in the projected temperature increase. Money obviously talks the loudest!

“Our single most effective tool (to reduce harmful emissions and mitigate climate change) is to make carbon taxes very high,” said the Prof.

This would force through the changes required to reduce the projected temperature increase by -2.60 C by 2100.

“If we don’t succeed we condemn our children to a much worse future.”

He said that centralised political and economic power is built around centralised energy production, so regionalising energy production with renewables would break centralised power blocks, raising the possibility that we could create a different, more sustainable, world.

New look Sawmilling SA

To celebrate the International Day of Forests on March 21, Sawmilling South Africa (SSA) has come up with a new logo and visual identity that focuses on the role that responsibly sourced and processed wood can play in providing solutions fit for a future sustainable world.

"Getting people to recognise the value of timber in the built environment will be set in motion by our modernised visual identity and corporate logo, and will be directed by our new positioning statement: 'We saw the future'," explains Roy Southey, SSA’s executive director.

"We saw the future - demonstrates that we use renewable and responsibly sourced timber to saw products that are aimed at the future of sustainable, low-carbon design, architecture and construction. It fundamentally embodies our vision for the timber industry in South Africa and globally," says Southey.

"There is a unique climate case for wood as it is deemed as the only structural material that can naturally and significantly decarbonise our planet, both through the growing of trees (which sequester carbon dioxide and release oxygen) and by harvesting them at the right time, which locks up the carbon in sustainable quantities for many years to come. In fact, trees absorb about two tonnes of carbon dioxide to create one tonne of their own (dry) mass[i]," he points out.

SSA is an industry association that represents around 50 sawmilling companies, collectively employing approximately 12,000 people, predominantly in the rural areas of South Africa.

Sawmills transform roundwood – in other words, logs – into a variety of sawn timber products, including structural lumber for the building and construction industry and industrial lumber for the furniture, joinery and packaging sectors.

Globally, urban populations are growing, requiring cities to become more dense, often by building upwards. At the same time, we are facing a climate crisis. The global built environment is currently responsible for approximately 40% of global energy related CO2 emissions[ii], with emissions stemming from two main sources: the energy consumed within buildings for heating, cooling and power (operational emissions) and the emissions associated with the extraction, processing and manufacture of building materials like concrete, bricks and steel (embodied emissions).

Harvested wood products, which store carbon, can be a substitute for carbon intensive materials such as steel and concrete in construction. However, in South Africa where mass timber buildings are not commonplace, people tend to think only of log cabins, or conventional roof trusses. Recent technologies, however, are harnessing the natural strength of timber and improving it, engineering a new range of timber that can be used for mass timber buildings and high-rise construction.

"South Africa is ripe for scaling up the use of timber in construction, however many people perceive wood as rudimentary or weak. But for engineering professionals and architects of mass timber structures, there is significant opportunity for innovation, localisation and employment creation," says Southey.

Cape Town-based agency Creative Caterpillar was given the task to visually reflect SSA's renewed focus and vision, resulting in the association's brand transformation. "The team adopted a contemporary, future-minded approach when re-imagining the SSA logo, which made it possible to step away from our previous, more literal logo and embrace a more inclusive and relatable design for all stakeholders in the industry," says Southey.

The evolution of the corporate logo with its refreshed colour palette of orange (representing creativity and innovation) and olive green (representing nature and growth) has given the sector a renewed focus on the role that wood can play in building a sustainable future.

Massive mangrove restoration project launched in Mozambique

Around 100 million mangrove trees to be planted; total project area 185,000 ha; 200,000 tons of CO2 to be offset annually...

The largest mangrove reforestation project in Africa has been launched by Mozambique’s Ministry of Sea, Inland Waters and Fisheries (MIMAIP) in partnership with Blue Forest, a UAE-based mangrove reforestation specialist.

The project will be implemented in the biodiversity-sensitive provinces of Sofala and Zambezia, spread across 185,000 hectares of mangrove forests. It is expected that between 50-100 million trees will be planted as part of this long-term partnership. This project will offset approximately 200,000 tons of CO emissions annually, equivalent to taking 50,000 cars off the road.

Mozambique has over 300,000 hectares of mangroves along its coast, which is one of the largest tracts of mangrove forest in Africa

The partners will utilize high resolution satellite imagery, LiDAR technology and remote sensing data to identify key ‘hot spots’ where the need for restoration is highest. Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms will then be used to decipher the satellite data and field measurement to customize the reforestation activities in an accurate, efficient and transparent manner.

The reforestation work will be carried out in collaboration with several stakeholders tackling the issue of mangrove forest restoration in Mozambique. Public institutions such as the National Directorate for Forrest (DINAF) and the National Fund for Sustainable Development (FNDS), as well as universities and NGOs will be engaged in this flagship campaign.

The project will be financed through carbon credits that will be generated through the reforestation and conservation activities over the 30-year period of this partnership. The proceeds will be shared between the local and national stakeholders as per the guidelines set by FNDS.

Xavier Munjovo, Permanent Secretary of MIMAIP, commented: “Mozambique has over 300,000 hectares of mangroves along its coast, which is one of the largest tracts of mangrove forest in Africa. We are delighted to partner with Blue Forest and to introduce innovative technology in the way we map and restore our vital mangrove forests for generations to come.”

Vahid Fotuhi, Founder and CEO of Blue Forest, added: “Mozambique is a hugely strategic country when it comes to mangrove forests. We are thrilled to partner with MIMAIP and to work in coordination with all the public and private national and provincial institutions, as well as the local communities in Sofala and Zambezia on this historic project. Tens of thousands of people and endless marine life will benefit from this project.”

Mangroves are a rare ecosystem that support biodiversity and provide vital ecological services including coastal protection from floods and storm surges, water filtration, carbon sequestration and nursery grounds for thousands of species of fish and crustaceans.

Mangroves all around the world are under threat due to urban development and poor farming practices upstream which release excess sediment into rivers.

New association for wildland firefighters launched

A new association for Wildland Firefighters has been launched in South Africa. The Association for Wildland Firefighters (AWF) represents the wildland firefighting industry and associated professionals in Southern Africa.

“Numerous investigations into some disastrous fires in Southern Africa highlighted the need for a formal body to represent the needs of the wildland firefighter. The AWF aims to develop the knowledge, skills, understanding and competence of wildland firefighting in South Africa,” says Etienne Du Toit, the chairperson of the AWF.

Du Toit says the organization aims to improve the standards of safety and the working environment for firefighters in the sector in which its members operate.

The Association is registered as an independent, non-governmental, non-profit organisation. Any person or organisation associated with the wildland firefighting/integrated fire management fraternity qualifies to be members.

Du Toit says that climate change has resulted in a significant increase in wildfire risk, not only to responders but also to civilians.

“Monetary losses and other damages as result of these fires annually exceeds hundreds of millions. More needs to be done to address these risks. This is where the AWF comes in, an organisation that aims to share learning in such a manner that it promotes professionalism, reduces responder and civilian risk and at the same time allows for continuous improvement in all aspects of integrated wildfire management.”

The new association specifically addresses the needs of the wildfire fraternity.

“Until now, no other association specifically addressed the needs of the wildfire fraternity, there are similar associations but these are more focused on the structural firefighting sector,” says Du Toit.

The founders of the organisation come from a variety of backgrounds, including the fire service, forestry and conservation sectors and include business development practitioners with vast practical experience in these sectors.

“This Association seeks to enhance synergies between the various entities responsible for wildfire and integrated fire management, and one of the main aims is to professionalise the wildfire fighting industry in SA,” he said.

For more info contact Tessa Oliver at email:

FSC gets behind climate change mitigation efforts

As the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and its supporters celebrate FSC Friday, on 24 September, FSC reconfirms its support for international climate change initiatives and highlights the important contribution responsible forestry makes to these efforts.

Forests play an essential role in climate regulation. Together with oceans, forests are the key ecosystems the planet uses to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) – the most important greenhouse gas – from the atmosphere. Nearly 2.6 billion tonnes, or one-third of all CO2 released from fossil fuels is absorbed by forests every year. Even with forestry operations and processing, forests function as net-removers of CO2. The Paris Agreement (COP 21) highlighted the importance of forests in responding to climate change, calling on all countries to conserve carbon sinks in forests.

Bearing in mind an average hardwood tree can store as much as 21kgs of CO2 every year, the role of forests in helping to stabilise the climate cannot be overstated. Halting the loss and degradation of natural systems such as forests, and promoting their restoration, has the potential to contribute over one-third of efforts to mitigate climate change.

In addition, 1.6 billion people rely on forests for their livelihood, and forest products account for US$ 244 billion in international trade. Forests are also home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

What role does FSC play in the fight against climate change?
FSC is a nature-based solution for sustainable forest management, including biodiversity protection, nature conservation and forest landscape restoration.

FSC’s standards play an important role in maintaining forest cover, preventing deforestation and forest degradation, which are vital elements in the global climate change agenda to prevent the planet passing the 1,50C temperature increase (danger point) for dangerous climate change.

FSC believes in the importance of nurturing responsible forestry to protect healthy and resilient forests that sustain life on earth. Therefore it designed FSC-specific ecosystem services claims. Showing the full value of forest ecosystems by measuring the impact of forest management practices - and fostering partnerships that reward them - is fundamental to climate action and sustainability. Ecosystem services claims provide nature-based information through the measurement of impacts such as carbon sequestration and storage, biodiversity conservation, watershed services, soil conservation and recreational services.

FSC believes markets should work for the ecosystems they are part of, and the ecosystem services claims are the tool to show the true value of forests to markets. With them, FSC connects forest stewards and committed stakeholders fostering partnerships that promote the protection of ecosystems.

There are a growing number of success stories. For example, in Mexico, FSC connected a community with outstanding forest management practices with a tomato company interested in a more sustainable value chain. This partnership enables the community to continue to protect the watersheds of their forests. FSC has also promoted partnerships for the protection of biodiversity in France, where a lottery company has partnered with a forest steward in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, promoting the restoration of the natural characteristics of their forests. Closer to home in Namibia, restoration of degraded forest landscapes has allowed grass to come back to allow a more natural ecosystem for fauna and flora. This biodiversity conservation ecosystem claim has resulted from collaboration between local Namibian FSC certificate holders, NGOs and a leading international retail chain. Join us in celebrating FSC Friday and continue to support forestry as a nature-based solution to climate change.

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