Part Two in our focus on the small-scale tree farmers of KZN ...
Story and pics by Samora Chapman
Enoch Mathenjwa’s journey in forestry goes way back - nearly four decades back to a different time in South Africa. In 1983 Enoch got his first job in forestry as a chainsaw operator for Shell Forestry in KwaMbonambi. Little did he know that he would eventually own 40 hectares of his own lush forests, scattered across the deep rural area of Thelizolo, where a mosaic of small timber farms reach as far as the eye can see.
“I grow slowly but surely, every year, a bit at a time,” he says with a toothy grin, sitting on the back of his bakkie on a sandy farm road. “I own a taxi business in the village … and every time I make a profit, I grow more trees. I only deal with Mondi Zimele and Awethu Forestry,” he adds, referring to the market connection to the Mondi Richards Bay Mill in the south.
Despite having worked in forestry as a young man, it was only in 2006 that Enoch decided to establish his own plantation. He requested land from the local chief and planted his first four hectares in an effort to establish a side business that could supplement his income. About one rotation later, in 2012, he was introduced to Awethu Forestry, a local forestry agent that was implementing Mondi Zimele’s master plan to boost rural development in the region through forestry.
“When I joined Awethu and the Mondi Zimele programme, everything changed,” he says with pride. “The advice, the high-quality seedlings and the access to the market encouraged me to grow the business and take forestry more seriously. Looking back, I have been able to do many things through forestry. I even paid the deposit for this bakkie right here,” he says, giving the bakkie a pat like it was a noble steed.
Awethu Forestry supports Enoch at every level of the business, operating as the vital connection between the small-grower and Mondi. At harvest time Awethu Forestry coordinates a local harvesting contractor to fell the trees and then a short-haul contractor to load the timber on a tractor-trailer and navigate the winding and treacherous sandy roads to the nearest Awethu depot. From there, the timber is loaded by hand onto a 38 tonne truck, which carries the precious cargo all the way to the Mondi Mill, some 265 kilometres to the south. And that’s the origin of the paper and packaging products manufactured by Mondi that are sold all over the world.
These are the nuts and bolts of the Mondi Zimele Forestry Partners Programme, a unique partnership that has seen a total of 933 690 tonnes of timber delivered to Mondi in the last 15 years, generating R803 million in revenue for the small growers of Zululand.
Fire and the future Enoch says that fire is the main threat to his forestry business. “There are honey hunters in this area – they use fire to smoke out the bees and harvest honey. This is a danger to the plantations, especially since we do not have fire-fighting equipment,” he explains.
He goes on to highlight the importance of firebreaks and keeping compartments clean so that there is less fuel for a fire if one does break out.
Enoch’s vision for the future is to buy his own tractor-trailer and timber truck so that he can deliver his own timber to the Thelizolo depot AND handle the long haul to the Mondi Richards Bay mill. This will also enable him to start a timber transport contracting business to service the many other growers in the area. And so the cycle continues to grow and evolve, benefiting more and more people along the magical value chain … from seedling to mill.
The potential new biocontrol agent is a tachinid fly, Anagonia cf. lasiophthalma, which parasitizes the larval stage of the Gonipterus beetle. The flies were sourced from the Forest and Paper Research Institute in Portugal, which has been studying this insect for its potential use as a biocontrol for Gonipterus species for some time.
The parasitoids were imported into the FABI quarantine facility at the University of Pretoria and are showing great promise as an effective biocontrol for Gonipterus sp. n. 2, which is causing significant damage to Eucalyptus plantations across all major forestry regions in South Africa.
Gonipterus beetles are native to Australia. They were first identified in South Africa in 1916, rapidly spreading across the country and into neighbouring territories. This led to the release in 1926 of Anaphes nitens – a tiny wasp - which was the first biocontrol agent in South African forestry. Anaphes nitens was effective in controlling the spread of the Gonipterus beetles, but in the past few years damage from Gonipterus infestations has been increasing once again and it has become clear that on its own Anaphes nitens is not sufficient to suppress Gonipterus populations.
This has led to renewed interest in Gonipterus in South Africa and the discovery that it is not a single species, but one of several different taxa. Hence the one currently doing the damage in South Africa has not even been formally named yet.
Initially it was not known whether the fly Anagonia cf. lasiophthalma would parasitize Gonipterus sp. n. 2, the species present in South Africa, and whether it would be possible to rear it in quarantine. However, work at the FABI facility led by technical assistant Amy Collop and supported by Samantha Bush, Michelle Schroder and Brett Hurley, has confirmed that Gonipterus sp. n. 2 is a host of this parasitoid and the initial stages of a lab-reared population of the flies has been established.
This is very exciting news, according to the FABI team, as it confirms the possibility of using this parasitic fly as a biological control agent for Gonipterus - although there is still much work to be done before it can be safely released into the field.
According to Brett Hurley of FABI, what makes Anagonia especially exciting is that it parasitizes a different life stage of Gonipterus, namely the larvae, as compared to Anaphes which is an egg parasitoid. Thus it is more likely to add to the overall control of Gonipterus, as compared to releasing another agent that targets the same life stage.
“The first step before releasing Anagonia in South Africa was to confirm that it would parasitize Gonipterus sp. n. 2 - this has now been done,” says Brett. “The second step is to establish a rearing population for experiments - this is ongoing. The third and very important step is to conduct host specificity tests, i.e. to assess if Anagonia will attack other native insects. This is the step where it is difficult to say how long it will take - it could be one year or it could be 3+ years, it depends on multiple factors such as our success with rearing the different insects needed for these studies. If the tests indicate that Anagonia is specific to Gonipterus and therefore safe to release, then we move to step 4 - applying to the government for permission to release Anagonia into the field. This application would be sent for comment from national / international researchers before a decision is made,” he said.
A number of Eucalyptus species, varieties and clones are negatively affected by Gonipterus including E. dunnii, E. grandis, E. nitens, E. urophylla, E.smithii and GUs.
Gonipterus is not the only pest on the FABI team’s radar, as there are many new potential insect pests and pathogens on the horizon!
“We are currently investigating the most likely future insect pests of eucalypts. One insect pest that is moving around, e.g. recently reported in Portugal and South America, is the eucalypt leaf feeding beetle, Trachymela sloanei. But the reality is that many of the new pests and pathogens are not currently known in their native range or anywhere in the world, so it is very difficult to predict,” concluded Brett.
Eucalyptus trees boost bee populations
Bees need trees, and trees need bees – especially Eucalyptus trees which offer excellent forage for these tiny creatures that provide crucial pollination services to a third of the world’s crops.
According to Mike Allsop, head of honeybee research at the Agricultural Research Council, Eucalyptus plantations in South Africa play a crucial role in providing forage for bees.
“In KZN, Mpumalanga and Limpopo gum plantations are absolutely crucial to beekeepers – and to all the crop industries depending on these bee colonies for pollination.”
Mike says that E. grandis and E. camuldulensis are the best eucalypt species for honeybees because of the abundance of flowers that they produce, and also the timing of the flowering.
“These gum sites are absolutely critical for beekeepers to catch bees, and also to sustain them in periods when there is very little other food available,” he said.
However alarm bells are ringing as bee populations around the world are dwindling, and South Africa has not been spared. Pests and diseases, pollution, the degradation and conversion of natural landscapes and the reduction of wild forage are all taking their toll on bee populations. The irresponsible use of chemicals and insecticides is also a problem as bees are highly sensitive to these substances.
"While accurate data is limited, best estimates show that the demand for commercial honeybee pollination is set to increase by 15-20% per year in South Africa,” says Mike. “When you consider that there are already not enough managed honeybees to meet SA's pollination demands, coupled with the fact that the amount of foraging territory available to honeybees continues to dwindle, it's easy to see why this spells trouble for not only our honeybees, but our food supply chain and the complex web of life that bees support."
As demand for pollination services continues to grow, it's clear that efforts to sustain honeybee colonies need to be intensified across a broad front. This includes the planting of cover crops in vineyards and other non-pollination dependent crops, the restoration of fallow land, the establishment of woodlots, and the planting of bee-friendly forages on verges, gardens and parks across the country.
However Mike points out that all these actions will only be enough if we're also able to protect and sustain two fundamental enablers of honeybee colony numbers: the canola fields of the Cape in the late summer and the winter-flowering commercial forestry Eucalyptus of the Lowveld and KZN. These are essential to the trapping and building of honeybee colonies prior to pollination season, allowing beekeepers to service the spring pollination needs of a wide range of fruit, nut and vegetable crops.
In the past plantation owners in South Africa tended to try and keep bees out of their plantations because informal honey hunters using fire to smoke out wild bees nesting in old stumps are a high fire risk. But in recent years growers have tended to take a more pro-active approach by launching initiatives to provide training and equipment to local communities to promote responsible beekeeping. This approach is a win-win as it creates income earning opportunities for local communities – and reduces the fire risks.
Some of the bigger forestry companies have taken it a step further, establishing partnerships with beekeeping businesses by providing safe access to their Eucalyptus plantations. Sappi Forests, one of the biggest growers of Eucalyptus species across Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, has forged partnerships with a number of beekeeping businesses to provide forage for bees. One such partnership is in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga with Bee Naked Honey Farms. Bee Naked is a producer of raw local honey (distributed under the Eat Naked brand) and provider of pollination services to local farmers in the region.
Bee Naked Honey Farm place hives in Sappi’s plantations, thus boosting bee populations for honey production as well as providing pollination services to crop farmers.
Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, macadamia nuts, avocados, litchis, apples, pears, plums, apricots, almonds, cherries, melons, pumpkins, butternuts, kiwis, onion seed, sunflower seed, carrot and vegetable seed are just a few of the many crops that are pollinated by bees.
Besides providing an essential boost to our country's bee population, the programme has also created work for people from the local Bushbuckridge community in Mpumalanga. Bee Naked Honey Farms currently employs 14 people, all of whom were recruited from the local community.
EucXylo team set to grow
A small nursery of 12 newly planted Eucalyptus trees near the Department of Forest and Wood Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU) represents more than just a research project in the making. The trees are symbols of growth, and of the shaping of bright minds through the endeavours of the Hans Merensky Research Chair in Advanced Modelling of Eucalyptus Wood Formation (or EucXylo).
The flourishing nursery trees also serve as a living memorial to the mining geologist, scientist and prospector, Dr Hans Merensky, a pioneer of forestry and agriculture in South Africa, who was born 150 years ago. The Hans Merensky Foundation is making the work of EucXylo possible.
Aptly therefore, most of the work and laboratory space that this young research group occupies is in the wood-panelled Hans Merensky wing of the Department of Forestry and Wood Science’s Paul Sauer building.
“Through the research done by our postgraduate students and younger researchers we aim to better understand the dynamics behind how the wood of Eucalyptus trees form. They are among others developing appropriate mathematical and computational models and delving into how climate change is and will influence the way in which such species grow,” says EucXylo research leader and senior lecturer Prof David Drew of the SU Department of Forestry and Wood Science.
“Wood formation, technically known as xylogenesis, is fundamental to the fixing of carbon dioxide into the stable, valuable and beautiful material we call wood, and to the production of our planet’s increasingly-important renewable timber resources,” he explains. “We are trying to understand and model the processes of wood formation of Eucalyptus in the context of the physiology of the whole plant, and not only the molecular genetics of wood formation.”
About the Research Chair’s very specific focus on one type of tree, he says: “Eucalyptus or gum trees are arguably the world’s most widely planted hardwood forest species. Their wood is used for a wide variety of purposes, ranging from pulp to solid wood for construction. Most research done on wood formation has so far come from the northern hemisphere and was done on small plant species and poplar and other softwood tree species.”
The group consists of four MSc students, five PhD candidates, two postdoctoral researchers and a technical officer.
PhD student Gugu Gama, who hails Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, says she joined the team because of her interest in wood anatomy. “I wanted to further my skill set in this field. This research team encompasses modelling, images analysis and modern computational analysis of wood with a focus on interesting species such as Eucalyptus.”
The Research Chair was established in 2019, with most of the team members joining during the course of the past year. To broaden its scope, the EucXylo team is collaborating closely with scientists in the SU faculties of Agrisciences and Science, and with various leading international researchers.
Prof Drew adds: “To some our research might seem very ‘blue skies’, but I am sure Dr Merensky would have approved of the way in which our endeavours are extending the skills base and research abilities of younger scientists-in-the-making. In this way we are making sure that there are enough bright young minds to fill positions within the forestry and wood sector, in South Africa and abroad.”
Climate change research Prof Drew notes that his team has received more than just direct funding from the Merensky rank towards its endeavours: “The trees in our nursery were for instance also provided by the Merensky Forestry section and are doing well.”
The trees are being cared for by Mpilo Kumalo, as part of his PhD in Forestry and Natural Resources Sciences. He is drawing on his knowledge of ecosystem ecology and ecophysiology to study seasonal variation in Eucalyptus wood formation, and the relationship between sap flow and wood formation, to understand how it influences the architecture of a tree.
In another part of the nursery complex Raphael Keret is constantly taking plant measurements as part of his PhD in Plant Biotechnology. In light of climate change and changing rainfall patterns, he is investigating the ways in which water stress and droughts influence the movement of sap in trees – and ultimately also influence wood characteristics.
In related work, Alta Saunders, a PhD in Forestry candidate, is using measurements taken in the nursery to build computational models with which to understand how Eucalyptus trees respond to drought situations, how they recover, and the role of stomatal conductance (the rate of water loss through leaves) in all of this.
Diverse fields Prof Drew is described by his team as an exceptionally enthusiastic, caring leader. He is especially proud of the fact that his group works well together, despite the stressors of Covid-19 and despite being from various academic backgrounds, such as forestry, microbiology, medical research, genetics, and environmental sciences. Postdoctoral fellow Dr Kim Martin, for instance, holds a PhD in Biomedical Science from the University of Edinburgh and has worked in tissue engineering projects previously, while technical officer Dr Leandra Moller is a trained microbiologist who completed postdoctoral research in horticulture. These days she gets to work with anything from dataloggers and different types of sensors, such as dendrometers, sap flow sensors and PAR sensors, all to monitor the growth and physiology of trees.
“I think the ability to do anything as long as it falls within the scope of our funder is a highlight. It has allowed us to procure some specialist equipment and to co-fund the setting up of two laboratories that can be used by the whole department,” says Dr Moller.
“The fact that we are from so many diverse backgrounds means that there’s always someone around with the necessary skills to ask for help,” adds Dr Martin.
“The team is made up of individuals from diverse backgrounds, but the bond and teamwork are exceptional. Each time we bring on a new member, they quickly integrate into the team. reveals Oluwaseun Gakenou, who hails from Nigeria and is now pursuing a data-driven research project to model the productivity of certain Eucalyptus species as part of his MSc degree. “It creates an enchanting atmosphere in which your weakness is balanced by another person’s strength. You are not afraid of making mistakes, which speeds up and simplifies the learning process.”
The Hans Merensky Foundation (HMF) is a successor in title to the Hans Merensky Trust, established by Dr Hans Merensky in 1949. According to trustee Chris Pienaar, it is mandated by a constitution, wherein the discovery and support of science in the natural resource arena, represents a primary objective of the mandate.
“As such the HMF finances and support related research chairs at various South African universities and collaborative overseas institutions,” says Pienaar.
Dr Hans Merensky was born on a mission station called Botshabelo, outside Middelburg Mpumalanga in 1871. Without the assistance of modern prospecting technologies but firm in the belief of his visualisation and calculation of the Bushveld Igneous Complex he discovered the platinum group metals reef in 1924. The Merensky reef still carries his name. In addition, he co-discovered gold deposits in the Free State, copper and phosphate deposits in Phalaborwa and alluvial diamonds along the West Coast of South Africa and Namibia.
Being of German descent and confined to his farm during World War 2, he continued to successfully establish commercial, Eucalyptus forestry plantations and leading research-based farming endeavours on his farm Westfalia. It is situated between Tzaneen and Mojadi in the Limpopo Province.
Being involved in mining and minerals for most of his working life and observing the random application of Eucalyptus in mine shafts, he decided to investigate and experiment with higher order applications of this fast-growing hardwood species. The Merensky organisation became pioneers in cultivating and processing Eucalyptus kiln dried timber, applied in the manufacturing and marketing of furniture, doors, and various other industrial applications.
Apart from the higher order economic value of the Eucalyptus tree, Dr Merensky was firm in the belief of the tree’s hydrological qualities. This work continues.
Logset forestry equipment makes its South African debut
The Logset TH75 Eucalyptus Head made its South African debut in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg recently. The head, developed in South America for fast and efficient Eucalyptus harvesting and de-barking, is manufactured in Finland by Logset, manufacturers of a full range of forestry harvesting equipment.
Logset has signed a dealer agreement with Green Projects that will see the KwaZulu-Natal-based company market and sell Logset harvesters, forwarders and harvesting heads across Southern Africa. Green Projects will provide a full range of after sales service, parts, maintenance and repairs to Logset customers in the region.
“We are honoured to represent Logset in our territory,” commented Green Projects MD Frank Uzzell. “The Logset products are robust and productive, and are well suited to meet our customers’ needs.”
“We are excited to start working with Green Projects. They have vast experience in selling forest machinery and therefore they are the perfect partner to bring the Logset brand to Africa,” commented Logset CEO Tommi Ekman.
Logset offers a comprehensive range of cut-to-length harvesting equipment including seven harvesters, seven forwarders and seven harvesting heads.
Of particular interest in the Logset stable is the 8H GTE Hybrid harvester. It sports an electric motor that is integrated with the machine’s diesel engine, providing an additional boost of up to 104 kW of power when the machine is under pressure during peak loads. This technology enables the diesel engine to operate at a constant pace which results in fuel savings of up to 25%, claim the manufacturers.
Frank says that in addition to the harvesters, the forwarders will offer harvesting contractors a big advantage, and that clam bunk versions of the forwarders have generated a lot of local interest already.
Green Projects has brought in the Logset TH 75 head which is mounted on an excavator and is busy doing demo’s in the KZN midlands and Drakensberg areas for growers and harvesting contractors.
The Logset TH75 was developed specifically for use in Eucalyptus harvesting in Brazil and is well adapted to local conditions in South Africa, says Frank.
The SA Forestry team saw the head working in a E. nitens compartment in the Drakensberg recently. It was also adept doing thinnings in a nearby pine compartment.
Logset was established in Finland in 1992, and currently operates in 25 countries around the world. Its first harvester was the 500H which was launched at the famous Elmia Wood Fair in Sweden in 1993. A few years later Logset launched its first forwarder, and started manufacturing heads in 2011.
The hybrid harvester was introduced in 2016, the first machine of its kind in the world.
Ponsse launches toughened up eucalyptus head
Ponsse has launched its latest debarking head – the H7 HD Euca – which follows the release of the Ponsse H8 HD Euca. This new powerful harvester head joins an impressive line-up of harvester heads manufactured by Ponsse of Finland.
One of these new H7 HD Euca heads has already been delivered to a leading South African harvesting contractor, Quinton Preen, for use in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
The Ponsse design engineers said they rely heavily on feedback from key customers to design and manufacture heads that maximise productivity and minimise downtime, and this is the case with the Ponsse H7 HD Euca.
Quinton featured prominently in the recent ‘digital’ launch of the head. He was being interviewed by Chris Odendaal of MTS Parts, who is distributing and supporting all Ponsse forestry equipment in South Africa. Quinton joined his father’s harvesting contracting business in the 1990s, which was originally doing motor-manual felling and debarking. Quinton says they started mechanising their harvesting operations in 2000, and are now working extensively in the Midlands and Zululand coastal areas.
Two years ago they switched to the H7 Euca heads in order to do one-pass harvesting as required by Mondi Forests. Quinton says the H7 Euca was a smaller head and at first he was a bit concerned about its durability. But now two years later he says they are running well and he had no hesitation in acquiring the upgraded H7 HD Euca, which is a toughened, upgraded version of the H7 Euca.
A year ago Quinton said he changed to the casted knife sets on the H7s as they wear better – especially in Zululand where the sandy soils take their toll on harvesting equipment.
“The majority of our inland customers prefer the welded knives in one-pass operations, but in coastal regions where there is a lot of sand with abrasive properties, the special material used in the casted knives is a better option,” said MTS Parts’ Chris Odendaal. “They last an incredibly long time in very tough conditions.
“The H7 HD is really a toughened up head and you can appreciate how sturdy it is built just by looking at it. The engineering was really thought out very well on this head,” said Chris.
He said the upgrades on the H7 HD include a toughened saw box, extra tilt frame support, and a new, heavy duty bearing design.
Other small improvements include the fixed knife pins and other components that have been strengthened.
“Overall we are looking at a head that will be very durable in tough conditions, giving our customers more mechanical availability and that is what our market needs at the moment. These HD heads have been tested extensively in Brazil and we've had nothing but positive feedback,” said Chris.
The Ponsse heads are known to be fast and agile, and Chris says they put very little stress on the carrier machine.
Commented Janne Loponen, harvester head product manager at Ponsse: “This new harvester head has been developed together with our customers, based on their feedback. We wanted to introduce an even more powerful and productive harvester head for Eucalyptus processing that withstands even the most extreme conditions, and we succeeded in this with the H7 HD Euca harvester head.”
It can be fitted onto the Ponsse Cobra, Scorpion King and Ergo harvesters, but it can also be installed on 16–22-ton track-based excavators.
The geometry and technical solutions of the new harvester head have been made to ensure maximum efficiency during debarking, feeding and sawing. The development of the harvester head has also focused on mechanical durability and the ease of maintenance.
Automated functions control saw movements according to the tree diameter and saw bar position, and allow trees to be cut quickly.
Janne said that all Ponsse heads have simple and solid structures which is why they can be used in various harvesting applications, ranging from harvesters to track-based solutions.
All Ponsse harvester heads are manufactured and designed at the Ponsse factory in Vieremä, Finland. Ponsse equipment is distributed and fully supported in South Africa by MTS Parts, with branches in Piet Retief and Nelspruit/Mbombela.