Key forestry skills programmes & qualifications approved

Keren Biggs from LESH, conducting pre-assessments for entry into the current Forestry Supervisor Development Programme in Melmoth. These assessments may be extended to the newly registered Foreman qualification.

The approval of six new skills programmes and two qualifications is great news for workers and employers in the forestry industry as they provide a sound framework for upgrading key skills and competencies that will bring significant benefits for the industry. They also provide valuable opportunities for forestry workers to upgrade their skills and qualifications in a structured, relevant system, providing stepping stones for further studies that will take their careers to a higher level.

The following skills programmes were evaluated and approved by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) in September:-

Chainsaw Operator323
Aerial Chainsaw Operator336
Specialised Chainsaw Operator315
Forestry Hazard & Risk Assessor435
Forestry Incident Investigator432
Forestry SHE Representative339

The SA Qualifications Authority NQF Committee has approved the registration of the following qualifications on the NQF framework:- 

Occupational Certificate: Forestry Production Foreman496119462
Occupational Certificate: Forestry Production & Operations Foreman4240119447
Brian Windt, one of the Qualifications Development Facilitators that were instrumental in developing the Chainsaw Operator Skills programmes, conducting critical chainsaw training with Sappi management and contractor supervisors in Bulwer.

“We look forward to implementing these skills programmes and qualifications together with our registered Skills Development Providers together with our contractors and industry role players,” commented Pam Naidoo of the SA Forestry Contractors’ Association. “We continue to champion skills development in the forestry industry for the upskilling of all our contractor and stakeholder employees,” she said.

Pam said that industry representatives had made good progress in the development of three new skills programmes that would be ready for registration by the QCTO in the near future, namely:-
• Silviculture Machine Operator
• Logging Plant Operator
• Small Power Tool Operator

The experts involved in the development of Forestry Skills Programmes include representatives from the following stakeholder organisations: Sappi, Mondi, SAFCOL, FITPA, SAFCA, FSA, Husqvarna, Stihl, FPMSETA, QCTO and Nelson Mandela University.

A chainsaw operator trainee demonstrating the correct way to fell a tree (Photo courtesy KwaMahlati Training).

NMU’s top students in Forestry, Wood Technology & Veld Fire Management

A special awards ceremony was held on April 7 at the Nelson Mandela University George campus to recognise the top student achievers in Forestry, Wood Technology and Veldfire Management.

“You have shown excellence in your academic studies during a difficult time of the COVID pandemic,” said Forestry programme coordinator Dr Ramantswana in his address to the students at the awards ceremony. “We encourage you to continue on this trajectory in the workplace and other spheres of society.”

Three forestry diploma students were recipients of the special awards: Sanele Xulu received the award for best student in Forest Engineering, Silviculture and Human Resources modules, whilst Buseka Bhebhi received the award for Forest Management and Lelonathemba Ndaleni received the award for Veld Fire Management. Top students in the Wood Technology Diploma programme were Zizipho Pikashe who received an award for the best student in Timber Seasoning and Likho Ndevu was the top student in Timber Processing. In the Higher Certificate in Veld Fire Management, Luphumlo Tomana (full-time programme) and Renier Groenewald (part-time programme) received top student awards.

Masters student graduates cum laude
Phozisa Dlokweni (aka ‘Phozy’), from Ngceleni village in the Eastern Cape, graduated with an MSc Forestry (cum laude) at the recent NMU George Campus graduation ceremony.

Phozy (26) completed her MSc in record time and attributed her success to the assistance she received from her supervisors, Muedanyi Ramantswana, Raffaele Spinelli and Andrew McEwan.

Phozy said her passion for forestry comes from her father, a forestry contractor, and her uncle who is a forester. She is currently an intern at the University of Pretoria in the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), employed as a field extension officer.

After matriculating at Maclear High School, Phozy enrolled for the extended Forestry Diploma programme at the George Campus. The following year she bagged several distinctions in the mainstream Forestry Diploma programme after which she excelled in her BTech in Forestry, with core modules in Forest Engineering, Silviculture and Veld Fire Management.

In 2020, Phozy enrolled for an MSc in Forestry. Her research thesis focused on assessing the productivity and volume recovery of mechanised harvesting in a pine fire salvaging operation in the Eastern Cape. She plans to start her PhD in forestry soon.

“My supervisor, Dr Muedanyi Ramantswana, has been my role model and encouraged me to work hard and be dedicated,” said Phozy. “The experience gained at the University during my internship and research at MTO Cape, has augmented my academic journey as a life changing experience that I will forever cherish,” she says.

Phozy also enjoys reading, outdoor adventure, volunteering in community upliftment projects, travelling and is a true sports fanatic.

Massive potential for drones in forestry

From data collection on the health of trees to monitoring plantation, road and river crossing conditions on the ground or doing pre-plant sprays, drones are the new ‘go-to’ technology that is busy transforming the way foresters go about their daily business. This Q and A with Simon Ackerman of the Forest Operations Research unit at the Department of Forest and Wood Science, Stellenbosch University, focuses on the potential for drones to provide radically new data driven solutions for forestry…

What is the buzz around drones?

SA: To some, drones are seen as a bit of a gimmick, or an annoyance with potential for contravening just about every clause in the POPI act. However, both research and industry are proving that drones truly represent an amazing new technology with the potential to produce radically new data driven solutions in land-use applications such as agriculture, forestry and conservation.

How can awareness of the apparent opportunities for using drones be improved?

SA: The Department of Science and Technology, through the Forest Sector Innovation Fund, awarded a project for the promotion and development of Precision Forestry Tools to improve the efficiency of forest operations in South Africa. Part of this funding was in support of a series of workshops in the forest sector. The Department of Forest and Wood Science at Stellenbosch University sees a need for the forest sector to take a more proactive role in ensuring a sustainable adoption and roll-out of drone-based sampling methods and services. This includes capacity building amongst our students, drone operators, and industry players alike. Awareness of this can be generated through articles, social media, and the road trip we embarked on. An increased use of drones is obviously going to benefit both research and practice.

What were some of the main goals of this ‘campaign’?

SA: The main goals of the project, and the workshops, were to:
• Upskill the forestry industry in the application and use of tools to measure and manage our resources through the use of UAVs, including the advanced processing of these data. This is being done partly through postgraduate student projects and industry workshops
• Complement existing and develop new forms of data and data sets for use in our industry
• Create the links through academia and industry to skills both locally and through our cooperation partners abroad who have adopted drone based data in forest research to a far greater degree than we have.

How was this implemented practically?

SA: The Forest Operations group (FOR) arranged a series of workshops on ‘Drones in Forestry’ targeted at both established drone operators who needed to know more about the specifics of working in the forest sector, as well as forestry management and research staff who were interested in knowing more about potential applications, potential outputs, or just in exchanging experiences.

Why push for an increased use of drones in forestry?

SA: Drones are incredibly convenient tools for the collection of data in forestry. Plantation forests are typically between 3 000-10 000 ha, and have individual management units of 10-30 ha which need to be sampled for survival, health, growth and stocking densities more or less throughout their 6 to 25 year rotation. This is normally done on foot or through remote sensing, typically with LiDAR which has its benefits, but has a lower temporal and spatial resolution. Methods for analysing drone based data are rapidly evolving within and between research environments around the globe, and these developments provide a rich basis for research, and not least, research publications. We see lots of opportunities here, both for our industries and for ourselves, especially given that some of the species that we use have quite different attributes to those grown in Europe or North America where a lot of the research is currently being done.

What are the main drone payloads or sensor technologies of relevance?

SA: For a large part, drones carrying RGB sensors (i.e. normal cameras) are more than sufficient for the purpose of forest measurement. Through specialised software that creates stereopsis through a process known as structure-from-motion (SfM), a series of RGB images with sufficient overlap can be processed into a 3D point cloud. The point cloud is used in creating a 3D surface or digital surface model (DSM). Even consumer grade drones such as the DJI Mavic 2 with integrated camera easily meets or exceeds the needs for small area surveys in very high resolution.

A second commonly used payload is a multispectral or hyperspectral camera. A lot of people would know that these have been used for many years in agricultural settings, as the wavelengths captured in multispectral imagery can be used both in distinguishing between plant species (e.g. crop and weed), indicate the health of the crop (water stress, nutrient deficiency) or between live and dead or dying biomass, e.g. in evaluating effectiveness of a herbicide treatment.

Physical direct measurement through laser scanning (LiDAR, laser distance and ranging), using drone borne scanners, which was once prohibitively expensive for forestry applications, is becoming economically feasible and the applications are expanding accordingly. The benefit of LiDAR over photogrammetry based 3D models is that the LiDAR pulses are able to penetrate any gaps in the tree canopy and provide information from lower down on the stem or from the ground, which is seldom discernible in RGB data. Also, at the level of detail we can work with using drone data, it is quite essential to have a high resolution terrain model as well, and that can really only be measured with LiDAR.

Drones are also widely used in providing services, such as aerial herbicide or pesticide applications, something that is more well known in agriculture / viticulture. A couple of these have been well covered in the SA Forestry Magazine. Interestingly, they show a strong competitive advantage over tractor borne or manually applied chemicals when it comes to being able to apply the dosage precisely and in a timely way, obviously also providing access when trees get beyond a certain practically reachable height.

How do drones fit in with other platforms used for remote and proximal sensing?

SA: Very well actually. Drone based data is mostly sampled in nadir, i.e. vertically, and is therefore 100% complementary to fixed-wing aircraft platforms (LiDAR and imagery) and satellite based data (imagery and radar). Each have an important role to play and will continue to do so. High resolution drone imagery can be used in calibrating the interpretation of imagery from the other platforms. Aircraft can cover large areas far more economically than drones can, but are not ideal for smaller areas or specific sites, while satellites offer data with a high temporal frequency (daily) but at a lower resolution. So, ideally, one will always be working with a portfolio of data from different platforms.

Can anyone fly a drone?

SA: Actually flying the drone is the least of the challenges. Usually a survey flight is pre-programmed on a tablet in the planning office, and flown without human intervention. One does however need to have the skills to step in if something unexpected happens, and that does happen more often than not. In South Africa, the use of drones in a commercial setting is strongly regulated by the civil aviation authorities (CAA). A commercial operator is defined as anyone that receives any sort of remuneration for the work, whether in the form of a bottle of wine or even co-authorship of a research paper. We were fortunate to have Robert Britz of DroneX join our series of workshops and give a very thorough run-through of the regulations, requirements and obligations, tailor-made for our industry.

What do you think about these regulations that are obviously aimed at the public and the protection of private property?

SA: It’s a bit of a paradox that here in our country, one can get a truck licence for R 3 000 and drive a 45 ton truck down a crowded main road at the end of an almost unlimited shift, while it costs ten times that (R 30 000) to get a licence to fly a 950 gram drone in a remote forest area, and one must also pass a medical exam. There’s some room for lobby work here. At FOR, we are planning to engage the industry in jointly applying to CAA for a couple of exceptions to the current regulations. We can also do more in regulating our own operators. Of course uncontrolled altitude is a threat to aviation, but this can be restricted in the software, and in cases where the fire bombers are working within the 100 m envelope, we as an industry should really take responsibility in developing our own protocols and regulations. If we are going to exploit this new highly valuable data source, we really need every forester to have a drone in their bakkie. They have to be able to fly a compartment at short notice to document e.g. fire damage, windfall, insect or pathogen attack, harvesting or thinning progress, amount of timber on the landing, or the condition of a road or stream crossing. There is no question that the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Until then, we need to train licensed operators on the peculiarities of forests and forestry, and pay them to occasionally come by and fly a survey flight.

Is it possible to bring the analysis of drone data into the forestry curriculum?

SA: Our students will definitely need to know more about sequencing and planning data capturing campaigns, analysing the data and interpreting the results rather than actually flying a drone. They should of course not be deprived of the fun part of flying drones, but certainly it is the interpretation that is the crux. The forestry education at Stellenbosch does already include a good component of the analysis of remotely sensed data, and other departments offer courses on digital photogrammetry, image analysis, geomatics etc., so it is really more a question of deciding to enhance these elements in the curriculum.

What role will the Department of Forest and Wood Science be playing with regard to ‘Drones in Forestry’ in the next 5 or so years?

SA: There is obviously an important role to play in ensuring that our graduates are equipped to embrace the data coming from drone acquisitions, just as they are for other data sources today. This process can be short circuited somewhat through promoting postgraduate projects using drone data in all aspects of forestry already today, and we are doing that. The role of the department will hopefully be one of provisioning industry research by supplying young ‘experts’ into the value chain. We hope that in five years time, our graduates will be just as at home with using drones and drone data, as they are with a dbh calliper today!

*First published in SA Forestry Annual, 2021

International collaboration boosts forestry education

Five South African universities have partnered with local and international stakeholders to introduce cutting edge, climate-smart forestry and entrepreneurship to their forestry courses. Norman Dlamini of Forestry South Africa (FSA) explains the aims and objectives of the programme, known as FOREST21:-

What is FOREST21?
FOREST21 is a collaborative project between South Africa, Finland and Norway titled “the 21st Century Climate-Smart Forestry Education for Livelihoods and Sustainability in South Africa”. The FOREST21 initiative is a capacity-building project in the area of higher education, involving the five South African higher education institutes offering forestry qualifications as well as two universities in Finland and one in Norway. The FOREST21 initiative has three core pillars: climate-smart forestry, forestry entrepreneurship and student-centred teaching methods.

The project is generously co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union to the tune of € 999, 965.00 and will be officially launched on 14 April 2021, although the logistical aspect of the project started in mid-January.

Who is involved?
The project was conceptualised by FSA in a bid to improve the economic and environmental contribution of the industry to South Africa’s wellbeing. FSA played a coordinating role in packaging the proposal. There are eight core FOREST21 partners: Aalto University, Fort Cox Agriculture and Forestry Training Institute, Häme University of Applied Sciences, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Nelson Mandela University, Stellenbosch University, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Venda. These work alongside FSA and several associate partners, including education authorities in South Africa like the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation (DHESI), Council for Higher Education (CHE), South Africa Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education Authority (FP&M SETA); other key universities in the area of climate change - Witwatersrand University (WITS), University of Pretoria (UP), University of Mpumalanga (UMP) - and key stakeholders, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Forests Industry in South Africa, Finland and Norway and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).

Why is an international approach so vital?
An international approach offers the opportunity of establishing partnerships and friendships that go beyond the remit of the original programme and will almost certainly outlive the three-year lifespan of FOREST21. There is also the co-generation of knowledge, the value of which should never be underestimated. The FOREST21 European partners are recognised as leaders in their field, bringing these trend leaders to assist South African higher education institutions to build local capacity in these areas of interest will improve the global competitiveness of the South African forestry industry. This willingness of our international collaborators to offer their expertise to this programme and assist South African HEI’s reform their curriculum will benefit South African learners for generations to come.

We must not forget the forestry landscape in South Africa covers five very diverse provinces and this is represented by the five South Africa higher education institutions spanning Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. In many ways, connecting that talent found within each of these institutions is very much like an international experience in itself.

The benefits from this international approach are already materialising, from the conception of this project in 2019 and the flurry of emails, digital meetings (before they became mandatory) and telephone calls with the core partners that proceeded; we have already learnt a lot from one another and the experience to date has been nothing but extremely positive. Since the announcement in July 2020 that funding was granted, knowledge transfer has increased exponentially and the network has widened with new associate partners coming on board in November 2020. All these benefits have been realised before the project officially launched, so I am incredibly excited to see what the future has in store.

What is hoped to be achieved?
The overarching project aim is to improve the forestry curriculum offered in all five institutions of higher education offering forestry programmes in South Africa.

FOREST21 will mainstream important concepts like the implementation of climate-smart forestry along the value chain while championing entrepreneurial innovativeness in forestry education. Through a countrywide curricula reform of forestry education at higher education institutions the FOREST21 project looks to equip graduates with problem-solving skills, an entrepreneurial mindset and climate-smart thinking. While curriculum improvement will not be uniform through all the universities, each participating university will choose what to implement from the pool of generated knowledge and package it to suit their local context.

FOREST21 also seeks to improve interactions amongst South Africa’s universities, as well as between them and the wider forestry industry, and ultimately promote international partnerships that will help shape the future of South African forestry.

Why is it important that we teach entrepreneurship at university?
Like in many other African countries, and indeed around the world, the education system in South Africa traditionally teaches us to become better workers, but not necessarily creators of job opportunities and certainly not creators of new products and services that could solve the challenges humanity currently faces.

As more people add their voice to the need for educational reform at higher education institutions, we can no longer ignore their point that traditional educational systems were designed to produce glorified labourers, who cannot help themselves if no one employs them. While this might sound very harsh, especially to anyone who had to work incredibly hard to earn their qualification, the comment is supported by the ever-increasing number of struggling, unemployed university graduates in South Africa year after year – rich in many years of expensive university education, but financially broken.

For many, entrepreneurship seems to offer a solution to South Africa’s triple ills of poverty, unemployment and inequality. As such, it is a solution that needs to be thoroughly investigated and hopefully implemented. Closer to home, the forestry industry needs graduates that are innovative to solve the real-work challenges in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. This was highlighted in a study by Magaga and Scholes (2019) that found the forestry industry in need of graduates that will be innovative, proactive, and have a reasonable level of autonomy and competitive aggressiveness to take the industry a step further. All this is aligned to cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among the graduates while they are still training. On a personal note, I believe entrepreneurship training should start earlier in the schooling system but ensuring this is the case at a university level is a good start.

What is climate-smart forestry?
The time to stand together, globally, to respond to the threat posed by climate change is now – it is our responsibility, not just to our children and future generations of their children who will inherit the earth one day from us, but to every living organism that inhabits the earth.

The role of forestry in this is becoming ever more prominent and as such, climate-smart forestry has never been more relevant. Climate-Smart Forestry is a targeted approach to increase the climate benefits from forests and the Forest Sector, in a way that creates synergies with other needs related to forests. The definition may sound complex but it can be simplified to the Sector’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase its efforts mitigating against climate change.

In many ways, South African forestry is ahead of the game having embraced sustainable forest management many years ago. Today, over 80% of plantation forestry area in the country has been certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) as sustainably produced timber, something as a country we should take pride in. As a sustainable, renewable industry that actively sequestrates carbon, the sector offers numerous potential solutions to climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and is already seen as having a central role in South Africa’s green economic recovery and circular economy.

How will the students benefit?
There are several ways students will benefit, both immediately and in the future. Immediate benefits will see 80 students, ten from each of the participating universities, selected to be part of this initiative. These students will work as international teams of learners, contributing and testing the knowledge generated as the new curricula are developed. They will also be involved in solving real-life problems experienced by the Forestry Industry, which will require teamwork and international collaboration. Perhaps, most excitingly for those involved, they will participate in the activities hosted by each of the partnering universities. This will see students globe hop from a curriculum development workshop in Evenstad, Norway to two pedagogical workshops in South Africa, one in Thohoyandou and the other in George. Then there is a climate-smart workshop in Hämeenlinna, Finland, followed by a forestry entrepreneurship workshop in Helsinki, Finland, before the closing workshop in Pretoria, South Africa. While COVID requirements are in the back of everyone’s mind and plans are being made, for now only the initial kick-off next week planned for Stellenbosch has had to be digital.

For the students involved, this is a huge opportunity affording them unrivalled networking experiences, as well as a host of transferable skills as they develop the various aspects of entrepreneurship such as problem solving, innovativeness, proactiveness and competitive aggressiveness. They will be exposed to leaders in their field and knowledge gained from the frontiers of global forestry.

More importantly, they will make an immeasurable contribution to the improvement of curricula for the students that will follow them. The contribution of this class of students also extends to sharpening the skills of the academic staff in offering excellent student-centred teaching and learning that is customised to the local context. There is no doubt that upcoming students will benefit from this immeasurably, with the improved curriculum ensuring they are better equipped to respond to the challenges of climate change and other unforeseen events.

How will the industry benefit?
The forestry sector too will see both long- and short-term benefits of this project.

Short-term, during the duration of FOREST21, FSA members can host international teams of FOREST21 participants to solve real problems. Providing them with access to the collective wisdom of South African and international experts, lecturers and students, all intent on finding innovative, workable solutions.

In the medium to long-term, they can expect generations of forestry graduates ready to actively contribute to the world of work as a proactive, innovative, problem-solving asset to the industry. They will be able to co-create partnerships with higher education institutions that look to continue to strengthen the calibre of student graduating way beyond the three-year lifespan of the FOREST21 project.

The industry is already a major employer of those living in the rural communities that neighbour the forestry landscape. Working with newly qualified graduates with entrepreneurial skill sets, the Industry will be able to increase the impact it has in these communities.

How will South Africa benefit?
As a nation with a young population, we need to start seeing the youth of today as the leaders of tomorrow. They are the individuals who will take South Africa forward and dictate the nation our country becomes. When looking for future leaders, trendsetters, innovators and great minds of tomorrow, one of the first places to start is our country’s universities – it will be the students of today who will shape the South Africa of tomorrow.

The FOREST21 programme acknowledges this, seeking to ensure the students of today are given the correct entrepreneurial skill sets to face the global challenges of tomorrow (and today) like climate change. So while they are the major beneficiaries of the project, indirectly the whole country will benefit from tomorrow’s leaders being better equipped to face the challenges of today, tomorrow and in the future in a way that is both sustainable and ensures South Africa remains globally competitive.

Ultimately the hope is that FOREST21 interventions will increase employment opportunities for forestry graduates, as well as those graduating in other disciplines who adopt similar curriculum revisions upon the success of this initiative, thus aiding in the reduction of the current 32.5% unemployment rate. FOREST21 should help reduce the average age class of South African entrepreneurs, currently set at 45 - 54 years old according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, by introducing entrepreneurism as a feasible concept in the minds of the graduating youth. We also hope, that by providing graduates with the skill sets required for entrepreneurs we can improve the survival of new enterprises in South Africa beyond the seemingly unbreakable 42-month ceiling. Perhaps most importantly, FOREST21, and the graduates that result from it, will play a major role in South Africa’s response to climate changes and the mitigation strategies put forward.

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