New forestry equipment, strategies & insights
The big international forestry brands plus local equipment manufacturers and service providers as well as mulchers, chippers and grinders made their presence felt at the Focus on Forestry 2023 event held in the picturesque KZN midlands in early November. Against the backdrop of the magnificent Karkloof mountains and surrounded by Sappi’s well kept gum and pine plantations, forestry stakeholders gathered from far and wide to see the latest equipment up close and gain some keen insights from dozens of presentations that covered just about every aspect of the forestry business.
There was also a lot of networking, socialising and catching up with old friends on the fringes of the conference, as there has been a long gap since the last Focus event that was held before COVID hit.
The overall message from the conference was that forestry businesses have and will continue to encounter hard times in the form of international trade disruptions, weak economic cycles, logistics bottlenecks, rising input costs, fires and extreme weather events, but at the end of the day forestry is part of the solution for many of the world’s biggest challenges and is on an upwards trajectory.
In his keynote address, Dr Ole Sand, Managing Partner of Criterion Africa Partners (CAP), which has invested millions of dollars in forestry businesses in sub-Saharan Africa, says forestry assets have been and are still undervalued. But the positive impacts forestry makes on the global climate balance, the protection of biodiversity, employment and infrastructure are in the early stages of being recognised, valued and monetized.
He said plantations constitute just 3% of global forest area, but account for 47% of global industrial roundwood supply, while natural forestry is already beyond capacity. The demand for industrial roundwood is expected to increase by 600 – 900 million m3 per year by 2050.
Africa is a continent where forestry plays a massive role in providing people with goods and services, but there is a critical need for more efficient and more sustainable management practices.
Population growth in Africa is driving wood demand and unsustainable forest use. The continent accounts for 20% of total global wood consumption and 36% of global fuelwood consumption. However much of Africa’s fuelwood production is unsustainable, said Dr Sand.
He said subsistence agriculture is the biggest driver of global deforestation. In Africa natural forests are harvested beyond capacity, and as a result deforestation and degradation is continuing.
“Fuelwood consumption with charcoal the driver will continue, while new plantation development that is taking place is insignificant.”
In this regard, he says that the private sector is doing a better job managing plantations than the state.
Dr Sand said that the CAP team believes there are only two solutions: scale up smallholder plantation development, and improve efficiencies in charcoal production.
He says the scarce resource in African forestry is knowhow and management capacity – not capital.
“When given the market opportunity, smallholders will respond,” he concluded.
Wood replacing fossil fuels
“Everything made from fossil fuels today can be made from a tree tomorrow,” said Brazilian forest engineer Marcos Wichert of Stora Enso.
Intensification of forest management is happening, producing more from less is the objective, while making forests more resilient by:-
• Reducing use of agro-chemicals
• Improving soil health
• Reducing CO2 emissions.
Forestry operations are developing fast with GPS devices on planting tubes and even spades to map each tree, AI thinning selectors on harvesters, remote machine operation and unmanned autonomous timber trucks.
And the new frontier, he suggests, is about gaining a better understanding of the role of beneficial microbes and fungi in the soil. At the end of the day growing anything - including trees – is all about soil health.
Michal Brink of CMO endorsed Dr Sand’s opinion on the role of smallholder tree farmers.
“Future forestry expansion will be driven by smallholders, because the land belongs to communities,” said Michal.
The role of corporates is to serve as anchors to support and empower smallholders.
He says CMO is providing simple, affordable and scaleable solutions to enable smallholders to get their operations certified.
“Empowered smallholders are the vehicle to expansion of sustainable plantation forestry into the future,” he concluded.
Independent forester Michael Henson talked about resilient forestry and the fact that reducing the risk of failure is much more than just about site and climate.
He said clones are “impressive when they work, and equally impressive when they fail”, and are a “roll of the dice” as they have a very restricted genetic base and carry a higher biosecurity risk than seeds which are genetically more diverse.
Nelly Ndlovu of Mondi Zimele spoke of the need to do more research into agro-forestry to help small-scale growers to improve their cashflow.
Bongiwe Mafuya of Emabhaceni Development and Nature Solutions described how clearing of alien vegetation in the Eastern Cape has created jobs and improved rangelands and agricultural fields. Further good news for the community is that since the alien plant removal, the local river is flowing freely again.
FPA’s on the edge
Addressing the perennial topic of fires in forestry, Ian Henderson lamented the lack of support for FPAs from the Forestry Department and the fact that only 46% of state owned landholders are members of FPAs, while private sector membership is keeping many FPAs afloat. He suggested small FPAs should join forces to establish bigger, more viable FPAs.
Gideon van Lill of Amathole Forestry explained how they reduced fire damage in their Eastern Cape plantations from 5 894 ha burnt between 1999 to 2004 while it was under Safcol management– to 340 ha burnt between 2005 to 2023 while under Amathole Forests management. The key, he said, was meticulous, detailed risk assessment and a very focused and structured approach to risk reduction. Also improved, co-ordinated involvement of external role players.
The sudden termination of the highly successful PBS truck pilot project by the Department of Transport in September 2023 - without giving any reasons - has put forestry logistics at the crossroads. The benefits of the PBS timber trucks to growers, to the economy, to the environment and to the safety of road users has been plain to see.
“With freight rail in South Africa failing us, the PBS trucks have saved our lives,” said Francois Oberholzer of Forestry South Africa.
He acknowledged that the ‘Pilot Project’ status of the PBS trucks had to end at some point, and is hopeful that the programme’s termination signalled that the PBS trucks would be absorbed into the legislation so that they can continue to improve the efficiency of road transport.
Francois said that 56% of conventional trucks currently operating on SA’s roads would not pass the PBS safety tests.
David Taylor of Tailor Rail company expressed his optimism that private sector participation in freight rail in South Africa is coming, but that the stakeholders need to move forward with extreme caution as there are multiple infrastructure and operational challenges.
By the way, 170 metres of cable theft takes place in SA every hour of every day. That is just one of the challenges that freight rail operators will face. Will we see the return of the green uniforms of the Railway Police?
Andrew Cooper of Mondi explained their journey to single-pass harvesting. This has largely been achieved with extensive trial and error and working closely with the manufacturers of harvesting heads.
The aim is to reduce stem processing time, wear and tear on equipment, and stem damage. He reckons that two to four tons of fibre per hectare is lost from excessive stem damage during multiple-pass processing.
The trick is variable pressure control on the rollers which need to be finely tuned to the tree characteristics and conditions at the time of harvesting, coupled with fewer rollers and more knives.
The heads endorsed for one-pass harvesting are:-
• SP 661E
• Waratah H225E
• Log Max E6
• Ponsse H7 Euca
Andrew said that the system balance is critical, and edge trees are a problem for one-pass harvesting.
“The journey to one-pass harvesting is very complicated and difficult to manage, but very worth it in the end,” he said.
Major learning: one size DOES NOT fit all.
Willem van der Merwe of Africa Biomass Company is a pioneer of chipping, mulching, grinding, shredding and billeting everything from post-harvest forestry slash to prunings, bush clearing and alien vegetation reduction in forestry and agriculture.
He says three hectares of cleared alien vegetation gains enough water savings to irrigate one ha of farmland.
Furthermore, 1.7 tons of good quality woodchips has the same energy value as one ton of coal, and reduces the carbon footprint by 95%.
He says markets for processed biomass material need to be found close by, on farms, in factories and in local small towns where more and more opportunities are opening up.
Community-focused carbon project
Candice Taylor of the New Forests Company provided insights into a community-focused carbon project in Uganda which will provide small-scale growers with additional income from carbon credits earned in their operations. One of the objectives of the project is to encourage the small growers not to harvest their trees too early before they reach maturity, which is what they tend to do in an effort to boost their cashflow.
She said the project has taken three years to monetize, and will take five years to break even.
“Carbon shouldn’t be your side business – it should be a part of your core business,” she said.
And finally a word of advice: beware of the ‘carbon cowboys’ … so-called expert consultants who charge a fortune when you can do it yourself with a bit of effort. It’s complex, but it’s not rocket science.