Turning wood into animal feed

Sappi’s lignin-based Pelletin product is a key ingredient of animal feeds.


Lignin, a major component of wood and an abundant organic polymer, provides a multitude of functions especially in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Sourced from the wood pulping process as a side stream, Sappi SA uses it to produce Pelletin, a lignin-based additive in animal feed manufacturing.

Pelletin, which is produced at Sappi’s Tugela Mill, is used in the preparation of animal feeds as a binding agent that replaces oil-based binders.

Sappi has recently achieved GMP+ Feed Safety Assurance certification for Pelletin, which is an internationally recognised program for feed safety management.

Extracting valuable lignin from wood pulp.

“Sappi’s certification gives Pelletin a competitive edge in the global lignin market, as it demonstrates its compliance with the highest standards of quality assurance and risk management in the animal feed industry,” says Jason Knock, general manager, Lignin for Sappi Southern Africa. This is vital for the health and welfare of livestock and the safety of food products derived from them, as well as the issue of food security in the country, he says.

Lignin, which is recovered from the pulping process of paper and board manufacturing, is becoming an increasingly important natural alternatives for oil-based products, and is a prime example of the growing bioeconomy.

Plantation trees provide the primary resource for a growing array of wood-based products from structural timber, poles, planks and boards to clothing fabric and animal food additives.

“As a technical lignin, Pelletin primarily functions as a binder in the production of compound animal feeds and acts as a natural glue that binds the feed ingredients and additives together. This makes for a cost-effective compound feed pellet with enhanced durability and strength,” says Jason.

The combined anti-caking and dispersing properties of the product promote mixing uniformity and homogenous blending of all feed ingredients, acting as an effective lubricant reducing friction in the pelleting process, as well as reducing wear and tear on the manufacturing equipment.

Lignin is a major component of wood, extracted during the pulping process.

Finding biodiversity in timber plantations

Eucalyptus plantation set back from riparian area, Karkloof.

Finding a balance between wood fibre production while conserving biodiversity and minimising environmental impacts is the big challenge facing the forestry industry all over the world. In South Africa it has a particular significance because almost all timber production comes from planted forests established in the wetter grassland areas located along the escarpment and eastern coastal plains.

These plantations, which occupy some 1% of South Africa’s land area, play a vital role in providing the primary raw material for a wide range of products from paper and packaging to structural timber, veneers, boards, fabric and charcoal, to name but a few. The forestry and forest products industry generates 10.4% of South Africa’s agricultural GDP and 4.5% of manufacturing GDP, creating 105 600 direct jobs and 43 500 indirect jobs in the process.

Crucially, these plantations have made it possible to protect the natural forests in South Africa from over-logging by providing the wood fibre needs of the growing population. Many of the plantations in this country were established by government specifically for this purpose.

But the loss of biodiversity which underpins life on earth and the ecosystem services upon which we depend, is a massive red flag for every country in the world, South Africa included. As populations increase more land is transformed from its natural state, and inevitably, the biodiversity supported by those natural systems is negatively impacted.

Sappi Forests Environmental Manager Hlengiwe Ndlovu (left) leads the way across a grassland conservation area at the top of the Karkloof mountains. It is located on Sappi’s Lebanon plantation, and borders with the indigenous forest in the Karkloof Nature Reserve.

This places a heavy responsibility on land managers to proceed cautiously when biodiversity, ecosystem services and the health of the entire natural environment is at stake.

So how do we continue to provide the wood fibre raw materials that we need from alien tree plantations that have transformed natural grassland, while at the same time conserving biodiversity? This was the focus of a recent visit by key staff members from SA National Biodiversity Institute, Department Forestry, Fisheries & Environment, Forestry South Africa and Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa, to Sappi’s plantations in the Karkloof in the KZN Midlands.

What followed was a fascinating journey from the comfort of the Karkloof Country Club (and a delicious cappuccino) to a natural grassland in the middle of Lebanon plantation at the top of the rugged Karkloof mountains; to the 160 ha Shafton-Kusane wetland surrounded by forestry, dairy and sugar farms; to the magnificent Karkloof Falls where the Karkloof river plunges 105 meters into a gorge before joining the Umgeni river which provides the primary water resource for several million people downstream.

Sappi Forests Environmental Manager Hlengiwe Ndlovu and Sappi’s former Environmental Manager (now retired) and Chairperson of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme, Dave Everard, provided fascinating insights into the company’s strategy to achieve this elusive balance.

The Karkloof falls, a popular picnic spot, is at the centre of an impressive network of mountain bike and hiking trails.

Water

The thread that stitched this journey together was the water that trickles out of the springs and seeps at the top of the catchment. It makes its merry way along countless streams, through wetlands, natural forest patches, plantations, grasslands and farms, gathering momentum as it goes before entering the mighty Umgeni River which provides life-giving water for millions of people all the way to the coast. The water’s journey serves to emphasize the connectedness of the landscape, the fact that how we use the land in one place ultimately affects the health of the land everywhere.

Key to understanding Sappi’s - and indeed much of forestry’s approach – was the patchwork nature of the landscape. From the top of the Karkloof mountain we could see that the plantations stretching across the valley below were not contiguous wall-to-wall trees. There were open grassland corridors between the tree patches, along the rivers and around the wetlands and the steep, rocky outcrops. These open areas constitute around one third of the forestry company’s landholding, and are proactively managed for conservation purposes.

The way these open, unplanted areas are connected to each other, to the wetlands, high conservation value areas and natural forest patches in the landscape, plays a crucial role in their effectiveness as biodiversity enablers. If well planned out and managed, timber estates can therefore become ‘green corridors’ that allow the free movement of plants and animals, thereby supporting biodioversity in the landscape.

The group that attended the Biodiversity in Forestry field day arranged by the Paper Manufacturers Association of SA (PAMSA) and Forestry South Africa (FSA) and hosted by Sappi Forests at their Karkloof plantations. Left to right: Dave Everard (Chairperson of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme), Hlengiwe Ndlovu (Sappi Forests Environmental Manager), Julie Borland (R & D consultant, PAMSA), Alex Marsh (SANBI), Jane Molony (Executive Director, PAMSA), Jennifer Zungu (SANBI), John Scotcher (Environmental consultant, FSA), Tshifiwa Ramatshimbila (Director Woodlands & Indigenous Forests, DFFE) and Trudy Sebelebele (Forest Certification Manager, Sappi).

Grassland

The grassland we visited at the top of the mountain was a kaleidoscope of different grasses, forbs and bulbs thanks to the fact that it has been protected from excessive livestock grazing, and periodically burnt to mimic nature and promote biodiversity. Encroaching alien vegetation has been kept at bay.

Directly below the grassland an indigenous forest blankets the steep slopes of the mountain. This forms part of the 3 275 ha Karkloof Nature Reserve which includes 198 ha of Sappi owned land, land leased out by several other private landowners as well as land purchased by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Although the forest was heavily logged back in the day, it has remained undisturbed for half a century and harbours a huge array of birds and animals, plant and tree species including the magnificent yellowwoods and stinkwoods. It lies within the upper catchments of the uMgeni and uThukela rivers which are of crucial strategic importance in supplying water to millions of downstream users.

Undisturbed grassland conservation area in between Lebanon plantation and the indigenous forest of the Karkloof Nature Reserve.

Wetland

The Shafton-Kusane wetland is situated in the centre of the Karkloof valley, and fulfils a vital function of capturing, storing, filtering and slowing down the water that drains out of the mountains. It covers an area of 160 ha and was ranked as highest priority in terms of broad regional conservation priorities and opportunities for providing key goods and services. Sappi has pulled its trees back to expand and protect the wetland, and does on-going invasive alien weed control. They’re also busy upgrading all the stream crossings above the wetland to ensure the water flows freely and unimpeded.

The Karkloof river meanders through the 160 ha Shafton-Kusane wetland before plunging over the Karkloof falls.

Karkloof trails

Below the wetland the river enters forest land again, and then plunges over the spectacular Karkloof waterfall. Here we encounter a different side of forestry. This is the focal point of one of the country’s best known trail networks. There are 250 kms of carefully curated single track trails and forestry roads snaking through plantations, grassland corridors and conservation areas, used by mountain bikers, runners and hikers from far and wide who come here to savour what the beautiful KZN midlands has to offer. There is also a well-kept picnic area for day visitors who just want to unwind and enjoy the scenery.

Providing safe public access to these forests and trails is part of Sappi’s social commitment to promote eco-tourism and the local economy.

In the midst of all this, Sappi needs to operate an efficient and productive forestry operation that sustains jobs and keeps shareholders and stakeholders happy.

The Biodiversity field trip ended at the picturesque picnic spot located in the middle of a Sappi plantation, with the magnificent Karkloof Falls as the backdrop.

Biodiversity

Sappi has partnered with organisations such as the SA National Biodiversity Institute and WWF, as well as other plantation owners through Forestry South Arica, to mainstream biodiversity into the forest sector. This includes ambitious catchment management projects that extend beyond their own borders as well as the stewardship programme which facilitates the proclamation of nature reserves and protected areas on forestry land.

Sappi maintains 160 important conservation areas, including seven nature reserves, on its plantation lands in South Africa.

This work includes on-going water quality assessments and monitoring, integrated weed management plans and maintaining and enhancing soil function, a crucial component of sustainable forest management.

Forestry in South Africa is regarded as a streamflow reduction activity, and is regulated and controlled by a raft of legislation. New afforestation is restricted to catchments where spare water is available. The total planted forestry area has actually shrunk over the past 10 years or so, and is unlikely to be expanded in the foreseeable future. Plantations range in size from several thousand-hectare estates all the way down to tiny, one or two hectare plots grown by small-scale farmers located in tribal areas.

Like any crop, growing trees use water, but they use it efficiently in the production of wood fibre, a key natural resource that is renewable, sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and – unlike a material like plastic - leaves behind zero waste. Commercial forestry plantations in South Africa account for some 3% of total water use, according to an Overview of the SA Water Sector, published by the Department of Water & Sanitation. Plantations are not irrigated – they only intercept rainfall, which reduces runoff into rivers and streams. By way of comparison, agriculture/irrigation utilises 60% of total water resources in South Africa.

View of the Karkloof valley from the top of the mountains showing patches of indigenous forest, farm land and plantations.

Moreover the forest sector uses very little chemical weedicides and pesticides, the use of which are also heavily regulated by certification bodies.

So how much biodiversity can thrive in this typical patchwork plantation environment?

During 10 birding events held on Sappi plantation land in the KZN midlands between 1997 and 2007, a total of 455 bird species were recorded. A camera trap survey during the same period yielded 30 mammal species. These included jackal, caracal, civet, genet, serval, porcupine, mongoose, aardwolf, badger, otter, samango monkey, baboon, warthog, bushpig, reedbuck, bushbuck and duiker. Several sightings of leopard have also been recorded in plantations around KZN and Mpumalanga.

These sightings indicate that timber plantations – when properly managed – can play an important role in protecting and enhancing biodiversity.

A trickle of water threads through Shafton plantation at the picnic spot above the Karkloof Falls.

Last word

“Given that plantations are effectively green corridors that facilitate movement throughout the region, it is entirely possible that a land-sparing approach combining large patches of grassland in a mosaic with intensively used plantation patches provides the best compromise to produce the required volumes of wood while preserving meaningful biodiversity outside of formally protected areas.” This summation was provided by Michelle Pretorius and Justin O’Riain of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, and Kirsten Wimberger of the Wild Bird Trust, in an article titled ‘Preserving large tracts of natural grassland promotes mammal species richness and occurrence in afforested areas’, published in the Forest Ecology & Management journal.

*Images by Samora Chapman

PEFC Group Scheme certification for small growers

Hlengiwe Ndlovu, Divisional Environmental Manager for Sappi Forests, proudly displays the PEFC-endorsed Sappi Group Scheme certificate for small scale growers.

Five small scale timber growers in KwaZulu-Natal have become the first participants in the award-winning Sappi Khulisa programme to achieve forest certification through the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) in the Sappi Group Scheme for small scale growers.

The five timber growers, with a total 8,143 hectares of timber area between them, have been successfully audited and awarded a PEFC Group Scheme certificate. The recipients of this significant milestone, and founding members of the Sappi PEFC Group Scheme, are:-

• iMfume Cluster, consisting of more than 20l individual small growers from the Mfume district near Scottburgh,
• Sobengwe Trading, Ixopo,
• MG Farming, Richmond,
• Mclean M, Underberg,
• Braecroft Timbers (Pty) Ltd, Underberg.

This follows years of intensive efforts by Sappi - working together with other stakeholders in the forestry industry - in addressing the barriers to certification experienced by small-scale growers in South Africa. PEFC is an internationally recognised certification system that provides assurance to end-use consumers of wood products that the raw material is sourced from sustainably managed forests.

Members of the Sobengwe Trading forestry team, Ixopo. Certification provides small-scale growers with access to international markets and assures consumers that wood-based products are responsibly sourced from sustainable forestry operations.

Sappi was the first grower company in South Africa to achieve PEFC certification through the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS) in 2021, after starting with the process in 2015. This involved participation in the development of a Forest Management Standard for South Africa, the development of mechanisms to support certification requirements and, in 2018, the endorsement of the standard and certification procedures. A certification tool was developed by the SAFAS team to assess plantations, based on several factors including environmental, social and economic conditions specific to South Africa.

“After years of collaboration and dedicated commitment to developing a forest certification standard for South Africa, this achievement marks a historical moment in our long journey to support and make forest certification more accessible to the small landowners that participate in our supplier programmes,” commented Duane Roothman, Vice-President of Sappi Forests.

Forest certification is used as a tool to ensure that responsible forest management practices are implemented in the forest, and that wood from certified forests can be identified throughout the supply chain. It enables conscious consumers to choose responsibly sourced wood-based products, and gives consumers the assurance that the woodfibre used to manufacture the products they are buying has been legally harvested in accordance with sound environmental practices, and that social aspects, such as indigenous rights, have been taken into account.

Forest certification and other voluntary codes of conduct are key tools for promoting sustainable consumption and production, and for combating deforestation, forest degradation and illegal logging by providing proof of legality and responsible management, harvesting and manufacturing practices.

For more info on PEFC visit: https://www.pefc.org/
For more info about SAFAS visit: https://www.safas.org.za

Water security in the cross-hairs

That’s the uMkhomazi river, a strategic water resource that rises in the southern Drakensberg mountains and serves thousands of downstream users, including the Sappi-Saiccor mill on the south coast. In the foreground are cleared alien wattles.

The Sappi/WWF Water Stewardship Partnership is making a difference in the uMkhomazi catchment, a strategic water resource area serving a myriad of downstream users …

There are no plantations here - except for the remains of a rogue black wattle jungle that has been cleared from the banks of the river - as we follow a well used footpath down into the uMkhomazi valley. This is tribal land used by the Nzinga people who live in a sprawling rural settlement a little way upstream from Impendle. They graze their cattle here on these grassy slopes, but over the years a combination of over-grazing, uncontrolled wildfires and encroaching alien vegetation has taken its toll on the landscape which has been losing its capacity to support the livestock upon which they depend for survival.

This is a familiar scenario in rural South Africa, where land degradation and deepening rural poverty go hand in hand. This process has significant negative impacts on the water quality that runs off the catchment and ends up in one of KwaZulu-Natal’s major rivers that serves a myriad of downstream water users.

But now things are changing in this section of the valley which has become a focus of attention following a ground-breaking Water Stewardship Partnership between Sappi and WWF-SA (the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa) that was launched in 2021. The alien wattle trees are gone, the cattle are being moved around in camps by local ‘eco-rangers’, wildfires are being kept out and the grasslands are beginning to show signs of recovery.

The eco-rangers move the community’s cattle into camps at night to stimulate the soil and encourage the natural grass cover to return on the bare patches of ground where alien wattle was cleared.

The Sappi/WWF team has engaged the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) to organise and support the local farmers to rehabilitate their rangelands and improve their herds so that they can earn a better living off their cattle. INR facilitated the clearing of alien wattle as well as the training of the farmers and the ‘eco-rangers’ who watch over the cattle, move them from camp to camp, keep wildfires and stock thieves at bay and engage in land restoration work.

The eco-rangers are managed by the local cattle owners who have joined the project. They have received training through Meat Naturally in regenerative grazing techniques, rangeland restoration and livestock management. Meat Naturally has also organised a mobile auction to enable the famers to sell their cattle and access new markets.

Mthobisi Gwala of the Institute of Natural Resources (left) and local cattle farmer Nkosi Nxamalala are engaged in a project to improve the rangelands and restore the health of the natural ecosystems in the uMkhomazi catchment.

One of the cattle farmers, Nkosi Nxamalala, was sitting on the hillside watching his cattle graze in the valley below, and accompanied us on our walk. He told us that 40 farmers from his community have joined the programme. They own 700 head of cattle between them, and they are starting to see how the improved grazing is benefitting them. He was especially thankful for the training he has received in animal health which has helped him to maintain a healthy herd.

Lower down in the valley where the wattle jungle has been cleared, the wattle slash has been used to create berms to prevent soil erosion on the bare patches of soil that have been left behind. Various techniques are being trialled to find the best way of encouraging the natural grass cover to grow back on these bare patches, including camping the cattle overnight so that their dung and the action of their hooves can stimulate and promote soil health and get the natural grasses to grow back.

According to Mthobisi Gwala of INR, many cattle farmers in neighbouring communities are beginning to see how good range management is benefitting the Nzinga farmers and are lining up to join the programme. He says INR is also busy implementing a similar programme with cattle farmers from the Ekukhanyeni community, located a little downstream from the Nzinga.

Local people were employed to clear alien wattle which had invaded the Nzinga’s traditional rangelands in the uMkhomazi valley, negatively impacting their cattle businesses as well as the health of the catchment. (Photo: Wanika Davids, WWF SA)
These berms constructed from wattle slash are used to prevent soil erosion on the bare patches of soil left behind after the alien wattle was cleared from the banks of the uMkhomazi river.

Water stewardship

What does all of this have to do with ‘water stewardship’ you may ask?

Well, an important component of improving the land management within the catchment involves engaging with local communities that occupy and utilise the land and providing them with the tools and the skills to turn things around and restore the health of the natural ecosystems. Healthy wetlands and grasslands store moisture, releasing it slowly downstream while protecting the soil from erosion, providing a healthy habitat for wild flora and fauna and better grazing for livestock which in turn benefits the communities. An added benefit is that healthy soils and grasslands store more carbon than degraded landscapes, thus mitigating the effects of climate change as well.

This is just one aspect of the Sappi WWF-SA programme that aims to improve water security in the uMkhomazi catchment. It is an ambitious and complex undertaking involving multiple stakeholders. The uMkhomazi is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most strategic river catchment systems that extends all the way from the southern Drakensberg mountains to the sea.

Along the way the river provides the primary water resource for many rural communities such as the Nzinga, extensive commercial agriculture and forestry operations, as well as manufacturing businesses, peri-urban settlements and towns all the way to the coast.

The village of the Nzinga … many of the community members rely on cattle farming for their livelihoods.

Invested in the catchment

Sappi is heavily invested in this catchment with some 42 000 ha of plantation forestry spread across its upper reaches, while Sappi-Saiccor mill – one of the biggest dissolving pulp mills in the world – is situated on the banks of the river less than one km from its mouth where it enters the Indian Ocean.

According to Sappi’s Biodiversity Engagement Specialist, Craig Daniel, water security has been identified as a key risk for Sappi, with both their pulp manufacturing operation and the forestry lands being dependent upon a healthy catchment, viable communities and good quality water. It’s not surprising therefore that Sappi has joined forces with WWF-SA, one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, to address the challenges.

Beginning in 2021, Sappi and WWF have been collaborating with many other partners to achieve the objectives of the Water Stewardship Programme, which has four main focus areas:-
• To improve water governance through multi-stakeholder engagement;
• To promote efficient water-use;
• To remove alien invasive plants and rehabilitate wetlands and riparian areas;
• To strengthen the capacity of local communities in natural resource management.

Krelyne Andrew, GM Sustainability Dissolving Pulp at Sappi-Saiccor, says: “Sappi has prioritised Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – the right to clean water and sanitation – as part of its business strategy.” This stewardship project is putting that promise into practice, she says.

The Sappi-Saiccor pulp mill is situated at the end of the uMkhomazi catchment just upstream from the river mouth.

Strategic water source areas

With water use having grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century and with South Africa being a water-scarce country, WWF-SA has chosen to focus many of its portfolio of projects on securing South Africa’s Strategic Water Source Areas. These are the areas that deliver over 50% of South Africa’s freshwater to downstream economies, while only making up 10% of the country’s land cover. The uMkhomazi catchment is one of these strategic water source areas.

To achieve its objectives, WWF-SA is pro-actively mobilising water stewardship partnerships throughout the country to bring together communities, corporations, government, and non-profit organisations to tackle the water challenges in the Strategic Water Source Areas. The Sappi WWF uMkhomazi Water Stewardship Programme is one such partnership.

“Our partnership with Sappi is crucial, as WWF cannot work on its own to secure these important Strategic Water Source Areas,” commented David Lindley of WWF.

Left to right: Dr Dave Everard, Mthobisi Gwala (INR) and Craig Daniel (Sappi) visiting the Nzinga tribal rangelands in the uMkhomazi valley upstream from Impendle.

Water governance challenges

Dr Dave Everard, former Sappi Forests Environmental Manager (recently retired) who has been involved in setting up the programme, said that a key aspect of the work of the project team is to address water governance issues. Dave said there are huge challenges out there that impact on water security, and the project has provided the team with an opportunity to engage with the many levels of stakeholders involved in water governance and usage. These range from the Department of Water and Sanitation, to local authorities, water boards, farmer associations, communities and other water users.

The Sappi team is all too aware that their own forestry operations can have an impact on the catchment

Commented Hlengiwe Ndlovu, Divisional Environmental Manager for Sappi Forests: “We recognise the impact our plantations can have in the uMkhomazi catchment and on freshwater ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers, and the importance of these being well managed. So, we promote water stewardship as a key part of our forestry management and make every effort to reduce the impacts of our forestry activities on water resources.

“The opportunity for green jobs through the partnership’s focus on alien invasive plant clearing is also fully aligned with Sappi’s commitment to Enterprise and Supplier Development that promotes sustainable livelihoods through capacity building of small and medium-sized enterprises,” said Hlengiwe.

A thorough review of the first phase of the project has been done, and the good news is that both Sappi and WWF have expressed their satisfaction with the platform that has been established in Phase One, and have committed to continue with the programme for another four year cycle, ending in September 2027. In addition to the freshwater work, the partnership will explore the integration of biodiversity stewardship and sustainable financing initiatives during Phase Two.

The cattle are camped at night to help restore soil fertility and grass cover, while during the day they are moved around the communal lands to give the grass time to recover and prevent over-grazing. (Photo: Wanika Davids, WWF SA)


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.

FSA plays key role in national crisis control

Outgoing FSA Executive Committee chairperson Themba Vilane applauded the resilience of the forest sector despite another challenging year. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Forestry South Africa held its 21st AGM in the KZN midlands in May, attended by a record number of members and invited guests who were treated to two blockbuster keynote presentations that helped to put the crises facing South Africa into perspective …

What a year 2022 turned out to be for the South African forestry sector! After surviving the Covid pandemic in 2020 and the failed insurrection and looting spree that took place in KZN and Gauteng in 2021, forestry stakeholders were hoping for a more stable and prosperous 2022. But the crises just shifted … to energy (or the lack of it) with load shedding ramping ever upwards; and to logistics where a strike by Transnet workers brought freight rail – that was already in a state of decline – to a standstill in October, costing the battered SA economy R1 billion per day in lost opportunities.

Meanwhile the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted international markets, creating logistics bottlenecks and causing prices of commodities like fuel, coal, tyres and fertilizer to skyrocket.

In between all of that, the resilient forest sector survived – even thrived in many instances – aided and abetted by the Forestry South Africa team which muscled its way closer to the levers of power to help find solutions for a number of pressing national issues.

Here is a brief highlights package of FSA activities during the year 2022 that were covered by outgoing FSA chairperson Themba Vilane during his address at the recent FSA AGM, and were elaborated upon in his Foreword in the recently published FSA Annual Report.

Happy to be back in the real world … members and guests turned out in their numbers to attend the FSA AGM at Fern Hill Conference Centre in Tweedie, KZN. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Ports and rail

The FSA team established regular meetings with the CEO of Transnet and her top management team, and task teams working on ports and rail met throughout the year, playing a hand in bringing the Transnet strike to an end. As a result of this involvement, Executive Director Michael Peter was asked to serve in a President-led task team working on the reforms needed to address the use and recapitalisation of rail and ports in South Africa.

FSA is also serving on a Presidency-led energy committee which is playing a key role in addressing the energy crisis.

“Having our association at the forefront of these national crises interventions is a great testimony to the regard in which our sector is held,” said Themba.

Research and innovation

Forestry’s growing partnerships with government also bore fruit with FSA securing Sector Innovation Funding of R35.2 million from the Department of Science and Innovation. This funding serves to increase forestry’s research capacity in crucial areas.

Furthermore, the signing of an MoU between FSA and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) will bring an additional R9 million per year for forest protection.

Recommissioning of state plantations

Perhaps the biggest news of the year came just before Christmas when the DFFE called for expressions of interest from the private sector for the operation of 22 000 ha of state-owned forestry plantations in the Western Cape. These former pine plantations have been lying dormant for anything between five to 20 years, as they were handed over to the receiving agents after clear-felling at rotation end by the previous lease holder, MTO Forestry. They were originally part of government’s forestry exit strategy in the Western Cape, but following an outcry from industry stakeholders and further research, Cabinet decided in 2008 to recommission these plantations.

After years of lobbying by FSA and other stakeholders, the process of bringing them back into forestry has begun at last. This is good news indeed and will revitalise forestry and sawmilling in the Western Cape (see story on SAF Online - https://saforestryonline.co.za/articles/w-cape-state-plantation).

“We hope that this signals the start of the process for the rest of the Category B and C state plantations which have been overrun by timber thieves and criminal syndicates …” said Themba.

Incoming FSA Executive Committee chairperson Andrew Mason (medium growers group) and vice-chairperson Buhle Msweli (small-scale growers group). The Executive Committee chair and vice-chair rotate between the Large, Medium and Small Growers Groups every year. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Land reform

On the land reform front, the FSA Land Committee has come up with concrete proposals to bolster support for communities who have come into forestry through land reform initiatives, in an effort to ensure that a sustainable fibre supply from these plantations is maintained. These include a feasibility study stage in the land restitution process to better inform settlement negotiations; a suite of appropriate settlement models; a crop ownership transfer model and the provision of appropriate post-settlement support for land reform beneficiaries.

Timber volumes up

Finally, Themba applauded the fact that timber sales recorded by FSA members during 2022 were the highest since 2018 at 13.970 million tons (6.2% higher than 2021 volumes). Gum sales were the best performer at 7 million tons (18.5% higher than 2021 volumes), wattle was second best at 1.4 million tons (up 15.5% on 2021 volumes) and pine at 5.5 million tons (down by 7.8% vs 2021 volumes).

These timber sales volumes would have been much higher had it not been for the devastating floods that occurred in KZN in April and the impacts of the rail and port strike in October, the consequences of which are still being felt across all sectors of the economy.

“Should the country succeed in addressing the two biggest challenges we are facing in logistics and energy, this bodes very well for the future of timber growers, especially with the major investments which have been made by our sector in pulp and paper, particle board, sawmilling and renewable energy,” said Themba.

Celebrating women … women are playing an increasingly active role in the previously male-dominated forestry sector in South Africa. (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Service acknowledgements

The FSA team paid tribute to two stalwarts of the Forestry Sector, Brian Aitken and Murray Mason, both of whom have put in multiple stints as FSA office bearers over the years, and who have contributed enormously to the success of the sector.

FSA Executive Committee for 2023/24

Ex Large Growers Group

Duane Roothman (SAPPI)
Themba Vilane (Mondi)
Sean Brown (Merensky)
Itumeleng Langeni (MTO)
Tsepo Monaheng (SAFCOL)
Ferdie Brauckmann (TWK)
Penwell Lunga (PG Bison)
Gerald Stoltz (York Timbers)
Mark Armour (co-opted)

Ex Medium Growers Group
Andrew Mason - KZN (MGG Chair) (FSA Chairperson)
Murray Mason - KZN / S Cape
Heiner Hinze - Mpumalanga / Limpopo
Graeme Freese - Past MGG Chairman
Danny Knoesen - NCT

Ex Small Growers Group
Buhle Msweli KZN Provincial Chairperson (FSA Vice-Chairperson)
Musa Mcwensa KZN Deputy Chairperson
Fhatuwani Netsianda Limpopo Provincial Chairperson

Joyce Shozi (chairperson King Cetshwayo District small-scale growers), Sanele Zuma (Siyaqhubeka Forests), and Nelly Ndlovu (CEO Mondi Zimele and chairperson of the Forest Sector Charter Council. (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Linda Vilakazi (Siyaqhubeka Forests), Maurice Makhatini (Mondi) and Siya Kobese (Sappi). (Photo: Samora Chapman)
Left to right: Mbali Luthuli, (Assistant Director, Planning, KZN DFFE), Wongeka Kutshwa (Deputy Director, Forestry Development, KZN DFFE), Pumeza Nodada (Deputy Director-General, Forestry Management, DFFE) and Noluthando Kobese (Chief Forester, Forestry Regulation, KZN DFFE). (Photo: Samora Chapman)

Focus on Forestry is back!

This ‘big daddy’ wheeled harvester from Tigercat attracted a lot of attention at the 2019 Focus field day held at White River, Mpumalanga.

The good news for forestry stakeholders is that the Focus on Forestry Conference and Expo is back after a four-year hiatus.

It will be held over three days from 7-9 November 2023 at the Karkloof Country Club in the KZN midlands. Save the date and dust off your boots, the organisers have promised an action-packed programme of presentations, an exhibition and a field day at a nearby Sappi plantation.

Focus on Forestry 2023 is organised by CMO, Nelson Mandela University and Forestry South Africa. It has been the premier get-together for forestry stakeholders in Southern Africa for a number of years. The last event was held at White River in Mpumalanga back in April 2019. Then COVID-19 came out of nowhere, shutting down public events, disrupting business and impacting almost every aspect of our lives.

Since then virtual events have become the norm, but they don’t quite hit the spot as the most valuable part of real live gatherings is the opportunity to exchange ideas face-to-face, network and socialise with forestry colleagues from near and far. 

Focus is targeted at a broad range of stakeholders including forest landowners and growers (large and small), managers and contractors, while also offering valuable insights to academics, researchers, consultants, training providers, governmental organisations and services and equipment suppliers into the industry.

Demonstrating a planting rig at the 2014 Focus event held near Piet Retief, Mpumalanga back in 2014.

The breakdown of the event is as follows:- 

 More detailed information will follow soon, including registration information for delegates, exhibitors and sponsors. Early bird registrations will be discounted, so watch this space!

 Enquiries can be directed to andrew@cmogroup.io.

 

This looks risky, but it’s not. Fogmaker about to demonstrate the power of its on-board fire suppression system at the 2019 Focus event at White River.
Foresters checking the log quality after a de-barking demo during the Focus field day at Hilton, KZN in 2017.
Michal Brink and Andrew McKuen of CMO, organisers of a number of Focus events over the past 10 years.

Mega-fires, politics and the force of nature

Ghostly post mega-fire landscape, Southern Cape.

The number and severity of out-of-control wildfires are increasing around the world, causing untold damage to the environment, to infrastructure and the local economies, not to mention the loss of life and suffering of fire victims – both human and animal.

We all know why this is happening … climate change, prolonged dry spells followed by high winds, uncontrolled development on the urban-wildland interface, the proliferation of invasive alien plants leading to high fuel loads, changing land use patterns, poor land management, criminality, negligence and arson.

Yet we live in an environment here in southern Africa that is described as ‘fire-prone’. The natural landscapes around us actually need fire to maintain their ecological integrity. Surely we should have learned to manage these dynamics by now?

The fact of the matter is that fire is a primal force of nature that is not easily controlled, and in some instances is uncontrollable. Therefore human efforts to manage fire are always going to be caught short. Once a big fire is rampaging through a dry landscape with high fuel loads and strong winds behind it, there is no stopping it.

Our best option is to try and manage the conditions that fuel the development of uncontrollable wildfires in the first place, and to get our disaster teams organised to deal with the consequences when they do happen. This is easier said than done, requiring a level of cooperation between land owners, land managers, fire protection associations, fire authorities at all levels of government - and the weather gods – that has thus far escaped us.

Nelson Mandela University has made a huge contribution to efforts to understand and manage the dynamics that surround fire management through the development of a comprehensive Fire Management study programme and the hosting of annual Fire Management symposiums that bring together fire experts from around the country and the world.

Many of these fire experts attended the most recent 13th Fire Management Symposium held at NMU’s George Campus in November last year, thrashing out the issues, comparing notes and networking furiously. Useful, but unlikely to stop the next mega-fire. As one experienced delegate pointed out, we talk and talk but get no closer to achieving the level of collaboration required by all the fire stakeholders to actually make a difference.

Well controlled prescribed burn in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park is designed to reduce fuel loads in an effort to prevent unwanted wildfires.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the absence at these symposiums of key government figures who could influence policy and resource allocation at national, provincial and local levels that would enable fire management stakeholders to ramp up their capacity to manage fire.

Forestry companies find themselves in the trenches at the fire-line, spending their own money to protect their plantations and processing facilities from wildfires, many of which are started outside of their boundaries. They prop up local fire protection associations, run fire awareness campaigns and put out fires they didn’t start.

This is where the rubber hits the tar.

One of the highlights of the recent Symposium was the presentation by Montigny Investments’ Risk Manager, Arno Pienaar. The Montigny team operates 80 000 ha of forest land in neighbouring Eswatini, and have implemented an old school ‘military style’ approach to keep fires out of their plantations, with considerable success. These are the same plantations that burnt to the ground in 2008, resulting in the closure of the Usutu pulp mill and the loss of hundreds of jobs. Montigny Investments is now the biggest single employer in Eswatini, and they simply cannot afford to allow another mega-fire to destroy it all again. So they have made their own plans, unconventional but effective (see full story here).

One of the keys to Montigny’s success, and this came up again and again during the symposium, was the need to get local communities on your side to prevent wildfires from happening. Properly on your side. Cut out arson fires started by angry, bored, poor, disgruntled neighbours, and half your battle is won.

This is way easier said than done, and involves a complete overhaul of the socio-economic conditions that prevail in much of southern Africa. It’s complicated, and goes way beyond the scope of the fire management fraternity.

Lessons from a mega-fire

Perhaps it would be useful to re-look at the learnings that Paul Gerber, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Cape FPA, took from the 2017 mega-fire that turned large swaths of the Southern Cape region between George and PE to a cinder in 2017.

The Southern Cape Fire Protection Association has its hands full keeping wildfires out of this region.

• Overall there is a greater need for integrated fire management.

• Greater focus needs to be directed at awareness of the general public as well as different authorities, concerning the fire hazards that exist in the natural as well as built environment.

• Lack of financial resources: Plans for fire fighting are good but must be implementable by providing ample resources. The emphasis needs to be on being pro-active rather than reactive. A good example here is that helicopters are not deployed early enough while fires are still small and conditions are favourable, because of the high operating costs involved. They are only released when fires have assumed disastrous proportions, by which time conditions are often no longer safe for flying.

• Because of a general shortage of fire-fighting capacity and resources, more emphasis should be placed on pro-active fire prevention measures, especially controlled burns. In the well-known fire triangle, the fuel load, particularly the fine fuel component, is the only factor that can be managed and controlled. This is the factor on which all involved in fire prevention should concentrate.

• The use of media in informing and warning people was not effective. In the recent fire there was a lack of communication with the public/residents, as well as among fire fighting crews during the operations. The need for an independent, dedicated two-way radio communication system during disasters was identified, as communications via existing radio and cell-phone networks proved to be ineffective at times.

• Tactical and operational planning for the combatting of wildfires of this size should rely heavily on local experience and knowledge. With the introduction of authorities from elsewhere to take command, it was found that advice from local fire experts was disregarded.

• All spheres of government involved in fire disasters need to be trained in the incident command system.

• Divisional supervisors (‘fire bosses’) need to be well trained. At the Knysna fire there were not enough qualified fire bosses. Such supervisors need to undergo organised training courses. In the recent fire five FPA managers had to be made available to act as divisional supervisors.

• The need for fire fighting personnel experienced in veld fires who know how to make back-burns, was identified. The holiday resort of Buffalo Bay and the Fairview forest village were saved from being destroyed by judicious back-burns by foresters. It must be noted that some authorities would not give permission for such operations to be conducted.

• In the urban-rural interface, many houses built amongst natural vegetation burnt down. This practice must be reviewed and buildings need defendable space around them in the case of wildfires.

Here are some take-outs from the 13th Fire Management Symposium:-

A common thread of wildfires around the world … droughts followed by heat waves with temps above 40 degrees C and strong winds - Greg Forsyth, CSIR

Symposium presenters fielding questions from the floor (left to right) Ian Pienaar (Montigny), Trevor Abrahams (WoF), Paul Gerber (Southern Cape FPA) and Pam Booth (Knysna Municipality).

10 000 ha burnt in five hours. Final size of the fire: 189 000 ha. Flame lengths: 300 metres - Rodeo-Chediski fire, Arizona, 2002.

When it rains a lot in dry parts of South Africa, beware the following year the risk of wildfires increases - Greg Forsyth, CSIR

Building regulations should take fire risk into account – Greg Forsyth.

More accurate, balanced and informed reporting on fire is needed in SA – Lee Raath Brownie, Fire & Rescue International.

Fires are a people problem – Arno Pienaar, Montigny.

We need 17 000 wildland fire fighters in SA. We have 5 300 – Trevor Abrahams, Working on Fire.

One of the successes of the WoF programme are the many people who come through the programme and move into positions of employment. 60% of WoF managers are former WoF firefighters – Trevor Abrahams.

Working on Fire is a government job creation initiative that trains and deploys young fire fighters who assist landowners in times of need.

We talk and don’t implement. We are still doing it – Paul Gerber, Southern Cape FPA.

The Knysna fire was reported two months before it turned into a big fire. It was left to smoulder – Paul Gerber.

Fire is part of the African landscape. If you exclude it, it will lead to higher fuel loads and ultimately bigger fires – Piet van der Merwe, WoF.

Fires grow exponentially after ignition. The quicker you can get to it, the smaller is the fire and the easier it is to put out. – Piet van der Merwe.

We need to figure out how to capacitate FPAs … almost all of them are dependent on private sector funding – Val Charlton, Land Works.

Integrated fire prevention is a leadership problem more than a funding problem … there is an absence of political leadership and support – Etienne du Toit, Western Cape Government

Fuel load influences all the pillars of your fire management strategy – Deon Greyling, Mondi.

Big fires change the ecology of a landscape – Dr Rachel Loehman, US Geological Survey.

Pine and fynbos are highly flammable and fire prone – Dr Annelise Schutte-Vlok, Cape Nature.

Fire frequency is lower in small and medium grower plantations – Jeffrey le Roux, Sappi.

Everything that happens on the surface of the earth affects the groundwater, which provides 30% of the world’s fresh water. All pollution percolates down into the groundwater. So wildfires and groundwater are intimately linked – Dr Jo Barnes.

The ‘bakkie sakkie’ is the basic equipment that helps foresters keep wildfires out of their plantations.
Rehabilitation work on the go to prevent soil erosion near Knysna after the 2017 inferno.
Stihl knapsacks, blowers and chainsaws on display at the symposium.
Timber salvaged by PG Bison after the 2017 Knysna fires is stacked in a massive wet deck that at its height was 3 km long, 24 metres wide and 4.5 metres high. (Photo courtesy Roger Parsons and Ritchie Morris)
Fighting fires is dangerous work … you need the right gear.
Tiaan Pool, Head of the Forestry, Wood Technology and Veldfire Management Department at Nelson Mandela University, is the driving force behind the Fire Symposiums held at the NMU George campus.


*Check out the related feature: Military approach to fire prevention at Montigny

President Ramaphosa opens Sappi Saiccor mill expansion

Christo Willemse, General Manager of Sappi Saiccor mill (left) fills President Ramaphosa in on the mill expansion and upgrade, with the press contingent jostling for position.

The mammoth expansion and upgrade of the Sappi Saiccor mill was officially opened by the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, with a host of senior government officials in attendance alongside Sappi staff, senior executives and a news-hungry media contingent, in what can only be described as a major triumph for government, business and the forestry industry, and a massive stamp of confidence in the future of KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.

Sappi’s intention to spend R7.7 billion to expand and upgrade the Sappi Saiccor mill, located in Umkomaas just south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, was announced at the first Presidential Investment Conference held in 2018, against a backdrop of a desperate effort by government to lift South Africa’s faltering economy after the years of state capture and decline under the previous administration. The announcement of government’s ambitious plans to boost investment in SA by R1.2 trillion in five years was greeted by the usual cacophony of scepticism from many quarters.

Yet here we are just a few years later with Sappi’s part of the bargain done and dusted. It’s all the more commendable considering the mill expansion and upgrade was completed in spite of a highly disruptive COVID pandemic, a worrying bout of rioting and looting, unreliable electricity supply and a flood that caused widespread destruction across the province. No wonder the President was ecstatic as he cut the ribbon that marked the official opening. The Sappi top executives were also pretty chuffed.

President Ramaphosa (centre), KZN premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube (left, facing camera) and Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Trade & Industry & Competition (right) listen closely while Sappi Saiccor Mill GM Christo Willemse (back to camera) explains the inner workings of the expansion. Top Sappi executives Steve Binnie and Alex Thiel are on the left.

“It’s more than an investment in infrastructure, it’s an investment in people, innovation, technology … It’s unbelievable what you can make out of trees,” enthused the President.

He said the completion of the project is a result of business, government, labour and communities working together, and lauded its contribution to rural sustainable development, its support for a circular economy and the environmental benefits it brings.

He called the development “a great boon to our economy”, and was highly impressed with the Sappi staff that he met during his visit. “They have a very positive vibe,” he opined.

However a little bit of a rain-check was called for after all the joyful enthusiasm, as the President admitted that the government would have to address some of the serious constraints impacting negatively on business, including streamlining the forestry planting permit process, fixing the under-performing freight rail service and untangling the bottlenecks at the Port of Durban which affects Sappi’s capacity to get its dissolving pulp product to market.

This is what Sappi Saiccor is all about – wood chips. They are derived from the wood of Eucalyptus trees grown by Sappi and their suppliers throughout KwaZulu-Natal and beyond.

President Ramaphosa was joined on the podium by a powerful government delegation including Ebrahim Patel (Minister of Trade & Industry & Competition), Nomusa Dube-Ncube, (KZN Premier) and Siboniso Duma (MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs). Also in attendance were Global Board Chairman of Sappi Limited, Sir Nigel Rudd, Sappi Limited CEO Steve Binnie and Alex Thiel, CEO of Sappi Southern Africa.

“The board believes that the South African forestry industry is globally competitive and can make further substantial contributions to the South African economy,” commented Sir Nigel Rudd. “This investment reflects our confidence in our South African operations.”

Explaining the reason for Sappi’s investment in dissolving pulp, Steve Binnie said: “Global demand continues to grow for renewable textiles derived from sustainable wood fibre. Sappi supplies over 50% of the world’s Lyocell demand, the next generation textile material made from cellulosic fibres. This expansion project not only meets customer demand for greater dissolving pulp production and in particular Lyocell, but also significantly reduces the mill’s environmental footprint and supports Sappi’s decarbonization journey, whilst also generating an additional R1 billion per annum in direct benefit to the KwaZulu-Natal economy.”

He went on to express his gratitude to all Sappi role-players who conceptualised the project and brought it to fruition, despite difficult conditions and interruptions resulting from Covid-19 restrictions. “By using renewable and sustainably sourced wood to produce circular, innovative bio-based products, Sappi continues to have a positive impact on society and the planet by reducing and replacing the need for fossil-based products.”

The Saiccor mill, acquired by Sappi in 1989, established Sappi’s global reach into the lucrative international dissolving pulp (DP) markets. Since then, the mill has undergone three expansion projects to keep pace with global demand. Branded as ‘Verve’, almost all of the DP produced at the mill is sold globally into the Viscose Staple Fibres (VSF) markets for use in textiles and clothing for leading brands.

Sappi SA CEO Alex Thiel addressed the environmental benefits of the Saiccor project: “The installation of the largest sulphite recovery boiler in the world and the conversion of the calcium cooking line to the more sustainable magnesium bisulphite technology, reduces the need for coal-based power generation at the mill, leading to a significant reduction in fossil fuel energy requirements and increasing the mill’s renewable energy usage, additionally realising considerable variable cost savings.”

The expansion and upgrade project increases the capacity of the mill from 780 000 tons of dissolving pulp per year to 890 000 tons a year.

Technical fast facts
• The expansion and upgrades include a new evaporator, recovery boiler, screening and washing plant, as well as upgrades to the bleach plant and pulp machines, improved recovery circuits and additional magnesium digesters.
• New technology employed incorporates improved washing technology to optimise water and energy efficiency, optimised cooking technology for improved pulp quality control, the application of robotics to facilitate debottlenecking and shop-floor digitisation for improved commissioning, control and operational efficiency.
• Upgrades to the woodyard to enable smooth logistics supply chain operation include the installation of offloading equipment, side-arm rail carriage chargers and new chipper lines.
• Installation of the largest sulphite recovery boiler in the world, with the capacity to process up to 1,500 tons of dry solids per day.

Environmental fast facts
• Fossil fuel CO2 emissions, SO2 emissions, water consumption and waste to landfill will significantly reduce and specific water use efficiency is expected to improve.
• The project will help Sappi achieve its target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 18% by 2025.
• A key milestone for ambitious decarbonisation plans and Sappi’s science-based target, approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to reduce scope 1 and scope 2 GHG emissions by 41.5% by 2030.

The timber is transported from forest to the Saiccor mill by truck and train from the four corners of the province.

Verve – Sappi’s Dissolving Pulp (DP)
• Global textile demand is growing, as a result of population growth, fashion and rising wealth in developing economies
• Against a backdrop of increasing global concern about climate change, the need to develop more climate-friendly solutions, derived from renewable materials that are not fossil-fuel based, is driving the demand for viscose, which is derived from DP.
• Fabrics made from cellulose differ from other feedstock fibres in that they are breathable, absorbent, recyclable and biodegradable, providing a unique and appealing look, feel and drape.
• Woodfibre provides a sustainable alternative to other feedstocks. Unlike many synthetic raw materials Sappi Verve is produced from a natural, renewable resource – woodfibre – that is certified and traceable.
• This project makes an important contribution to supporting the transition to the production of low carbon raw materials in the wood based cellulosic sector.

The impressive stage from where the high level dignitaries addressed guests at the mill expansion opening.
Stylish members of the acapella band Just6 provided some welcome musical relief from the roaring of the plant as the President and dignitaries got to grips with the nitty gritty of the mill expansion.

Joy as pepper-bark trees come back from the brink

FSA’s Nathi Ndlela and small-scale grower Rejoice Shozi hand over prized pepper-bark trees to the Dube Traditional Council and community members.

Forestry South Africa (FSA) has distributed rare and endangered pepper-bark trees (Warburgia salutaris) grown by the Warburgia Programme to schools, traditional healers and forestry community leaders, in celebration of Arbor Week.

This is in support of a highly successful initiative to propagate and re-establish this important indigenous tree which has become highly endangered throughout southern Africa due to rampant harvesting of its bark for use as traditional medicine.

Warburgia salutaris, commonly known as the pepper-bark tree or ‘isibhaha’ in isiZulu, is renowned for its medicinal anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. The bark of the tree has been used by traditional healers to cure colds and chest infections for centuries and is now registered by the South African Health Products Regulatory Body. Unfortunately, its popularity has pushed the species to the brink of extinction in the wild as commercial muti gatherers have been harvesting the bark from trees growing in the wild and even in protected conservation areas. As a result the trees have become increasingly scarce and are now considered critically endangered. The harvesting methods used by muti collectors are not sustainable and the trees often die a few months after harvesting.

Thankfully, a collaborative effort between Kruger National Park, Sappi, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Honorary Rangers and many other partners has brought this species back from the brink. A key part of the initiative is to promote the planting of the tree in suitable areas and to educate traditional healers and muti collectors how to harvest from the trees in a sustainable way that does not kill them off.

The FSA team decided to support this programme by distributing pepper-bark saplings in the small-scale grower communities to celebrate Arbor Week.

Nathi Ndlela putting in the work on a hot spring day in Zululand, where he planted a tree with learners of Amabuye Secondary School.

The event started in Mpembeni, part of the Dube Tribal Authority, where FSA's Business Unit Manager, Nathi Ndlela and small scale grower representative Rejoice Shozi, handed over trees to learners at Amabuye Secondary School and planted a tree with the learners. Trees were also handed over to local traditional leaders and traditional healers.

This was followed by a handover of trees by local small grower representative Busi Mnguni to community leaders, traditional healers as well as learners at Kantayi Secondary School at the iMkhwanazi Tribal Authority area near Port Dunford in Zululand.

Small grower representative Busi Mnguni addresses the Mkhwanazi Tribal Authority, community leaders and traditional healers about the value of conserving and sustainably harvesting the pepper-bark tree.

“Small-scale growers are the ones with the deepest ties to the communities neighbouring South Africa's forestry plantations, so it made sense to go through them when organising an Arbor Day celebration aimed at benefitting forestry communities and conservation," explained FSA’s Nathi Ndlela.

Commented Rejoice Shozi, FSA Small-Scale Grower representative : "I am happy and proud to be creating this connection between FSA and my community, it is important. It is also important that we are doing something that will benefit the conservation of nature and our soil, planting trees does this and we need to do more of it."

"We are highly appreciative of FSA coming into our community and donating these trees,” commented traditional healer Zakhele Nxumalo. “Pepper-bark trees are no longer found in our indigenous forests and people cannot access it locally. With these trees we can change this. We have also learnt today about how to grow and harvest these trees correctly, that cutting the bark can kill the tree, so it is better to harvest just the leaves that also have medicinal properties."

Traditional healer Zakhele Nxumalo (left), had never seen an actual pepper-bark tree before receiving his own sapling from FSA. He has to travel to Durban's muthi market to buy ‘isibhaha’.

Kruger National Park
The initiative to save the pepper-bark tree was launched in 2011 initially to propagate the trees and distribute them to communities living around the Kruger National Park in an attempt to take the pressure off the few remaining wild trees. In 2014, Sappi came on board and began using its tree breeding and production expertise to propagate pepper-bark trees from cuttings for distribution to rural communities, which expanded the project from the Kruger National Park to KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

A major breakthrough for the project was the discovery that the medicinal properties so highly prized in the bark, are also abundant in the twigs and leaves. Thus, the twigs and leaves of trees planted out in the field can be harvested within four years – much earlier than would be the case for bark harvesting which can only be done on an adult tree. This ensures that the trees can be harvested sustainably, providing health benefits and economic opportunities for traditional healers and muti traders alike.

A key aspect of the project is education. Workshops are held with traditional healers and community members to inform them about growing and nurturing the trees, as well as harvesting them sustainably.

A working group has been set up to co-ordinate and drive the Warburgia salutaris conservation project going forward. Gene banks and seed orchards have been established within this working group partnership, and assistance has been extended to Swazi and Zimbabwean conservation authorities to help them increase the number of trees growing in their countries.

Michele Hofmyer who has been involved with the Warburgia programme from the start, explains the importance of pepper-bark distribution programmes: "By handing out the plants freely to traditional healers and community members, we are taking the pressure off the wild populations. Traditional healers know what a rare and valuable plant this is, so are willing to accept cultivated pepper bark if they know the seeds were sourced from wild individuals. They are also open to new ways of utilising the plant, using the newest two leaves and bud instead of the bark, which are just as potent as the bark but far more sustainable to harvest. The robust nature of the pepper-bark tree, its readiness to grow in sunlight or shade and its ability to be planted straight into the ground or in a tub, makes it incredibly suitable to this kind of project. I hope that one day when we drive through the communities and neighbourhoods that have received our trees, there will be a pepper-bark growing in every garden, school and community building.”

Thanks to the efforts of the Warburgia Programme, it looks like the pepper bark's conservation status will be downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ when it is next reviewed.

The tree is formally protected under SA legislation in the revised National Forests Act (2012) and the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (2004).