A glimmer of belief that rail challenges are fixable

NCT Forestry built a special trans-shipment depot near Vryheid a few years ago to transfer timber bound for their Richards Bay mill from long haul trucks onto rail. But the faltering freight rail service is undermining this initiative, and more and more of this timber is staying on the road..

There is a spark of belief among forestry stakeholders that solutions to the deepening logistics challenges faced by the sector are beginning to click into place …

Never mind the energy crisis – South Africa is facing a ‘logistics crisis’ as poor levels of service and maintenance in key freight rail corridors and at ports that provide gateways to international markets are putting the brakes on an already struggling economy. The forestry sector is directly impacted as it depends heavily on rail and the ports of Richards Bay and Durban to move timber from the hinterland to the mills where it is processed before being exported as chips or pulp.

Deteriorating service on the coal line from the Mpumalanga highveld to Richards Bay has seen the volume of timber moved on this line halve since 2005 from 3.5 million tons a year to a little over one million tons. The rest of that timber has gradually been shifted from rail onto long haul trucks, much to the delight of private sector transport contractors, but the consequences are being felt across the board: increased transport costs, damage to road networks, traffic congestion, increased CO2 emissions etc.

However there is a glimmer of good news amid the gloom: the Forestry South Africa (FSA) team that attended a recent high level meeting between President Ramaphosa, senior ministers, captains of industry and the members of Operation Vulindlela, report that there are strong signals from government that they are gearing up to address the logistics bottlenecks at last. This follows a frank admission by the President himself that the transport challenges are as damaging to our prospects of economic growth as are the electricity challenges.

The forestry sector was well represented at the meeting by FSA’s Michael Peter and Francois Oberholzer, along with the CEOs of Sappi, Mondi, NCT, TWK and PG Bison.

Furthermore, the President has agreed that private sector participation in ports and rail must be fast-tracked as Transnet cannot address the challenges on its own. This aligns with the recommendations of the private sector forestry stakeholders who have indicated a willingness to get involved in facilitating the operation of a freight service utilising Transnet infrastructure that is dedicated to timber.

The President also indicated that regulatory and structural reforms recommended by the Operation Vulindlela team are already being implemented; and that a national logistics crisis committee – similar to the one that is addressing electricity outages – is being established in the presidency.

This is a significant step forward according to FSA, as without such a committee there is no hope of achieving alignment between Transnet and the relevant government departments that impact on freight rail infrastructure and services.

Apparently the President has already met with the Transnet board and other ministries to set the ball rolling.

One of the key challenges is that the forestry sector is a minor player in freight rail, contributing only a fraction of the total tonnage of goods like coal, chrome and manganese moved on the country’s rail networks. This has resulted in available locomotives and wagons being deployed to haul coal and other BIG commodities while the service to timber customers has become less and less reliable.

The imminent visit by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan to China to resolve the stand-off over the delivery of locomotives and spares by Chinese state rail equipment manufacturers to Transnet is another sign that something positive and constructive is on the go. The impasse between Chinese state rail equipment suppliers and Transnet occurred because of alegations of improper awarding of tenders worth some R54 billion.

Another bone of contention between government authorities and the forestry sector are the regulations that are limiting the use of PBS vehicles to haul timber by road. These trucks are capable of carrying bigger payloads (up to 70 tons vs 38 tons for a standard long haul truck) and bring many benefits for the timber growers, but can only be utilised under special permits issued by transport authorities. Use of PBS vehicles is still strictly a ‘pilot project’, but it has long since demonstrated improvements in safety, efficiency and cost.

In this regard the President has agreed that the Minister of DFFE should be drawn in to help solve these challenges. Meanwhile minister Chikunga of DoT, in responding to points made by the FSA team, said that she has approved the exceptions for ISO and High Cube containers which indicates that the PBS exemptions will follow shortly. This has been a decade-long challenge with the DoT and will provide major relief for the forestry sector and others using PBS vehicles.

FSA Operations Director Francois Oberholzer said that forestry stakeholders are preparing to submit an unsolicited bid to Transnet in an effort to get involved in the operation of a freight service on the Greytown branch line which services many commercial timber growers. The service levels on this important line have been falling for years.

At the end of the day tree farmers need to get their timber to market as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and everyday road users will be happy to see timber going back onto rail where it belongs.

Logset forestry equipment makes its South African debut

The Logset TH75 Eucalyptus Head made its South African debut in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg recently. The head, developed in South America for fast and efficient Eucalyptus harvesting and de-barking, is manufactured in Finland by Logset, manufacturers of a full range of forestry harvesting equipment.

Logset has signed a dealer agreement with Green Projects that will see the KwaZulu-Natal-based company market and sell Logset harvesters, forwarders and harvesting heads across Southern Africa. Green Projects will provide a full range of after sales service, parts, maintenance and repairs to Logset customers in the region.

“We are honoured to represent Logset in our territory,” commented Green Projects MD Frank Uzzell. “The Logset products are robust and productive, and are well suited to meet our customers’ needs.”

“We are excited to start working with Green Projects. They have vast experience in selling forest machinery and therefore they are the perfect partner to bring the Logset brand to Africa,” commented Logset CEO Tommi Ekman.

Logset offers a comprehensive range of cut-to-length harvesting equipment including seven harvesters, seven forwarders and seven harvesting heads.

Of particular interest in the Logset stable is the 8H GTE Hybrid harvester. It sports an electric motor that is integrated with the machine’s diesel engine, providing an additional boost of up to 104 kW of power when the machine is under pressure during peak loads. This technology enables the diesel engine to operate at a constant pace which results in fuel savings of up to 25%, claim the manufacturers.

Frank says that in addition to the harvesters, the forwarders will offer harvesting contractors a big advantage, and that clam bunk versions of the forwarders have generated a lot of local interest already.

Green Projects has brought in the Logset TH 75 head which is mounted on an excavator and is busy doing demo’s in the KZN midlands and Drakensberg areas for growers and harvesting contractors.

The Logset TH75 was developed specifically for use in Eucalyptus harvesting in Brazil and is well adapted to local conditions in South Africa, says Frank.

The SA Forestry team saw the head working in a E. nitens compartment in the Drakensberg recently. It was also adept doing thinnings in a nearby pine compartment.

Logset was established in Finland in 1992, and currently operates in 25 countries around the world. Its first harvester was the 500H which was launched at the famous Elmia Wood Fair in Sweden in 1993. A few years later Logset launched its first forwarder, and started manufacturing heads in 2011.

The hybrid harvester was introduced in 2016, the first machine of its kind in the world.

Tree experts rally to save iconic Cape trees

Tree health experts from around the country are collaborating in efforts to save four iconic native tree species found in the Cape that are under threat: the Silver trees of Table Mountain, southern Cape tree ferns, milkwoods and the Clanwilliam cedar.

Silver trees
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, in collaboration with the Botanical Society of South Africa, Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), FABI (Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), has launched an innovative project to save the endangered Silver tree (Leucodendron argenteum) which only occurs naturally in a tiny area of the Cape Peninsula.

The Silver tree, also known as the Silver Leaf Tree, Witteboom, or Silwerboom, is a protected evergreen tree which is part of the Protea family. This enormous silver Protea is naturally confined to a tiny area in and around the city of Cape Town – with its main population growing on the slopes of Table Mountain, notably the Lion's Head area, above Rhodes Memorial and the mountain slopes above Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Historically, the Silver tree was widespread on Table Mountain, covering much of its slopes in shimmering silver forests. However, early demand for timber led to much of these forests being felled and now the Silver tree is a rare and threatened species - in danger of becoming extinct in the wild in the next 50 years.

Unfortunately the Silver tree is susceptible to infection from the fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi, a soil borne pathogen that causes root and collar rot. Phytophthora feeds on living plant roots and stems, reducing the plants’ ability to transport water and nutrients – often leading to the death of the host.

This introduced pathogen is present in wild Silver trees as well as in the population found in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, where it is causing the death of many of these iconic trees.

In a bid to save the Silver trees, Kirstenbosch staff, in collaboration with FABI, have launched an innovative treatment trial.

“We are testing the application of phosphite, a biodegradable fungicide which can protect plants against Phytophthora die-back. Phosphite will not eradicate Phytophthora from the soil, but it can protect plants from infection, and can help them recover if they are already infected,” explained Dr Trudy Paap of FABI.

“We have sprayed some of the Silver tree seedlings and injected bigger trees with phosphite. We have also left other plants untreated, as controls, and are monitoring the survival rates of the treated and non-treated trees.”

Phosphite is used in South African agriculture and horticulture settings to guard against Phytophthora root and crown rot of several important commercial crops. However, it has never been applied to indigenous South African flora before.

When the FABI research team re-visited Kirstenbosch in May they found good evidence that the spray applications that were done in 2020 have been effective in reducing the impact of the disease on young plants.

A number of bigger silver trees were also treated with phosphite during this visit and the results will be evaluated later this year.

Milkwood trees
Another natural tree on the radar of the FABI team is the milkwood tree (Sideroxylon inerme) that has been dying in the Hermanus area. The problem was reported to the FABI team by well-known tree surgeon, Leon Visser.

A tree health survey in May enabled the team, including Prof. Mike Wingfield, Prof. Brenda Wingfield, Prof. Francois Roets (Stellenbosch University) and Dr Trudy Paap, together with ecologist Dr Casper Crous to join Leon to inspect the trees. These trees had symptoms of various stages of decline with many having already died.

Roots and above ground parts of the trees were inspected and samples were collected for further study. Although opportunistic pathogens may be involved in the problem, the group was generally of the opinion that an environmental factor is likely to be the initial cause. Mike Wingfield says the team suspects water issues, which could have resulted from the opening up of the land for housing construction. He says that the trees that are dying appear to be close to the houses, and there is no obvious indication of a pathogen problem.

Tree ferns
Iconic tree ferns Alsophila (Cyathea) dregii have been observed dying in southern Cape forests for some years. These plants appear to die very rapidly and populations of these tree ferns - such as those found in the Knysna forests - have collapsed dramatically.

A recent inspection of the trees by the research team noted that tree ferns that were only slightly affected during a previous visit have now died, with some areas having almost no living plants left. The team took samples of these trees and it is hoped that laboratory research will lead to a better understanding of this dramatic decline.

Clanwilliam cedar
FABI initiated a research project in 2020 focused on the fungi associated with bark beetles infesting the Clanwilliam Cedar Widdringtonia (cedarbergensis) wallichii. This work stemmed from earlier research during the 1980s, to consider the possible role of insects and fungal pathogens in the demise of these iconic trees.

The project is being led by Prof. Mike Wingfield, Prof. Brenda Wingfield and Prof. Francois Roets (Stellenbosch University) and supported by MSc student Handré Basson.

During their recent Cape visit the research team undertook a survey of beetles infesting Widdringtonia nodiflora, a species that is more widespread than W. wallichii. Beetles infesting these trees were found and collected for further laboratory work. This will make possible a comparison of the beetles and their fungal associates on the two tree species and provide further insight into their role in tree decline.

The Clanwilliam cedar, which is endemic to the Cederberg and is protected within the Cederberg wilderness area, is considered critically endangered. This species, which once grew in abundance in the Cederberg, was heavily logged for timber by the early European settlers who arrived there in the late 18th century, as there were few other trees growing naturally in these mountains.

In 1879 alone more than 7 000 trees were cut down for use as telephone poles. This overexploitation caused a significant reduction in the Clanwilliam cedar, and the species never properly recovered.

Researchers have suggested that the ongoing decline over the past century could be due to a harmful fire regime. Monitoring of permanent plots set up 29 to 35 years ago distributed across this species range indicates that a 94% decline of mature individuals has taken place in less than one generation (66 - 200 years).

Champion tree
Fabi tree health researchers were recently alerted to a concerning die-back affecting introduced Araucaria trees in Stellenbosch. Dr Trudy Paap joined the well-known arborist and tree climber Leon Visser, who assisted her in climbing some of these trees to sample their dying tops. This included a 200 year-old ‘Champion Tree’ Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island pine). At 45m, this is the tallest tree in town.

The trees had symptoms of a top-down die-back, and with Leon’s help, Trudy was able to sample the trunks at the disease interface. It is suspected that the extreme drought that occurred from 2015-2017 played a significant role in the die-back, and that opportunistic pathogens may also be involved. Being able to collect samples right at the point of interest in the canopy, however, presented an opportunity to confirm the identity of biotic agents. It is hoped that the knowledge gained from this unique sampling effort will help guide a strategy to limit the decline and restore tree vigour.

Related article: Indigenous trees of Southern Africa (Part 3) – Cape Ash

Sawdust fires and the law

Despite the fact that sawdust piles are fire hazards, they are very unlikely to spontaneously combust as a result of heat build-up as the composting process of pure sawdust is too slow. This argument was accepted by the judge in a court case in which a sawmiller was sued by a neighbouring landowner who claimed that a sawdust pile spontaneously combusted, causing a fire that damaged his plantation. DAVE DOBSON reports …

This case study deals with allegations of spontaneous combustion in sawdust heaps on the Defendant’s property that resulted in a fire that devastated a neighbouring commercial pine plantation.

The Client
The client was the Defendant in this case; the owner of a property on which eucalypts were grown to supply a sawmill that processed the timber to produce pallets.

The sawdust arising from the milling operation was dumped at various localities on the property and not incinerated on account of the danger associated with this operation.

This case deals specifically with the claim by the Plaintiff that as a result of the manner in which the Defendant managed the sawdust, spontaneous combustion occurred. This lead to the wild fire that burnt the neighbouring commercial pine plantation belonging to the Plaintiff.

The Challenges
A number of challenges arose in the case but the most important one related specifically to the sawdust. In the summons it was claimed that the sawdust piles constituted a fire hazard in that:
• The Defendant had not intermittently layered the sawdust with soil.
• The Defendant had not restricted the height of the sawdust heaps so as to avert or minimise the risk of spontaneous combustion occurring in the sawdust pile.

The Plaintiff claimed that these two omissions were largely the reason for the spontaneous combustion occurring.

A third claim was that the Defendant failed to maintain an effective firebreak around the perimeter of the sawdust piles. Such a firebreak - if implemented - would have contained the fire to the sawdust pile.

The Solution
While sawdust fires are recognised as being a potential fire risk, SAFIRE Insurance Company Ltd. had at the time that this court action commenced (2012) never received a claim emanating from smouldering sawdust piles.

However there was a single incident reported to SAFIRE of a fire in a sawdust pile, but this was not the result of spontaneous combustion of the pile. This was a fire in sawdust at a sawmill on the farm Etterby in the Richmond district. This fire was extinguished by digging out the smouldering sawdust and dousing the area with water. The fire had entered the sawdust while the landowner was burning a firebreak around the sawdust pile.

Spontaneous combustion does at times occur at composting facilities when the compost heaps self-heat to temperatures high enough to ignite. In these instances no external heat source is required. In order for composting organic material to ignite very specific conditions are required. These are:
• A C:N (Carbon:Nitrogen) ratio of 20:1 to 35:1 is required. Sawdust has a C:N ratio of between 300:1 to 400:1. The result of this is that the composting process for pure sawdust will be extremely slow. (Nitrogen is required to feed the micro-organisms that are responsible for the composting process. There is simply not enough of this nutrient for them to thrive!)
• The moisture content of the compost heap must be greater than 50%. Below this percentage the composting process slows down.
• Aeration is required for rapid, efficient composting. Allowing the organic material to become anaerobic (compacted) will slow the composting process.

In the composting process temperatures in the compost stack rise and can reach 70OC to 80OC as a result of the activity of the micro-organisms breaking down the organic material. Above 80OC micro-organisms die and chemical reactions take over. This chemical heating can continue to raise the temperature of the organic material until it reaches about 150OC at which point ignition can occur. It is important to note that both the biological and chemical oxidation processes require oxygen to proliferate. Progress is extremely slow under low oxygen (anaerobic) conditions.

Back to the spontaneous combustion sawdust pile court case. In this case the Expert for the Plaintiff used the example of silage production, likening the heat build-up in silage to spontaneous combustion. From the previous discussion a number of points arise. The first is that maize used for silage is green and thus contains a high proportion of nitrogen that is required by the micro-organisms to break down this organic material. The organic material is also moist which fulfils the moisture requirement. However, silage is compacted thus resulting in anaerobic conditions. The silage will simply not burst into flame!

Further issues that mitigated against spontaneous combustion in the sawdust on the Defendant’s property were that the sawdust was spread and compacted i.e. this would have limited the oxygen available to the micro-organisms responsible for composting this organic material. The sawdust pile in question was merely one meter deep and any heat build-up would have been rapidly dissipated. Finally, had there been any combustion in the sawdust pile a source of fine ash would have marked the site of ignition. No such evidence was found.

Spontaneous combustion will not occur in sawdust. The primary reason being the C:N ration of this organic material. Sawdust fires will invariably be the result of fire from the outside entering the sawdust pile - as was reported in the Richmond case.

The result of the trial was a finding in favour of the Defendant. Spontaneous combustion was ruled out as the origin of the fire, and honey hunting was identified as the source. This activity had set a stump alight which later - under extreme weather conditions - ignited grass on the edge of the sawdust pile. Despite attempts by the Defendant’s team to put the fire out, it swept across the sawdust pile as well as the firebreak around the sawdust pile into a gum compartment and on into the Plaintiff’s property.

*Related article: How to calculate plantation fire damage

Umgano Sawmill taking shape

The Mabandla community of southern KwaZulu-Natal, one of the pioneers of community-owned forestry in South Africa, is taking their timber business to the next level with the establishment of a sawmilling business known as the Umgano Timber Company (Pty) Ltd.

Sawmill manager Dave Wigley and Mayford Jaca, Mabandla Community Trust Chairman, at the Umgano Timbers sawmill site.

Construction of the sawmill has already started on a site adjacent to the plantation established by the Mabandla Community Trust in 1998.

Thanks to the long-term vision of the Mabandla Trust members and Peter Nixon and Themba Radebe of Rural Forest Management (who provide technical and management support to the Trust’s forestry business) some 450 ha of pine was planted on a sawlog rotation during the plantation establishment phase. This pine is now due for second thinnings, and it is this timber that will supply the sawmill’s raw material and makes the venture possible.

Umsonti Community Forestry NPO (Umsonti), a newly formed Section 21 company focusing on community development, has established a strategic partnership with the Mabandla Community Trust in Umgano Timbers. Umsonti’s directors are forestry and development specialists, some of whom have been involved in the Umgano project since the beginning. They are Peter Nixon, Themba Radebe, James Ballantyne, Mike Howard, Jeanette Clarke and Ilan Lax.

Umsonti, a not-for-profit company, successfully secured a grant from the Vumelana Advisory Fund to develop the sawmill business plan and bring the project to the point of bankability. Both the Mabandla Community Trust and Umsonti have invested capital in the venture, and the IDC came on board with a supporting loan. Construction has already begun, and second-hand sawmilling equipment has been purchased from Charles Anderson of Patula Products in Donnybrook. This includes a Woodmizer breakdown saw, a multi-rip saw, cross-cut saw and a bandsaw.

The Pine thinnings from the Mabandla plantation will supply the mill’s raw material needs for the first three years – thereafter clearfelling will begin so the flow of timber will increase going forward. Plans are in place to plant an additional 200ha of pine to secure the mill’s future raw material supply and allow for expansion of the business, according to Peter Nixon.

The initial production target for the sawmill is 150 cubic metres per month. A pallet mill will produce another 50 cubic metres/month. The sawn timber will be supplied wet-off-saw to local markets, and there are plans to value add on site. The mill will employ 17 people recruited from the Mabandla community and will be managed by local entrepreneur, Dave Wigley.

The power for the sawmill will be supplied initially by a diesel generator, but plans are in place to generate energy on site using solid waste, solar and wind-power (there is no Eskom power at the site).

Self-reliance is one of the key objectives of the business. Timber used in the construction of the Sawmill buildings is sourced from the Mabandla plantation and is treated on site.

According to James Ballantyne, Umsonti was established specifically to assist communities to address poverty and create jobs through the development of sustainable forestry and related businesses. Umgano Timbers is its first major project.

The Mabandla community forestry operation is the foundation of what has become known as the Umgano Project. It was well supported by a strong traditional leadership from the outset and created a platform for further development that now includes the sawmill, a land care programme, a cattle breeding business and conservation initiatives. A strategic partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has seen the establishment of a 1 500ha nature reserve on Mabandla community land, which will provide a platform for eco-tourism initiatives.

The forestry, which is FSC-certified, provides an annual turnover of R12 million, and 100 full-time and another 30 part-time jobs for Mabandla community members. The plantation comprises some 850ha of eucalyptus in addition to the 450ha of pine. The Eucalyptus is supplied to Sappi Saiccor as well as the transmission pole market.

The Mabandla Community Trust has a majority shareholding in all businesses operating on the project land, in order to generate funds to satisfy the main objective of social and economic development of the greater community.

The business model focuses on entering into joint ventures with businesses or organisations able to offer a high degree of expertise, experience and business skills to ensure the success of the business ventures.

The first time SA Forestry magazine reported on the Mabandla Forestry Business was in its May/June 2008 issue. Mayford Jaca (who is still actively involved as the Trust Chairman) commented then (with obvious pride): “This plantation is like our own goldmine. There was nothing here before, but now we have work for our people”. The Umgano Timbers sawmill is the next phase in strengthening this already stable community forestry project.

Umsonto directors (left to right) Ilan Lax, Peter Nixon, Themba Radebe, Jeanette Clarke, James Ballantyne and Mike Howard.
Mabandla community member Zweli Baleni and James Ballantyne with a log cabin built using Umgano timber. The cabins are being developed by the Umgano Timbers team to be used in a community-owned eco-tourism project.


*Published in June 2014