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)


Wattle field day in Eswatini

Wattle growers at the field day networking and watching demo’s of forestry tools.

A successful wattle field day jointly organised by Eswatini-based Montigny Investments and South African-based NTE was held at Mhlambanyatsi in Eswatini recently, attended by around 60 enthusiastic tree farmers and stakeholders.

The aim of the field day was to promote co-operation and networking between stakeholders involved in forestry business across the border, and to share ideas about how to grow and market wattle timber and bark effectively.

Eza Mapipa of NTE said that Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) has good growing conditions for wattle, and that co-operation and collaboration between wattle growers, processors and marketers across the border was important in order to expand the resource into the future. Montigny has vast areas planted to wattle in Eswatini, and there are many small scale wattle growers active there as well, said Eza.

Presentations from invited guests from forestry businesses were followed by a field visit to a Montigny wattle plantation with live demonstrations of latest equipment and methods.

NCT Forestry’s Craig Norris discussed the importance of good land preparation for planting wattle with quality pits and good planting techniques. He also touched on the need for effective after-care and weed control to ensure productive, uniform stands.

Erich Jacobs of Sunshine Seedlings shared info about sourcing good quality planting stock and how to look after the seedlings on their journey from nursery to field. It is crucial to transport them carefully so that seedlings are not damaged in transit. He said they should be kept in a shaded area and watered regularly so they don’t dry out before they are planted.

The Stihl hand-operated earth auger makes good quality, uniform pits for planting trees.

The Stihl team demonstrated the use of a Stihl earth auger for creating uniform pits for planting, and also the effectiveness of the Stihl MS 260 chainsaw that is light but powerful and well suited to forestry work.

Callum McKenzie of Pietermaritzburg-based Silvix Forestry demonstrated the use of various forestry tools including the Faka-Plenty hand-operated planting tube that enables a field worker to put a seedling in the ground and add gel to the pit without having to stoop down, as well as some highly effective spraying tools for effective weed control.

Callum McKenzie of Silvix Forestry demonstrates a hand-held sprayer connected to a specially designed backpack for effective weed control.

Cliff Walton of NCT shared info about Project Wattle Regen, a joint NCT and NTE programme that provides support to small-scale wattle growers in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. These growers supply their timber to NCT and the wattle bark to the NTE factory at Hermannsburg.

William Aherin, Industrial Manager at NTE, provided some info on the wattle bark market, while Eza Mapipa shared insights on corrective pruning of young wattle trees to maximise growth and tree form. He also demonstrated the correct way to bundle wattle bark for transporting to the NTE bark factory at Iswepe just outside Piet Retief in South Africa.

Eza Mapipa of NTE demonstrates the correct way to bundle wattle bark for transporting to the bark factory.

Eza explained that the bark should be delivered as fresh as possible, preferably within 24 hours of harvesting. The bark should also be securely bundled with the white inner bark facing inwards so it is protected from exposure to the sun and weather. This will ensure top quality fresh bark that fetches a premium price.

NCT’s small scale tree farmer of the year

Vikesh from Pmb Power Products presents Sydney with a brand new STIHL chainsaw.

Sydney Qedumona Hlanguza from the Umvoti tribal area has been nominated by the NCT Forestry team as their Small Scale Tree Farmer of the Year for 2023.

This is a prestigious award presented annually to tree farmers who display excellence in the management of their plantations grown on tribal land.

After spending 20 years working in the formal sector, first as a teacher and then with Old Mutual’s sales division, Sydney returned to his traditional home in Ntembisweni in the Umvoto tribal area where he bought a plot situated adjacent to his family’s ancestral land.

Evidence of Sydney’s excellent forestry operations with effective weeding around newly planted tree seedlings.

Initially he managed a small rural trading store but was eventually persuaded to try his hand at forestry, initially planting wattle on his land from seed acquired from NTE.

By the time those first trees reached maturity, Sydney had made contact with NCT’s Greytown District Manager, Cliff Walton, who helped him find a market for the timber.

This was the start of a long-standing relationship between Sydney and NCT, with Sydney becoming a member of the co-op in 2010.

Sydney continued to plant wattle on his land, and now also manages the wattle plantations on the adjoining land owned by his two brothers. He has a total of three hectares of wattle under his management.

Sydney’s three hectares planted with wattle.

Sydney has been instrumental in assisting the foresters from NCT and NTE to roll out Project Wattle Regen in the Umvoti tribal areas, which aims to support the small-scale growers to improve their productivity, and expand the areas planted to wattle.

Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) is an ideal tree crop well suited to local conditions, and with ready markets nearby.

Most of the wattle timber grown in this area is marketed through NCT which has chipping and export facilities at the nearby port of Richards Bay. The wattle bark is marketed through NTE which has a factory near Greytown that turns freshly harvested wattle bark into tannin and adhesives, destined mainly for the export market. Wattle timber not marketed through NCT is also widely used by locals in many applications such as fencing posts and building material.

Young wattle seedlings are planted in a fenced enclosure to protect them from being trampled by cattle.

Sydney shared some of the many challenges he faces daily. Goats, cattle, and duiker breaking through his fences and seedlings being removed shortly after planting. Fire also is a constant threat and part of his management plan is making sure that he has good firebreaks during the winter months. He deals with challenges faced proactively and responds tactfully. He allows neighbours to collect firewood on his property in a controlled manner, this way he gains allies rather than enemies.

In addition to his forestry business, Sydney also runs a small side-business selling gas refills, lectures in Theology at a local Bible college, and is a speed-walking champion for good measure.

Sydney is a proud father of seven children. His older children are all in successful careers while he is still responsible for his last two who are both training to be teachers. Sydney’s wife works for the University of KwaZulu-Natal as an admin clerk.

He is a humble person who is always open to learning and improving. He considers himself a “student of life” and is always ready to take advice from people who know more about something than himself.

Sydney’s fire breaks – fire is a constant threat, especially in the dry winter months.

Conserving soil health for future generations

Terry Wolhuter receiving his prize – a brand new chainsaw – from Hayden Hutton of Stihl.


Terry and Belinda Wolhuter of 92 Farming (Pty) Ltd are NCT’s Commercial Tree Farmers of the Year for 2023.

Terry is the sixth generation of the Wolhuter family farming on Eiland Spruit Farm in New Hanover in the KZN midlands. The farm was established in 1851 by Mathys Wolhuter, and was historically utilised for raising cattle while crops were cultivated in the flatter areas.

It was Terry’s father, Peter Wolhuter, who started growing wattle on the steeper areas of the farm with sugar planted on the flatter areas.

The farm is 500ha in size and is currently planted with 250ha of sugar cane, 110ha of Acacia and 40ha of Eucalyptus. The remaining hectares are managed as open areas, valleys and waterways which are well maintained with seasonal work being done to ensure alien invasives are eradicated.

All timber compartments are being re-established along the contours to prevent soil erosion.

Terry is very aware of his responsibility as the custodian of the land and the importance of ensuring the viability of the farming operation for the next generation, so conservation of the natural resources - especially the soil - is of fundamental importance to his operational planning. Hence the move to ‘regenerative agriculture’. All timber compartments that are harvested are being re-established along the contours; cool burns are practiced to reduce the harvesting residues. This is only done when the weather conditions are conducive to a cool burn, and after the local community has removed firewood from the harvest sites.

Pesticide usage is kept to a minimum and weed control is done by means of line hoeing followed by a modified slasher that uses chains instead of blades. This creates a mulch in the inter-row that conserves moisture, reduces weed germination and protects the soil from sun, wind and heavy rain storm events.
Terry uses his Nguni cattle to graze under the canopy thus reducing the fuel load for fire protection, and promoting weed control.

The farm’s neighbours are corporate timber growers and NCT commercial timber growers.

Regenerative agriculture in the sugar cane blocks is done by planting the fields due for re-establishment with a cover crop seed mix that includes Japanese Radish, Stooling Rye, Fescue grass and Oats. The resultant crop is used for grazing by the Ngunis – the manure they leave behind is a bonus for the soil. After this operation, maize is planted that is either sold or used for feed.

Terry is discovering the benefits of leaving a two-year fallow period between sugar cane crops which he says increases the microbial activity in the soil and results in improved growth when the sugar cane is replanted. Due to the current situation with more sugar cane being carried over than usual, Terry is feeding this to the Ngunis so these blocks are receiving an addition bonus of manure before the sugar cane ratoons or is planted with the cover crop.

Green wattle (Acacia decurrens) stand sown with the specially designed seeder.

Terry’s passion for his farm doesn’t stop at his adoption of regenerative agricultural operations. Innovation is what has assisted Terry in the timber operation, with the creation of a unique wattle seeder as well as a modified ripper with a duck’s foot that has improved stand survival and uniformity.

The wattle seeder, built by Terry’s mechanic Tewis, has reduced the quantity of seed used per hectare and created a uniform dense hedge of young wattle seedlings that are thinned 12 to 18 months after sowing to 2 500 SPHA and then down to 1 800 SPHA at 24 months. Where site conditions allow, conventional Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle) seedlings are planted. This is where Terry’s ripper and duck’s foot combination comes to the fore. This piece of equipment creates a rip line, and the seedlings are planted into it after is has been marked to the correct espacement. The addition of the duck’s foot behind the ripper’s tine shatters the soil underneath the surface, while the suspended weight automatically closes up the rip line ensuring that soil moisture is not lost due to drying out. This replaces the conventional pit planting system.

Being a sugar cane grower and owning an earth moving business specialising in cane contouring and water way construction, Terry knows the importance of a well-maintained road infrastructure. All the main access roads throughout the farm are gravelled. Contour roads and water ways are all grassed to prevent erosion. Stream crossings are constructed with pipes and concrete so vehicles can cross easily and silting up of the streams is prevented.

A composting operation on the farm reduces the need to purchase synthetic fertilizers to boost growth of the sugar cane crops. Compost is made from a mixture of cane tops, Mila sourced from the local cane mill and chicken litter. The ingredients are mixed and left to break down into a healthy compost that enriches the soil and boosts growth.

The composting operation reduces the need to use synthetic fertiliser, and is central to the regenerative agriculture approach.

Social responsibilities are as important as any other operation on the farm, and apart from assisting with firewood, Terry has loaned TLBs to the community and sponsored a local soccer team.

Terry he attributes the success of the farm to everyone working together, and he says it wouldn’t be the success that it is without the assistance of his wife, Belinda, especially when it comes to all the admin work.

Responsible pesticide use is essential … all pesticides are locked safely away when not in use.

Linking small-scale wattle growers to market

Stihl technical training officer Phawu Silosini explains the benefits of the BT230 Earth Augur to the small growers at the NCT field day at Glenside.

The NCT forestry team hosted two field days for small-scale growers in the KZN midlands at their Glenside and Ahrens depots in March.

These depots play a crucial role in the timber business of the small-scale growers as they are located close to the growing areas thus requiring a relatively short haul from field to depot. The NCT team weighs the in-coming timber, schedules the payment to the grower and arranges the long haul transport from the depot to the NCT chipping facility at Richards Bay.

The purpose of these field days is to familiarise the growers with the timber specs required, to provide the latest info about different aspects of planting, tending and harvesting, and to encourage the growers to network among themselves and interact with the NCT team.

Fisokuhle Ngcobo explains the benefits of correct spacing in this wattle compartment at his homestead in Matimatolo. Fisokuhle and his wife Nomthandazo Hlombe were NCT’s Small-Scale Tree Farmers of the Year in 2021. They manage six ha of wattle and supply NCT’s Ahrens depot.

NCT forester Eric Msomi explained the most common timber defects that the depot will not accept. These include:-
• Undersized (less than 50 mm diameter) and oversized (more than 500 mm diameter) timber
• Wrong length - the depot requires 2.4 metre lengths
• Crooked and bent timber
• Timber that has been poorly de-branched or de-barked
• Burnt timber and timber that has started decomposing
• Timber that is contaminated with stones, rubble, metal or other debris
• Timber too fresh – ideally timber should be delivered to depot from around three weeks after harvesting.

One grower raised the issue of timber theft and wondered why he can’t deliver his harvested timber to the depot immediately after harvesting, as the longer it lies around in the plantation the greater is the risk of it being stolen. Eric explained that freshly cut timber is too wet to handle, and also because NCT sells its wood chips as bone dry tons and so it must be weighed at least three weeks after harvesting when the moisture content is sufficiently reduced.

It was suggested that growers could mark their timber with a green dye after harvesting so that it can be identified as belonging to an NCT member, which may discourage the timber thieves.

Timber loading at NCT’s Glenside depot, KZN midlands.

Another issue that came up for discussion at the Ahrens depot field day was the challenges that growers face of getting their timber to the depot. It seems that there is a shortage of reliable transport available for the small-scale growers in these tribal areas to haul their timber from field to depot. This has been an on-going problem as the loads are often quite small and the growers don’t have suitable transport of their own, so they are reliant upon informal, local transporters when available.

Eric also explained to the growers the importance of accurate record keeping in order to verify the origin of all timber delivered to the depot. He explained that the timber is sold as ‘Controlled Wood’ and so the ‘Chain of Custody’ – the timber’s journey from plantation to market - has to be tracked and verified as legal and proper.

The STIHL SA team were on hand to demonstrate the use of their range of equipment designed to improve the productivity of small-scale timber growers and farmers. These included the following:-
• WP230 water pump – easy to move around by hand, ideal for pumping water into an irrigation ditch or water tank, moves up to 250 litres per minute.
• BT230 Earth Auger – drills perfect holes in the ground for building or fence poles and is ideal for creating uniform pits for planting.
• SG230 Sprayer – delivers powerful spray capacity ideal for plantations or small farms.
• MS260 Chainsaw … this little baby is designed for felling, de-branching and cross-cutting small timber. It’s light, powerful and reliable.

All of this equipment is available at STIHL dealerships around the country.

A Stihl team member demonstrates the correct method of sharpening the saw chain using a proper Stihl chain sharpening kit. It’s quick and easy once you know how and should be done every time you stop working to fill the machine with petrol. That way the saw is always sharp, more fuel-efficient and easier to handle.

The Eradispray team, based in Pietermaritzburg, demonstrated the use of their Faka-Plenty hand-operated tree seedling tube planter as well as various tools for doing chemical sprays before and after planting to eliminate weeds. These sprayers are attached to special backpacks that are designed for comfort and meet Mondi’s health and safety requirements for contractors working on their plantations.

The tree farmers supplying both if these depots are primarily growing wattle timber which is in big demand among NCT customers around the world. Wattle timber is also used extensively by the local people as building poles and for fences etc. The farmers in this region are also fortunate in that they can sell fresh wattle bark to the bark factories operating close by, which provides them with additional revenue at harvest time.

Callum McKenzie of Eradispray demonstrates the Faka-Plenty manual planting tube which enables the planter to plant effectively without having to stoop down and get his or her hands in the soil – and a sore back.

Wattle growers share experiences


Foresters from NTE and NCT hosted a field day for an enthusiastic group of small-scale wattle growers at NCT’s Ahrens depot near Greytown in the KZN midlands recently.

During the workshop a number of growers who are participating in Project Wattle Regen shared the knowledge and experiences that they have gained over the past few years through their participation in the programme. These talks were followed by a field visit to two of the growers’ wattle plantations in the nearby Matimatolo tribal area.

Project Wattle Regen is a joint venture initiative between NTE and NCT that was launched in 2018 in the Greytown area. It is focused on the growing of wattle which is a popular tree crop with local people as it has many uses around their smallholder farms and two established nearby markets in the form of NCT, which purchases the timber for pulp, and NTE which purchases fresh wattle bark for processing at their Hermannsburg bark factory

The primary aim of the initiative is to promote sustainable forestry in co-operation with small-scale wattle timber growers, to increase managed hectares of wattle plantations and thereby facilitate the development of small growers to optimize their business potential and management.

According to Cliff Walton of NCT and Eza Mapipa of NTE, who are working closely together to drive the project, there has been growing interest among their members to plant wattle in a sustainable fashion and to increase the productivity of their woodlots. The Project Wattle Regen participants, who currently number 21, receive technical advice and support, free, improved wattle seedlings and herbicide and insecticide for planting, as well as market access for the timber and bark that they produce.

Participation in Project Wattle Regen is open to growers who meet the following requirements:-
• Ownership and permission to occupy and plant the land endorsed by the representative Tribal Authority in writing.
• The area has to have been previously planted to trees.
• A fence of kinds has to be erected to protect the planted seedlings from cattle, goats etc.
• The owner of the land has to be a full member of both NTE and NCT and have a supply history.
• All labour costs are carried by the landowner

Assistance provided to the participating growers includes: -
• Technical support
• Chemicals to do a pre-plant spray (weedicide and insecticide)
• Wattle seedlings

In the spring of 2018, the first plantings began in the Ntembsweni Tribal area and these efforts have since expanded to Matimatolo and beyond. Roughly 6 – 8 ha has been established yearly and there are 21 individual participants, some of whom have established more than one wattle woodlot.

Planting has ideally taken place at the optimum time from November through to January when the rain is generally good. All planting is done with one litre of water into manually prepared pits with a dimension of 25cm x 25cm and 25cm deep.

The idea of the workshop and field days was to encourage participants to work closer together and share their experiences with each other, thus paving the way for building a more sustainable base of wattle growers in these tribal areas. This in turn translates into a more stable bark and timber resource for NTE and NCT.

Transport was highlighted several times as a major problem experienced by the growers. One of the growers, Mrs Z Bhengu, said she now had her own truck and was already talking to some of the other participants about how she could assist them to get their bark and timber to market.

Mr Gwala also spoke about the poor condition of the district roads in their area and the problem with road drainage. He appealed to the participants to make sure their roads on their property were well constructed and drained properly. He mentioned that he had created a drain parallel to his property to drain off excess runoff from the district road so that it did not cut through his property, and this was working well. 

Mrs T Masikane, a wattle grower and former board member of NTE, pointed out a number of advantages that the local growers enjoy regarding the supply of wattle bark to NTE. She said that the Hermannsburg bark factory is situated just 20 kms from Matimatolo, so the close proximity of the market is an advantage. Also, she said that the NTE factory is flexible to accommodate small-scale wattle growers who come in late during the season to request bark allocation. The bark season traditionally runs from September through to the end of May.

The growers have also been taken on a factory tour so now they know more about the manufacturing process and the products that their bark is used to produce, and they understand how the quality of the bark they deliver impacts on the final product. 

A number of the participants said that the indoor workshop session was of great value as they were able to share ideas and experiences, and there was a general call to have more frequent workshops in future.

Municipal plantation in safe hands

While a number of municipal plantations around KZN appear to be falling into disrepair under inexperienced and inefficient management, the Vryheid municipal plantation is bucking the trend and flourishing in the hands of a no-nonsense ‘caretaker’ lessee who was raised on the farm and has a special interest in its future.

In 2020 Hendrick Mbatha secured a three-year lease to operate the 680 ha estate, located just outside Vryheid, which is owned by the Abaqulusi Municipality. It includes a scenic dam which provides the town with fresh water, as well as several hundred hectares of pine, wattle and gum.

Hendrick grew up on the farm and has been working in various capacities in the forestry industry for the past 25 years. Both his father and grandfather were working in the industry so forestry is in his blood. He says his family was moved off the farm in 1990.

In 2014 he lodged a land claim for the farm on behalf of the Grootgewacht Community, which to this day has not been resolved.

In 2020, when the previous 30-year lease for the farm came to an end, Hendrick put in a strong bid to take over management of the farm. He secured a three-year ‘caretaker’ lease and has been running the farm ever since.

Now forestry is a long-term business with tree rotations ranging from eight to 30 years, so there is not much you can expect a lessee to achieve in such a short space of time. But Hendrick has gone all out to maintain and improve the estate. He has renovated the dilapidated buildings on the farm and fixed up the recreational area around the dam that is used and enjoyed by locals. He has fenced the entire farm to keep out goats and cattle that were damaging growing trees, and has re-planted wherever he has harvested.

He has been converting some of the pine areas to shorter rotation gum and black wattle, which he believes makes business sense for the future sustainability of the farm. Gum species planted are a mix of E. grandis, E. dunnii and E. smithii.

With his three-year lease coming to an end all too soon, he is already busy negotiating with the Abaqulusi officials for an extension, pending the finalisation of the land claim.

“I want to keep the farm clean because it’s coming to us, so I work hard for the future,” says Hendrik.

He says that there was a lot of negativity in the district when he first secured a lease to run the farm, with many people predicting that it would rapidly fall into disrepair, as has happened in other municipal plantations around the province.

But Hendrick says that he has worked hard to build relationships with neighbours and local stakeholders, and many of the people who were doubting him before are now shaking his hand.

He supplies pine sawlogs to the previous lessee, RF Gevers, who owns a large sawmill nearby, and also allows them to cut grass around the farm for winter feed as it helps to reduce the fuel load, thus reducing the fire risk. He expressed his appreciation for the support he has received from the directors of RF Gevers who have provided him with assistance and advice over the past two years.

The picnic area around the dam is spic and span, the grass is mowed regularly and he has built braai stands and fixed up the toilet facilities – much to the delight of the local day visitors. He has also renovated an old building next to the dam and uses it as his office, equipment store and workshop. He has cut down some huge old gum trees growing wild around the dam, and says the dam’s water levels have risen as a result.

Standing pine is sold to RF Gevers; gum and wattle timber is sold to TWK and Sappi, and he has been supplying fresh wattle bark to NTE.

Eza Mapipa, Forestry Development Officer at NTE, is extremely impressed with the productivity on the farm which has supplied NTE’s Stillwater depot in Vryheid with some 700 tons of fresh bark during this past season.

“I am glad that NTE could open the market opportunity for Mr Mbatha so he could get paid the right price for his good quality bark,” commented Eza. “Mr Mbatha is doing a great job, and it is nice to see a municipal plantation that is running so well.”

Hendrick employs 25 people on the farm, and hires additional help when needed. The farm is not certified, but Hendrick says he will address that when the future of the farm is more certain. The timber growing on the farm is insured through Safire, and he joined the local FPA last year.

Hendrick and farm supervisor Mandla Ndlovu were happy to show SA Forestry around the farm and were clearly proud of their handywork. Farm roads are well maintained and have been recently graded, with good drainage ditches and runoffs. We saw a healthy wattle compartment where every fifth row had been felled and the slash stacked neatly in rows. A team of workers was busy hoeing around some recently planted Eucalyptus, and a local farmer was cutting and baling grass for cattle feed. Open and riparian areas are well maintained with little alien vegetation evident. The recreational area around the dam is immaculate.

Overall, we saw a shipshape tree farm run effectively by a highly motivated farm manager, who means business!



Wonderful wattle in Matimatolo

NCT’s Small-Scale Tree Farmer of the Year for 2021 demonstrates how to establish and build a sustainable tree farming operation in faraway Matimatolo, near Kranskop in the KZN midlands …

By Samora Chapman

Matimatolo is a small tribal area in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, which lies on an escarpment 850 metres above sea level. It’s a remote rural area, where job opportunities are scarce and infrastructure is limited. However the rainfall is good and the land is fertile and abundant. In this area, and many others like it, small-scale forestry and farming can sustain families and communities - if it is done right.

Introducing husband and wife team Nomthandazo Hlombe and Fisokuhle Ngcobo, who together run an efficient 6ha wattle farm that supports the family, provides jobs and inspires others to make better use of their land.

Nomthandazo is the recipient of the NCT Small Grower of the Year Award for 2021, a proud achievement for her and her husband, who have worked side-by-side to improve and grow their business from humble beginnings to the sustainable enterprise that it is today.

Mr Ngcobo has been growing trees for 27 years, learning the practice from his neighbour, who was the first person in the area to establish a sustainable timber farm. In 2000 he married Nomthandazo Hlombe and introduced her to the business of growing trees. She learned fast and took over many responsibilities – land preparation, accounts, marketing and planning, allowing Mr Ngcobo to focus on planting, labour, maintenance and harvesting.

Together they grew their operation from 1ha to 6ha, which is spread out in the form of small plots within a kilometre of their homestead. The wattle stands are fenced, meticulously maintained and planted in neat rows - in stark contrast to the neighbouring wattle and bramble jungle!

“Unemployment is the biggest challenge here, but the youth do not see value in farming,” says Mrs Hlombe as she sits under a shady avo tree with her husband. She is nursing a beautiful baby girl, while chickens walk about the yard chasing anything that moves. It’s a typical scene of rural life in KwaZulu-Natal. A few wattle poles are stacked alongside the homestead, readily available for neighbours to pop in and buy on an informal basis.

“We lead by example, showing our community that you can make a good living growing trees,” she goes on. “We encourage youth to get an education first, but it’s good for them to know that if you work hard you can run a successful tree farm. The land is full of opportunity.”

Vusi Dladla, NCT’s Development Services Manager commented on Mrs Hlombe’s journey to becoming one of the top small-scale tree farmers in the area: “Her claim to fame was the use of naturally regenerated wattle seedlings to plant up new areas,” he explained. “This was a learning curve since she was planting non genetically improved material. But with limited financial resources, she managed to expand her timber area from a small field to the six hectares under timber production today. When NCT and NTE introduced a wattle replanting programme she grabbed the opportunity and made a success of it.”

Wonderful Wattle
Mr Ngcobo discusses the many wonders of the wattle tree. “Wattle is a very profitable crop – it has many benefits,” he says in his quiet way. “We sell the timber to NCT and the bark to NTE. Thinnings can be used for fencing and firewood. We also grow cabbage, potatoes, spinach, madumbis and chilli, which we sell at the local market and use to feed our family.”

Winning the NCT Small Grower of the Year came with a brand new STIHL chainsaw. “I’m so proud and happy that we won this award,” says Mr Ngcobo, beaming. “Although I have been using a chainsaw for over 20 years, this is the first time having our very own machine. We usually hire machines, they are expensive and in bad condition!”

Mr Ngcobo says that the support and guidance of Eza Mapipa (NTE’s Forestry Development Officer) and Cliff Walton (NCT’s Greytown District Manager) has helped their business immensely. “The partnership helps steer us in the right direction,” he explains. “We communicate all the time, so we can see where we are going. We have direct access to the market, which means we get paid the correct rate for our timber and bark.”

Project Regen
Mr Ngcobo and Mrs Hlombe are part of a small-grower development initiative called Project Regen, which was first established in Zululand in 2012, and launched in the Matimatolo area in 2018. NCT supplies member small-growers with seedlings and NTE supplies chemicals for land prep, as well as offering technical advice on how to improve production, manage diseases and burn firebreaks.

Seedlings are sourced from CPS and delivered directly to small growers to minimize stress on the plants. “The eMatimatolo area is particularly well suited to black wattle,” says Cliff Walton. “We choose cool days for planting, which happens in spring when there is plenty of rain in this area. We don’t plant with any gels, only water and we leave fertilizing up to our small growers, although we advise where needed. We require that all growers fence their plots to ensure protection from goats, cattle (and even rabbits) which roam the area.”

It made perfect sense for NCT and NTE to collaborate on supporting small growers in the area, to help secure a consistent and quality supply of timber and bark in the region.

“Project Regen is all about getting these small growers to be more sustainable,” explains Cliff. “What’s amazing about Mrs Hlombe and Mr Ncobo is that they always take initiative, they ask questions when they have problems and they take pride in their work. Mrs Hlombe makes sure their GST is signed annually and their requests are placed at our office. She is certainly very organised!

“They concentrate all their energy into building their own areas, whether it is wattle or other forms of agriculture and are certainly pure farmers from that point of view,” continues Cliff. “Many other small-scale farmers in the area are non-sustainable and harvest their small patch of wattle or gum and then have to buy and sell from other people around them whilst they wait for their plantation to come back into maturity. Mrs Hlombe and Mr Ncobo have slowly increased their average yield per ha and we expect their yields to increase in the future. Their wattle plantations reflect all their hard work. As a unique team they manage to achieve superior results and are a shining example of what can be achieved. Whenever we visit, they are busy adding value to their forestry/farm operations and always appear happy and humble.”

“From the outset it’s been a wonderful partnership,” adds Eza Mapipa of NTE, who has a close working relationship with Cliff and the husband and wife team. “NTE offers extension services – which includes everything from advice on fire protection, planting and harvesting. We aim to use the resources we have to empower local farmers with knowledge and skills to improve their businesses and make them self-sustainable.”

Mr Ngcobo and Mrs Hlombe deliver their bark to the NTE Hermannsburg factory where it is processed for use primarily in the tanning industry. It’s crucial that the bark is stripped and delivered as soon as possible after harvesting to make the best quality product out of fresh bark. Ideally it should be delivered on the same day that it is harvested, or at least within 48 hours.

Their timber is delivered to the NCT Ahrens depot. From there it is transported to the NCT chipping mill in Richards Bay and exported, primarily to markets in the East.

Transport is a major challenge for small growers in Matimatolo. Local transporters are unreliable and charge a hefty price for services – R500 for a bakkie load of bark and R1 000 for a small truckload of timber, which must be paid in cash.

“One day we hope to buy our own bakkie so that we can be totally self-sufficient,” comments Mrs Hlombe. “We would also like to work towards certification, so that we can get better prices for our timber.”

Eza explains that efforts are continuing to get sustainable small-scale growers like the Ngcobos certified under SAFAS, which has developed a certification system that is relevant to the African context and has been endorsed by PEFC. Although there are a number of challenges with certifying the small growers, SAFAS takes into consideration the low environmental impact of small-scale farming across the landscape and the numerous benefits of forestry to the local economy and people.

In terms of fire protection – firebreaks are hoed and all excess brush is burned to keep fuel loads down. Mr Ngcobo says that the community are quick to support one another in the case of a wildfire.

The champion tree farmers hope to buy more land in the future, with the goal of expanding their planted area to 20ha. With more small-scale growers emerging and improving their tree farms in Matimatolo, the mix of forestry and agriculture has the potential to improve the standard of living and benefit many generations to come.

*First published in SA Forestry Annual, 2021

Agroforestry the sustainable way at Chevy Chase

An agroforestry approach is providing a rural Eastern Cape community with a chance to develop and farm their land more productively, creating jobs, skills and opportunities along the way …

Chevy Chase is the unlikely name for a rural Eastern Cape community located between Mount Fletcher and Maclear (now Nqanqa Rhu). Like many rural communities in South Africa the people of Chevy Chase have access to ancestral land but very few job opportunities as they are far from markets and have little or no infrastructure. As a result the local economy is based on subsistence agriculture. However over-grazing has reduced the potential of the land to support livestock, while rampant alien plant invasion is further eroding agricultural potential and using up precious water resources.

In 2010 the Chevy Chase community got involved in a European Union funded rural development project known as ‘Thina Sinako’, which is when they started working with a dedicated group of rural development practitioners who went on to establish Umsonti Community Forestry NPC.

Through the help of Umsonti, the Chevy Chase community, under the Leadership of Chief Montoeli Lehana of the Batlokoa Traditional Council, approached the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform (DRDAR) for funding from their LandCare Program for a forestry project.

The area identified for the forestry project was fenced to control livestock, and work commenced to clear the wattle jungle and plant grasses for grazing pending the completion of an EIA and the granting of a Water Use License for the establishment of the correct commercial tree species for the site.

The nitrogen left in the soil from the wattle and the successful exclusion of livestock meant the grass sown by the Landcare staff under the supervision of the DRDAR grew well and thanks to the summer rains, by winter the community was able to provide good grazing for their livestock.

In 2019, on the back of this initiative, the DRDAR approached Umsonti with an ambitious plan to start a conservation agriculture project with the community on adjacent agricultural lands which had been standing idle for over 10 years. A community Trust was formed with the six villages that make up Chevy Chase in 2020.

With agricultural equipment purchased by Government (initially a no till planter and a spray rig) and borrowed from local farmers, 100 ha of land was fenced off and 27 ha was successfully established to yellow maize by early December 2020. This yielded around 20 tons of maize (which was sold to the community, given to members in lieu of work, and 9.6 tons sold to BKB) and stubble for community cattle to graze at the end of winter / early spring when insufficient grass is available before the first rains. A cattle auction was also organized with the help of Umsonti and Meat Naturally in May 2020 which resulted in the sale of 282 head of cattle, bringing in R 2.27 million to the community. This also assisted with reducing the pressure on the veld from overstocking, meaning survival rates of the remaining animals increased.

Clearing wattle jungle
In the initial phase of removing the wattle jungle the cleared wattle is separated into usable poles, firewood and pulp logs for sale. The money generated from these activities is ploughed back into the project allowing clearing work to continue.

In 2012, with funds from Thina Sinako, a soil survey was conducted on the land earmarked by the community for the forestry project. Due to the amount of seed in the soil, the wattle has kept on coming back on the ‘cleared’ areas. Considering the high cost of spraying the small trees or cutting them out, the work teams adopted a different approach and it was decided to line out the wattle jungle already growing there using the ‘boere metode’ to give the trees space to grow and produce more poles, firewood and pulp in the years to come. This serves to generate some cash and get the wattle jungle under control, pending the granting of a Planting Permit for the establishment of a proper plantation. Wattle coming back in riparian and other sensitive areas are permanently removed and grass seed sown in these areas to allow for establishment of additional grazing areas of good grass for livestock, and the roots to bind the soil to reduce erosion.

“The sale of firewood and pulpwood is absolutely necessary, as the income from these activities has helped with diesel (Government doesn’t supply diesel) and equipment maintenance,” said James Ballantyne, one of the directors of Umsonti, who has been working closely with the community for a number of years. “If it wasn’t for the wattle clearing and the income from this, there would have been no maize production, as a lot of money is spent on diesel for ripping, lime spreading, ploughing, spraying and planting.”

The community is budgeted to be clearing roughly one hectare of wattle per week, translating into around 48 ha per year. There are three teams doing the initial wattle clearing. Each team comprises a chainsaw operator and three people stripping bark and stacking branches and bark in brushlines while utilizable timber (poles, pulp and firewood) is left in the middle of the ‘indimas’.

The pulp timber is kept separate from the large logs of firewood timber which get sold to the local community. Depending on distance from the project, the 1.5 ton loads of firewood are sold for between R500 and R1 200. The income (around R 10 000 per month) is used to purchase diesel for the tractors to transport staff from the community to the forestry project.

“The philosophy of paying for a product is being entrenched in the community,” said James. “The ‘everything for free’ (EFF) model does not work.”

Wattle pulpwood logs are sold to either NCT Durban Woodchips (when tickets are available) or PG Bison. The Chevy Chase LandCare project has the potential to generate between one to two truckloads (30 tons) of pulpwood per month.

The funds generated from pulpwood sales have been used to assist with purchasing diesel for the ripping, liming, ploughing, planting, fertilizing and spraying of maize, as Government pays for all the inputs (equipment, fencing, seed, lime, fertilizer and chemicals), but not for diesel or equipment maintenance. The people working on the maize are paid as part of the LandcCare project.

Environmental considerations
Roads have been planned using natural or existing routes such as cattle tracks and wattle extraction routes that have been used for decades by the community. Bridges across streams have been made from rocks or wooden poles so tractors and bakkies can cross safely and without causing any disturbance to the rivers.

“Ultimately, concrete pipes and culverts will be constructed, but with the shortage of funds, we have had to make a plan to minimise the impact on the environment,” said James.

The key to sustainable rural development at Chevy Chase is the agroforestry approach i.e. integrating agricultural activities with forestry, maintains James. This has allowed cash generated from pulpwood and firewood sales to be ploughed into clearing of alien invasive plants and crop production which has provided winter food for livestock – all of which has provided an opportunity to improve management of the land. In addition these activities have created a vehicle – in the form of a community trust - to mobilise community resources and efforts which has the potential to create further opportunities going forward.

“The formalisation of structures and the investment by Government provides an opportunity for sustainable development, which creates jobs and benefits for the community both formally and informally,” says James.

UMSONTI
Developing rural communities through forestry and associated businesses
Tel: 074 154 4430 / 074 173 5583 James Ballantyne: 079 516 1261 Email: info@umsonti.org.za www.umsonti.org.za

SNOW WARNING!

With the onset of what promises to be a cold winter, this photo provides a timely reminder of what happens to wattle trees when it snows. No! It’s not a good idea to plant wattle if snow is a possibility. The only thing you could use these broken trees for is firewood. The photo was taken near Weza a few years ago.

Pine is much better suited to handling snow. Most of these seedlings seem to have survived the snow onslaught and will probably grow OK over the course of their rotation.

Eucalypts don’t do well in snow either. A few years ago Ian Crouch of Five Star Contracting invited the SA Forestry team to see how he straightens Eucalyptus saplings bent over by a heavy snowfall in the Bulwer area, a notoriously cold spot …