Sustainable forestry: chasing the unicorn

December 19, 2011

A successful meeting of the International Forestry Students' Association at Saasveld highlighted issues of sustainability and the need for more practical experience in the forestry curricula.

Story and photos by Samora Chapman

IFSA meeting at Saasveld

Students who attended the International Forestry Students' Association meeting at Saasveld.

Steve FalconbridgeZodwa Ngubeni
Steve Falconbridge and his tiger worms and Zodwa Ngubeni of SANParks discussing bark harvesting.


South African forestry students are getting organised. At the forefront of this movement is Muedanyi Ramantswana, the epitome of a charismatic leader; he is friendly and passionate about forestry. Muedanyi is something of a spokesperson for the new generation of foresters whose primary concern is sustainability.

Muedanyi is the southern African representative of the International Forestry Students Association (IFSA), and recently played a key role in organising the first southern African Regional Meeting, which took place at Saasveld in July. The campus, situated at the foot of the towering blue Outeniqua Mountains and surrounded by commercial and indigenous forests, made it the perfect location for the inaugural meeting of the country's young foresters.

IFSA aims to connect forestry students from all around the world and to foster knowledge and understanding of international issues in order to achieve sustainable forests for generations to come.

The meeting was attended by members of student associations from Saasveld, Stellenbosch, Fort Cox and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Two students from Japan also attended.

Muedanyi gave a brief introduction, discussing his visit to the South Korean IFSA convention where there was almost zero African representation or feedback on student activity. However, he reported that Africa was identified as a key region for future development in forestry. He urged the young foresters to engage with the current issues and to take the initiative of becoming problem solvers in the industry as opposed to passive employees. "None of this fossil fuel burning mentality!" exclaimed Muedanyi.
This was followed by a brilliant presentation by the Saasveld principal, Professor Christo Fabricius. He quickly brought the starry-eyed youngsters back to earth. "Finding the blueprint for sustainable forestry is like looking for a unicorn," said Christo. "We all know that the unicorn is a mystical creature, which means that the search could go on for eternity. What we might find," he continued in jest, "is that we were looking for a donkey all along."

Compromises and trade-offs
Christo went on to explain that there is no such thing as sustainable forestry, only compromises and trade-offs. He identified six key elements: legal compliance, sustainable yield, economic viability, environmental protection, human well-being, planning and management. He explained that it is not possible to keep all these elements in perfect balance, but that it is possible to find compromises. "Growing trees quickly versus saving water; minimising input costs versus protecting the environment; efficiency versus job creation; competition versus maintaining relationships in the industry – all are trade-offs."

He continued to discuss the different perceptions that the public has of forestry, as the villain and spreader of alien invaders as opposed to a custodian of the natural environment, poverty alleviator and wealth creator. "There is no wrong or right, only progress and unlimited potential solutions," concluded Christo on a positive note.
Rob Thomson of NTC spoke about the attributes of a forester. "What does it take," he asked, "to chase that so-called unicorn: sustainable forestry?" Rob continued to give a very practical address based on his experiences in the industry. He focused on the key attributes that today's foresters need to succeed, especially in a highly politicised environment. These include patience, resilience, the ability to innovate and solve problems and work well with people.

Professor Josh Louw from NMMU outlined the forestry curriculum and gave a bleak report on the state of education, saying that South Africa's maths and science scores among school pupils and students are the lowest in the world. However, he pointed out that there has been an influx of students into forestry in recent years, which proves that they are attracted to the vocational directives of the course.

Khosi Mavimbela from the Forestry Charter Council gave a fragmented presentation on the Forestry Charter. There was almost an audible grumble of discontent among the students, a sign that government's drive to transform the demographics of forestry is highly contentious. The students then challenged Khosi on some aspects of the Charter.

Green projects
Bianca Currie concluded the lectures with a presentation on the Saasveld Green Campus projects, which include recycling projects, solar energy, water catchment projects, food gardens and vermiculture. The most significant of these was the very successful vermiculture and composting project initiated by Saasveld student Steve Falconbridge. Steve uses tiger worms to break down organic rubbish into compost and organic, liquid fertiliser.

The students then gathered together in discussion groups to debate current and topical issues. One of the questions posed was: "Do you feel confident and prepared enough to face current issues in the industry?" The general response was that theory is dominating the forestry curriculum. The students complained that there is a lack of practical training and field trips to see operations in action. They all felt that experiential learning and mentorship from foresters and even general workers was the best way to pick up valuable knowledge. They complained that study material is outdated and needs to be brought up to speed with the constantly evolving industry, especially in silviculture.

Field trip
At dawn on day two, the students crammed into two rattling old buses and headed to Groenkop indigenous forest (a southern Cape Afro Temperate Forest), which is managed by SANParks. SANParks scientist and forest ecologist Graham Durrheim presented an overview on indigenous forests in South Africa, the timber yield regulations and the complex issues revolving around the harvesting and selling of indigenous timber. "The primary aim of SANParks is conservation and protection as South Africa is comprised of less than one percent indigenous forests, many of which are under threat. Our mission is to preserve the diverse botanical system of this forest," said Graham.

Zodwa Ngubeni (also SANParks), discussed the bark harvesting and monitoring project at Groenkop. Stinkwood bark is highly sought after for its medicinal properties, and is used in traditional healing. Zodwa explained that two thirds of the population still rely on medicinal plants. SANParks is in the process of developing a sustainable strategy of harvesting the bark without killing the tree. She took the students on a walkabout and showed them a tree that had been stripped of bark on one side of the trunk. The tree was being monitored for signs of stress in the hope that it would recover over time. Zodwa pointed out that a compromise must be made because the trees will always be utilised by traditional healers. A sustainable harvesting method needs to be developed and communicated to local communities to protect the fragile forest ecology.

MTO visit
This was followed by a visit to MTO Forestry just outside Knysna. Bradley Joemat, MTO Harvesting Forester, gave an energetic presentation about local forestry conditions and issues. MTO is a prime example of rural/urban interface forestry, with an informal settlement on the border of many of their plantations. This leads to major fire risks and makes integrated fire management an imperative. MTO's strategy includes: forming partnerships with the communities on the boundaries of plantations; burning under the canopy to reduce the fuel loads; growing plant species that have a greater resistance to fire; and establishing buffer lines in the plantations. Bradley highlighted the importance of fostering a good relationship with the local fire department. "Gooi a braai!" He said with theatrical flair.

The students were then lead into the depths of the Outeniqua Mountains to see a pine harvesting operation at Buffelsnek. The group was elated at finally getting to the essence of the action: the sweet smell of pine, the cool shade and the hum of chainsaws created a buzz of excitement.

Buffelsnek is a motor-manual harvesting operation on a steep slope, with chainsaws being used to fell and cross cut. A cable yarding (skylining) system mounted on an excavator was being used to pull the pine out of the compartments. Alpine Logging had modified the excavator with an extended boom, winch set and cables. Skylining minimises the impact on the environment and is an innovative and effective extraction method.

At the end of the day, the meeting brought youngsters together from around the country, enabling them to strengthen relationships, get up to speed on current issues and articulate their views. It was a major success, proving that unity and cooperation are key components of forestry. Perhaps the unicorn is attainable after all.

Published in August 2011

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram