South African plantations need further controls

Posted: 23 March 2007

Up to 40 per cent of all timber plantations in South Africa may be illegal. This is partly due to the lack of plantation legislation before 1972. But even now, with the new Water Act legislation, older plantations may not go through the full licencing process, despite the fact that they cause a great deal of damage to the environment and rural communities. Wally Menne, chairman of the environmental organization, Timberwatch, reports.

In the Eastern Cape of South Africa the timber industry and government want to establish new plantations on more than 100,000 hectares of land that mostly belongs to the community. But such large-scale plantations are a threat to land, water and biodiversity that indigenous peoples in southern Africa need for basic survival. Timber plantations can displace or impoverish rural communities.

Until recently the Department of Water Affairs (DWAF) promoted new industrial timber plantations and the KZN Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs (DAEA) seldom even attended site meetings. The DAEA is supposed to be arguing for the sustainable use of land and assisting rural people so that they can successfully farm it.

Bob de Laborde, who has a doctorate in the economics of timber production, and years of experience in the industry, has voluntarily attended new plantation site inspections and produced critical reports. But at the last Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) "unlawful" plantations meeting in Durban in 2006, there were promising signs of a response to the seriousness of the situation.

Old plantations

The old plantations are usually the worst and Timberwatch feels it is vital that they also go through the full licencing process. Not to do this would create a precedent that could encourage further unlawful plantation expansion.

Unfortunately the FSC forest certification process has been applied ambiguously to certify benign natural forests and industrial timber plantations. In this way, the public has been led to believe that the FSC logo on wood and paper products guarantees that the raw material has come from responsibly managed forests which are environmentally and socially sustainable.

In South Africa, more than a million hectares of industrial timber plantations have been awarded the FSC label. In the course of establishing these plantations, irreplaceable grassland has been destroyed, water resources and soil quality detrimentally affected, communities displaced and impoverished, and the use of chemical insecticide, herbicide and toxic fertilisers destroyed native plants, insects and small mammals. These industrial timber plantations should not be misleadingly certified as forests.

Climate change

Timberwatch believes that if all of the nine fundamental principles of FSC forest certification were applied rigorously, all timber plantations would automatically be disqualified. Principle 10 - tacked on to cover the certification of plantations - fails to make a clear distinction between forests and plantations, and should be replaced with a separate plantation standard. Only then will the FSC certification system make a meaningful contribution towards the better management of forests.

Tree plantations are being falsely promoted as "carbon sinks" (absorbing carbon dioxide) to earn credits under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Land is being taken for monoculture tree plantations to feed the northern hemisphere's insatiable appetite for paper and "green" alternative energy. In the process, self-sufficient indigenous communities will be displaced, natural forests, grasslands and wetlands destroyed, bio-diversity and clean water lost.

Of all the challenges humanity has ever faced, climate change must be the most overwhelming and Timberwatch is actively involved in this area of concern. The materialistic drive in modern society that artificially fuels the economy has reached a level of excess and wastefulness that is putting a severe strain on Earth's resources.

The needless over-usage of paper on a daily basis is one of the most extreme examples. From its source - plantations, that destroy carbon absorbing soils and vegetation in natural areas, through to processing in mills where huge quantities of fossil fuels are burnt, to its eventual accumulation as waste on rubbish dumps and landfill sites where it decomposes and produces methane - the manufacture of pulp and paper is one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and climate disruption.

For more information refer to:

'Carbon Trading - a critical conversation on climate change, privatisation and power'published by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, The Corner House, and The Durban Group for Climate Justice is available as a free download here.

Also see www,fsc.org