She says a sustainable plantation forest aims to maintain ecosystem functionality at a landscape level, conserve high conservation value ecosystems, enhance local welfare and be financially profitable by:
• identifying and protecting natural high conservation value areas such as wetlands, grasslands and natural forests and, where practical, link these areas as effective ecological networks to enhance their biodiversity value;
• considering the social values of forests and ecosystems;
• respecting the rights of local people and communities;
• engaging in stakeholder dialogue; and
• practising resource efficient forestry operations.
South Africa’s forestry industry looks at sustainability from both narrow and broad-sense perspectives, according to David Everard, divisional environmental manager at Sappi Forests and chairman of Forestry South Africa’s environmental management committee.
He says narrow-sense sustainability deals with the industry’s ability to grow trees and provide timber for the market in the quantities and quality it requires without impacting adversely on future generations, looking at things like the type of trees grown and whether they are fit for purpose and adapted to the conditions in which they are grown.
Broad-sense sustainability applies to issues of how to manage plantations and their impact on the environment.
Mr Everard says narrow-sense sustainability begins with the work of developing and growing the correct trees in South Africa’s commercial forestry industry through breeding and selecting.
He says that if one looks at long-term sustainability and measures the amount of timber per unit area that is being grown on the same piece of land over a 70 or 80-year period, one finds the yield is increasing.
“The reasons are that we are growing better trees through choice of the more vigorous and suitable genetics and improving silviculture — the way we look after the trees, plant them and remove weeds,” says Mr Everard.
“Although there are a few problems in terms of climate change that we have picked up with more extreme weather conditions, we are comfortable from a narrow-sense sustainability and forest technology point of view, having improved our practices with effort going into research and the application of sustainable forestry principles.”
However, from a broad-sense perspective of sustainability, Mr Everard says forestry faces a number of issues.
“First, there is a general perception that forestry guzzles water. The truth is eucalyptus trees do use more water than the vegetation they replace, but they are also extremely efficient water-usage trees providing more timber per litre of water than any other tree.
“Timber plantations are not expanding in the country, but have decreased in size over the past 10 years by about 100,000 hectares and are regulated as regards water usage.
“South African forestry timber plantations are also in the process of withdrawing from all wetlands, riparian and areas in which water accumulates.”
Ms McMenamin confirms the systematic implementation of delineation of commercial trees on or close to riparian or wetland areas, which she says encourages the recovery of natural fresh water resources and associated biodiversity.
“By working collaboratively with government and forest industry staff, a wetland and river buffer delineation method has been developed, beyond which plantation trees could be planted. This serves to reduce the impact of plantation forestry operations on water resources.”
Mr Everard says the total annual water requirement for forestry plantations was calculated to be about 3% of the total water used in South Africa per year; by comparison, water used for irrigating of crops amounts to 62% of the total annual requirement.
He explains that water quality in streams and rivers generally can only be negatively affected by pollution or by sediment loads due to erosion. Silvicultural activities in forestry plantations seldom use chemicals that cause pollution. Virtually no fertiliser is used and only pesticides that are short-lived and have little or no impact on downstream ecosystems are used, which means that it is seldom that water is polluted by forestry operations.
Water quality is monitored at a selection of sites, with the latest results available indicating that at 9% of the sites the water was in a natural (pristine) condition, 64% had good quality water, 12% had fair quality water and at 15% of the sites the water quality was poor.
“The level of 73% with good or natural quality water exceeds water quality levels from most other forms of land use and indicates that forestry under sound management provides an important service in providing clean water to downstream users,” says Mr Everard.
“While water allocation is an issue for the industry we believe it uses its water in a sustainable manner adding good value and contributing a higher factor per litre to the country’s GDP and economy than most sectors.”
The spread and control of weeds is another broad-sense sustainability issue that Mr Everard believes the industry is controlling, but he does concede that successful control of weeds is partly a matter of budget and in tough economic conditions the success of weed control could be negatively impacted on.
Ms McMenamin says an intensive management programme has significantly improved the way Mondi controls invasive alien plant species. Mondi’s invasive alien plant programme has annually cleared a total of 60,000 hectares of indigenous forest, woodland, wetland and grassland from invasive alien plants over the past four years and continues to manage these areas in a maintenance phase (weed coverage of less than 5%).
Another broad-sustainability issue is biodiversity, which is high profile and often misunderstood by the general public, according to Mr Everard.
He says that only 1,1%, or 1,2-million, hectares of the total land area in South Africa is under commercial forestry plantations. By comparison, maize covers nearly 3-million hectares, wheat about 0.6-million hectares and sugar about 0.4-million hectares.
Mr Everard explains that South Africa is made up of seven biomes.
“Most forestry occurs in the grassland biome where 2,8% has been planted to commercial forest plantations. By comparison about 25% of the grassland biome has been converted into cultivated agricultural land, with another 20% having been converted to other forms of land use such as urban or rural settlement areas, mining, or has been degraded to the extent it is no longer classified as grassland. The second most affected biome is the savanna biome where about 0,9% has been afforested, followed by the fynbos biome, of which 0.85% has been planted with commercial forestry plantations,” says Mr Everard.
He says the other biomes have not been affected by commercial forestry plantations to any level that is material, except the forest biome which has been “saved” in that the plantations have supplied just about all the commercial timber traded in South Africa for the past 70 to 80 years, enabling indigenous forests to be protected.
He says that while South Africa’s timber plantations consist of single species stands of exotic trees, which were planted into habitats that were generally not naturally dominated by trees and at the stand level timber plantations have a significantly negative impact on the natural biodiversity, the impact is generally mitigated by the fact that it is seldom more than 65% of the land is planted, with about 30% of the unplanted land being managed for the conservation of the natural habitats and the biodiversity they contain.
“Many of these unplanted areas are well managed and form important sites for conserving many rare or threatened species.
“From a severity point of view, when compared with other forms of land use, plantation forestry has been ranked by researchers as having the second highest impact on biodiversity integrity. However, in mitigation of this severe, though not extensive impact, plantation forest owners own about a further 500,000 hectares of unplanted grassland, some of which consist of the best and most pristine examples of moist grassland in the country.”
Mr Everard says this constitutes a 30% to 35% set-aside for conservation by the forestry industry, which far exceeds the international norm of 10%.
“We have recorded 450 bird species on our plantations, which is nearly half the number of species in South Africa. We also have growing numbers of baboons and antelope that have moved into our plantations, because they are a good habitat without any hunting or persecution. The same applies to predators such as caracal, jackal and leopard, so South Africa’s forestry industry’s plantations are anything but a green desert as they are thought to be,” says Mr Everard.