Jump to Navigation

Out of the shade

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
15 Dec 2011
Publisher Name: 
Shannon Sherry
More like this
Plantation Management


Trees are Themba Radebe’s life. In 2007 he realised a dream by buying a gum tree plantation after working for forestry and packaging company Mondi for almost 20 years.

Trees are Themba Radebe’s life. In 2007 he realised a dream by buying a gum tree plantation after working for forestry and packaging company Mondi for almost 20 years.

With a grant from the land affairs department and a loan from the Industrial Development Corp (IDC) of about R2m, Radebe bought the appropriately named farm, Eersteling, near Ixopo in southwestern KwaZulu Natal. It covers 267ha, with 154ha planted to trees.

It was previously owned by forestry company Sappi, and the contract of sale stipulates that for the first 20 years — or two full harvest cycles — Radebe will sell 80% of the timber from the farm to the company. The rest he puts on the open market and it is used mainly as poles in fences.

“It is something to leave to my family,” Radebe says. The project is officially owned by Sobengwe Trading, a family trust, of which he is the founder and chairman.

Radebe employs about 30 people on the plantation. Besides that, he also runs three harvesting teams of 16 people each which are contracted out to work on other forestry plantations in the surrounding area . He also acts as a consultant to a number of community forestry projects, some of which he assisted in starting more than 10 years ago, and others being developed in southern KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape with the IDC’s assistance.

The Eersteling project is one that has flowed from government’s Industrial Policy Action Plan, which identified forestry as a key sector for rural development.

Chris Nicholson of the IDC’s forestry unit is greatly encouraged by the progress of Radebe’s forestry venture .

Nicholson says the plan is to expand community forestry in the Eastern Cape by 100000ha, in KwaZulu Natal by 39000ha, in Limpopo by 6000ha and in Mpumalanga by 10000ha. Citing the plan, he says new forestry projects have the potential to create almost 16000 jobs .

The forestry projects support job creation in growing, caring for and then felling the trees. They are then used in a wide range of products, such as poles, saw timber and pulp for paper and cardboard, as well as in other wood- related industries such as pellets used in alternative energy projects, packing crates, furniture and garage doors, for example.

The IDC created a R200m fund for forestry in 2006 but Nicholson says there were few applications, mainly because awareness of the fund was low and because of the red tape involving development of business plans and registering forestry enterprises for water-use licences, which require extensive environmental impact assessments.

The development body then approved an additional R20m fund to pay for the red-tape requirements and to promote new forestry ventures. One to benefit is an ambitious undertaking by the Mabandla community in the KZN area.

This community, comprising about 3000 households led by chief Lawrence Baleni, formed the Mabandla Community Trust to run their affairs.

Each household received a R4000 subsistence land acquisition grant from the land affairs department which they pooled. The resulting R12m fund initiated a forestry project that will support a livestock management and breeding area and a nature conservation zone offering eco-cultural tourism including bird watching, fly fishing and biking and hiking trails.

Bill Bainbridge, a retired KwaZulu Natal Parks Board planning head, conducted the environmental impact assessment for the project. He says the Mabandla area is an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot and already attracts many foreign visitors interested in its ecology and the area’s natural beauty.

As consultants, the community appointed Rural Forest Management, a company founded by partners Radebe and Peter Nixon in 2000. The pair worked together for Mondi and claim 60 years of “corporate and social forestry” experience between them. Nixon assisted Radebe in putting together his proposal to Sappi, the IDC and the land affairs department which resulted in the purchase of Radebe’s plantation.

“Mondi was interested in developing community forestry projects in KwaZulu Natal but later pulled out when it decided it was not its core business,” Nixon says. “Themba and I had already done a lot of the preparatory work for it , and we had built up trust and commitment among the communities, so enough had been done for us to step in and take over with our own business.”

Community forestry involves the use of communal land to uplift communities through sustainable jobs, as well as providing an income through the sale of timber for investment in other projects.

Nixon and Radebe initially concentrated on planting the areas for which permits had been obtained. They created structures enabling community members to manage the enterprises.

“It is all based on sound forestry and best business practices,” says Radebe.

The company charges fees of R280/ha- R350/ha for newly planted areas, depending on size and individual requirements, as well as 2,5% of the income from timber sales.

“Timber sales start only 10 years after the trees are planted. The plantation is divided into 10 areas and, after the initial 10 years, every year one area is harvested and replanted,” Nixon explains.

It is a long-term investment but Nicholson says forestry holds many advantages for rural communities, not least of which is the income from the trees.

The roughly 90ha of gum trees that the Mabandla Trust will fell generates revenue of about R12m/year. After operating costs, the community profits by R1,5m-R2m/year, which they plan to plough back into job-creating projects.

Says Nixon: “Mabandla also has about 450ha of pine trees that will not be ready for a few years, but when they are this community will fly like no other in the area.

“Trees are a forgiving crop. Though there are ideal weather conditions for tree growing, climatic deviations are mostly not a train smash. Trees will still survive, for example, even if the rainfall drops below the average for the region.

“And if timber prices are low in a particular year, it is not compulsory to harvest, as with most other agricultural products. You can leave the trees in the ground for another year, they continue to grow and you have the option of harvesting when prices are better .

“The harvested tons with bigger trees will be higher, so it can be advantageous if you have the cash flow to sustain not felling for a year or two.”

Radebe and Nixon conducted soil surveys, planned roads, planted the correct species mix and ensured the plantations were properly established with a view to long-term viability. They point with pride to certificates awarded to their projects by international certification body the Forestry Stewardship Council.

Another important role player in community forestry initiatives is James Ballantyne, who runs Rural Forestry Development in association with Nixon and Radebe. He contracted with the IDC earlier this year to identify, aid and develop new community forestry projects in southern KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. Ballantyne is aware of criticism of the environmental impact of forestry, especially as a user of water, but he defends it. “Water is quite an emotive issue, and we are a water-scarce country, but we practise forestry only where there is high rainfall,” he says.

He insists trees are not planted into river courses and cannot access any water other than rain.

“Trees use far less water than irrigated maize and other crops and much more damage is caused by bad agriculture through erosion, both in crop and livestock farming.”

He points out that “trees are the best carbon sequesters” and take carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the soil for long periods.

It is an issue that was hotly debated at the COP17 conference in Durban (see story on page 36 ).

At a conference held in parallel with COP17, Bob Scholes of the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research highlighted the scientific case for sustainable forest management. Citing a recent study, he noted that forests can potentially absorb nearly a quarter of total carbon emissions from human activity, exceeding the targets of the Kyoto Protocol .


Extpub | by Dr. Radut