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Does our thirsty forestry industry need a radical rethink about use of resources?

We live in the Anthropocene, an epoch dedicated to our control over nature.

Ecosystems now reflect what we want them to be. This has left us at a tipping point in many cases; do we fight to restore nature to a vision of what we think is natural, or should we accept human dominance over nature, and rather seek to lessen the impact of our dominance?

The modern timber industry has to answer this if it to survive. For most of recorded history, we have thwacked axes into trees to do such things as fuel fires and to build things to put things on. The process uses half of the potential of a tree. It’s wasteful.

But it has spawned a global forestry industry. In South Africa, 1.5-million hectares of what is a semiarid country are covered by water-intensive plantations. Their impact has driven calls for a halt to this human-endorsed conquest by pine and eucalyptus. Instead, people would rather allow natural systems, such as grasslands, woodlands and forests, to grow in their stead.

But that vision, and the conventional timber industry, is being rapidly overtaken by a whole new vision: one that wants to use 98% of the material in a tree. That would mean trees grow the cellulose for clothes and cigarette filters, the filler for yoghurt, the yarn for car tyres. This is a vision of nature where humans select and breed trees to fit our needs.

Ground zero for this new wave is in the rugged spine of central Mpumalanga’s Drakensberg mountains. For the past 50 years, plantations have covered the 1 200m-high hills and valleys in vast swaths of monotonous evergreen trees.

This frustrates people like Philip Owen, one of many who have spent a lifetime fighting for a version of the industry that is more cognisant of South Africa’s water scarcity. “The scale of the timber industry is off the wall,” he says.

A eucalyptus can use 600 litres of water in a day. The water affairs department says a human needs 25 litres a day for drinking, hygiene and cleaning purposes. The trees can grow up to 100m. And, importantly for industry, they do so quickly.

Owen has spent most of his life running a dinosaur park. Models of the ancient animals peek out from behind indigenous trees. Together with the neighbouring Sudwala Caves, they attract visitors from nearby Mbombela (Nelspruit) and across the world. Those caves are now artificially watered because of the water demands of the plantations that cover the mountain they share.

These plantations are grown in grasslands. Undervalued when compared with the quick profits that mining or forestry can return, this ecosystem is now critically endangered. That means the free services it provides, such as storing water and gradually releasing it throughout the year, are also gone.

Pouring a sachet of brown sugar into his instant coffee, Owen says: “Now the rain falls and it doesn’t make it past the plantations. They suck up so much water.”

The enamel coffee mug becomes a source of comfort as he talks, his hands wrapped around it and his whole body hunched over it. “The timber industry has fundamentally changed all our ecosystems, for the worse.”

Farmers and other people are vocal – in person and on various online forums – about the negative impact of timber plantations. Most link the proliferation of pine and, increasingly, eucalyptus, to their springs drying up. Those fountains feed the rivers in the area, which run like crooked fingers across central Mpumalanga.

Sappi Forests’ Duane Roothman
Sappi Forests’ Duane Roothman says the timber industry is cleaning up its environmental act. (All photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The link between forestry and water has been the subject of a lot of research, both locally and abroad. A recent thesis on forestry in KwaZulu-Natal concluded: “Modern forestry is clearly linked to a drop in local water availability, and secondary impacts on the local environment.”

But these impacts are constantly decreasing, says Duane Roothman, the general manager of Sappi Forests in Mpumalanga. “Look, the time of cowboys has long gone.”

That time came in the 1930s, when the government pushed plantation forestry in a bid to make the country self-sufficient, but environmental legislation arrived only in the 1970s. Roothman says those “cowboys” have been replaced by a modern industry, which necessarily looks after the environment where it operates. He sits bolt upright in his boardroom chair, refusing its support. “Sustainability is a non-negotiable because we work in a natural environment.”

The tightly packed boilers and towers of Sappi’s Ngodwana Mill tower over his offices. This is the industry he works to supply, a task he shares with several other timber companies in the province.

Ngodwana is the largest mill in Africa and has started switching to the 98% production system, which uses as much of a tree’s material as possible. With the province not giving out any more land to forestry, that means applying science and speeding up evolution for the trees that form the core of Sappi’s business.

Using his hands to emphasise his points, Roothman says: “This is now an industry for the future and we haven’t even started with this resource [cellulose from trees].

That discounts any argument in favour of indigenous trees making up plantations – the industry has committed too much research and capital into pine and eucalyptus, he says. The focus is rather on selectively breeding the 4 000 species of “eucalyp” so they have less of an impact on the environment and can better survive South African conditions.

The current 16-year evolutionary cycle of trees is being halved to eight years. Roothman says that will mean each new crop of trees will be that much better at surviving the devastating forest fires common in plantations, and at not being attacked by new strains of pests.

The government appears to have embraced this philosophy: The Industrial Development Corpor-ation and the trade and industry department have backed expansions at Ngodwana. Sappi’s biggest shareholders are pension schemes, including the Public Investment Corporation, Investec and Sanlam.

Plantations cover 1.5-million hectares.

Speaking at last year’s World Forestry Council meeting in Durban, the forestry department said: “Commercial forestry in South Africa is committed to practising sustainable forest management. Stringent environmental codes of practice are implemented in all plantations and processing facilities.”

A forester – speaking after a few drinks too many at a pub a few valleys north of Ngodwana – says this should be taken with a greater pinch of salt than he takes with his tequila. “We’re in that awkward middle phase, where we know we should look after the environment, but that plan often fucks out.”

The sentiment of that forester is repeated by others. Managing entire ecosystems is a difficult process. Put too much of one thing into an environment and it can wipe out something that seems totally unrelated.

But they are proud people and talk of South Africa’s commercial forests as being leagues ahead of similar operations in developing countries such as Brazil. These are people with degrees that are grounded in ecological management. And even the industry’s greatest critics admit that the industry is getting more professional.

But mishaps happen. Rivers still turn red from all the salty topsoil that washes into them, and entire plantations burn down because the original ecosystem – which was able to cope with fire – is gone. The nastiest fights are about water.

In the 1990s, then water minister Kader Asmal forced the industry to leave its plantations in the water catchment of Bushbuckridge, in eastern Mpumalanga.

He won. Areas were cleared so that indigenous species could return, but poor follow-up maintenance means the area is now overrun with wild pine.

The government has also tried to oppose the timber industry’s move to convert from pine to eucalyptus – to feed its cellulose needs – because of the jump in water use.

In the rural areas where timber plantations are the only industry, this has often created an unhealthy power dynamic.

In the Eastern Cape, homes have been demolished to make way for pine plantations. In KwaZulu-Natal, people have to compete with plantations – thousands of them smallholder eucalyptus plantations promoted by the forestry department – for water. This has fostered a great deal of antagonism towards foresters and their mills.

But the timber industry is here to stay. Pine and eucalyptus plantations are the dominant ecosystems across vast swaths of places such as central Mpumalanga. The future of the industry, and these areas, relies on how successful it can be in using 98% of a tree.

Who knew? You can wear, eat and paint with a tree

The timber industry used to be all about growing a tree, then chopping it down to make planks and paper. That process used up 48% of the material stored inside a tree.

By unlocking 98% of a tree’s potential, timber plantations can supply all sorts of industrial processes.

That starts when the wood is basically cooked so that its fibres can be extracted. The white mush that results is known as dissolving wood pulp. It can be spun into textile fibres, cast into film or even built up into a sponge.

Its biggest market is in replacing cotton and petroleum as the key ingredients for clothing. Viscose fabric is more comfortable in warmer weather.

Microcrystalline cellulose is used as a thickener in food, and as a binder in pharmaceuticals. It is a filler in fat-free yoghurt, tablets and washing powder. In lipstick, it helps to make the mix of chemicals into a soft solid.

Cigarette filters, cellphone screens, cellophane wraps and the binding agent in paints are byproducts, as is rayon yarn, which is used for the cord inside car tyres. Wood chips are also an increasingly important source of energy for power stations.

An exercise in (unavoidably) smelly sustainability

Sappi Ngodwana dominates the tight, winding Elands Valley where it has operated for the past five decades. The N4 from Pretoria to Nelspruit twists around its tall boilers and wood yards. Trucks and trains wait to supply it, and to take its products to distant markets.

On a chilly morning, the thick pall of white smoke steaming out of its boilers heads straight up before getting trapped by the valley’s inversion layer. That forces it to spread out, creating a thin blanket. This traps chemicals and any smell from the plant. People as far away as Mbombela (Nelspruit) – 40km away – can smell the sulphur on days like this.

Built in a time before environmental legislation created minimum requirements, it has been continually upgrading itself to keep up with new laws. That means dull machinery next to shiny silver machinery that reflects the sun off its newness. Some 86% of the water used by the plant is returned to the Elands, with the water affairs department’s tests showing that water in the river is cleaner after the plant than before it.

Ngodwana – the biggest mill in Africa – is also a certified power producer and sells back to the grid. A 25MW biomass plant is under construction.

But for opponents of monoculture forestry, this plant is the hungry stomach that drives an insatiable demand for pine and eucalyptus. Thousands of hectares of Mpumalanga are dedicated to supplying its mills and boilers. Its switch to cellulose has meant a corresponding switch from pine trees to thirstier eucalyptus.

Its peers across the country have also built up a bad reputation for releasing pollutants into rivers, and of exceeding the levels set out in their atmospheric emissions licences. That impact has been the focus of exhaustive research, both locally and globally. South Africa’s timber sector is an example of best practice, and what not to do.

Ngodwana’s manager – Schalk Willem Engelbrecht, or “SW” – says his plant is different. “We see ourselves foremost as a sustainable unit and we’re here for the long haul. That means looking after the environment.”

The plant complies with current and future standards for emissions of nitrous oxides and sulphur, he says. That sulphur is the source of constant complaints from people who live near the plant, and it has created a pamphlet to distribute to inquisitive people. Engelbrecht says this is an unavoidable byproduct from the mill cooking wood chips to extract their fibres, and is not harmful to human health or the environment. But locals say the smell comes with other side effects, such as coughing and chest tightness.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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