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Sustainable forestry

© Scott Ramsay

We all rely on forestry in some form. From toilet paper to newsprint and clothing materials, many products require pulp from wood. Yet, most forestry plantations use fast-growing invasive species which can have a negative effect on the natural environment – and water supply – if not managed responsibly.

What is the issue?

In South Africa, a tiny 0.4% of land is covered by natural forests and 1% by plantations. Most trees used for commercial plantations are alien invasive species such as pine and eucalyptus. These are fast growing to satisfy our wood-product demands, but they are also extremely water thirsty and their seeds and saplings are quick to spread if not managed well.
 
While plantations use 3% of the country’s total water resources, this does not account for the unmeasured water impacts on a local catchment, its critical wetlands and overall river flow. It’s concerning that many plantations in South Africa are situated within strategic water source areas.
 
While commercial plantation forestry is generally a well-organised industry, in a water-scarce country like South Africa there is an increasing need for ‘cross-boundary collaboration’. This means we need to collectively care for river catchments and their downstream water users because water connects these forestry operations to the surrounding landscape and to the local communities.

What are we doing?

To strengthen industry self-governance and improve collective water stewardship practices, WWF convenes partnerships with forestry companies who have plantations in strategic water source areas which support important wetlands and catchments.

How do we do this?

WWF works with committed plantation players to encourage good water stewardship for the sustainable management of shared water resources. This is in the best interest of all water users, and is done through catalysing collective action with government, other businesses, NGOs and communities living close to plantations. An example of collective action would be to assess shared risk and develop a catchment-level alien vegetation clearing strategy. Another is to assess the impacts of community cattle grazing on unplanted grasslands and wetlands in plantation estates and to implement better managed cattle grazing practices in collaboration with communities and forestry companies to reduce this impact.
 
WWF has projects with plantation forestry companies in KwaZulu-Natal: in the uMhaltuze catchment which flows from Babanango to Richard’s Bay and the uMkomazi catchment from the Drakensberg mountains to the Indian Ocean near the town of Umkomaas, 40 km south of Durban.
 
WWF is also working at a national forestry sector level to promote an enabling environment for water stewardship.

Who do we work with?

WWF works closely with the two big paper and pulp producers in South Africa, Mondi and Sappi.

How did it start?

WWF has been working closely with these two big producers since the early 1990s, in partnerships on water stewardship and ecotourism in natural forests. Since 1996, with Mondi’s strong support, WWF began to work closely with the forestry sector promoting better water stewardship practices and focusing on delineating wetlands and riparian areas. This ensured no plantations were planted in these freshwater ecosystems and that there was a sufficient buffer distance between them and the plantations. This early delineation and wetland rehabilitation work played a key role in catalysing the establishment of South Africa’s national Working for Wetlands Programme in 2001 and the establishment of a formal partnership for wetland conservation between WWF and Mondi.
 
In 1993, the global forestry certification organisation known as the Forestry Stewardship Council – or FSC® – was established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. This has gone a long way to ensuring the forestry sector follows environmental best practice.

What are the big wins?

  1. 80% of South Africa’s plantation forests are FSC® - certified which shows that significant strides toward sustainable forest management have been made, focused on ensuring social and economic benefits without compromising the environment. This would not have been possible had the industry not been managing its wetlands and riparian areas responsibly.

  2. Over the years, the forestry industry has subscribed to a number of best-practice guidelines for environmental and freshwater management, to which WWF has contributed. In 2018, the plantation industry, with WWF contributing, developed a code of good practice for addressing the spread of invasive alien plants.

  3. WWF has had an extremely successful multi-decade partnership with Mondi with a focus on wetland conservation. In 2021 the partnership is celebrating 30 years.