There are three key issues to be considered regarding industrial tree plantations in South Africa: biodiversity, water and land rights.
South Africa’s biodiversity is not only found inside its national parks; its grasslands contain up to 4,000 plant species – more species than are found in many countries. Industrial tree plantations have replaced vast areas of these grasslands in South Africa, threatening many species found in the grassland ecosystem.
The fast growing plantation trees consume large amounts of water. Local communities living near plantations face sinking water levels and dry wells. The exotic species used for the pulpwood industry have spread into the surrounding environment and along rivers and watercourses .
Under the apartheid regime in South Africa, black people were denied basic human and political rights, including their rights to land. While land redistribution is ongoing, most farmland is still white-owned. The government aims to transfer 30 per cent of farmland back to black South Africans by 2014, but progress so far has been slow. Through vast areas of plantations, South Africa’s pulp and paper companies are among the largest private landowners in the country.
Pulp companies and their expansions plans
More than 1.5 million hectares of South Africa is covered with industrial tree plantations. The pulp and paper industry is the main driver of the expansion of plantations and consumes over two-thirds of the timber from South Africa’s plantations. More than half of the plantation area is planted with pine, about one-third is eucalyptus and about one-fifth is acacia.
Two companies dominate the pulp and paper industry in South Africa: Sappi and Mondi.
- Sappi (South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd) was registered in 1936 and today owns 465,000 hectares of plantations in South Africa (it has a further 75,000 hectares in Swaziland). Worldwide, the company manufactures 5 million tonnes of paper and 3 million tonnes of pulp a year and employs a total of 16,000 people. In South Africa, Sappi is currently expanding its Saiccor dissolving pulp mill by more than 200,000 tonnes a year. The company also plans to expand pulp production at its Ngodwana mill by 225,000 tonnes a year. The company is planning to convert the plantations feeding its mill from pine to eucalyptus.
- Mondi manages 430,000 hectares of plantations. The company was formed in 1967 by Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Today Mondi has 35,000 employees in 35 countries. In early 2007, Anglo American announced that it would demerge the company and Mondi would become an independent company. Mondi has a paper mill in Durban and a wood chip mill and pulp mill at Richards Bay. In 2005, Mondi completed a new 720,000 tonnes a year pulp line at its Richards Bay pulp mill.
In addition to these two giants, several smaller companies have sizeable operations in South Africa.
- SAFCOL (South African Forestry Company Ltd) was set up in 1992 to run state-owned plantations in preparation for privatisation.
- Global Forest Products is a joint venture between Mondi and a US investment company, Global Environment Fund, with 67,000 hectares of industrial tree plantations.[*]
- NCT Forestry Cooperative Ltd is a cooperative marketing company, formed in 1949 to represent independent and private tree farmers. Its more than 2,000 members own a total of 300,000 hectares of plantations. In 2004, NCT started up a 360,000 tonnes a year wood chip mill in Durban. In March 2005, Japan’s Hokuetsu Paper Mills bought up 10 per cent of NCT Durban Wood Chips. Two months later NCT signed a contract to supply 300,000 tonnes of wood chips a year to Hokuetsu.
NCT is planning to build a new pulp mill at Richards Bay. The “Pulp United” project started in 2003 as a joint venture with Sweden’s Sodra Cell but two years later Sodra Cell pulled out , apparently because of concerns about the costs of electricity supply to the proposed mill. NCT continued the project and in March 2007, Sweden’s Rottneros Group signed a letter of intent with NCT to build a pulp mill in South Africa. The planned pulp mill has been reduced in size from 300,000 to 140,000 tonnes. Rottneros plans to move its mechanical pulp production line from its Utansjö mill to South Africa. One of the reasons for the move, according to Rottneros, is that energy costs in South Africa are cheaper than in Sweden. In August 2006, Rottneros announced that it would close its plant at Utansjö because of the high cost of electricity.
In addition to producing pulp and paper, exports of woodchips from South Africa are massive. Central Timber Co-operative (CTC) is the world’s largest exporter of woodchips via its woodchip mill in Richards Bay.
Between 1920 and 1960, the state was responsible for most expansion in the area of industrial tree plantations. Communities living on the land were forcibly relocated to other areas. During the 1960s, private companies started establishing tree plantations. In the 1980s, Mondi and Sappi led a new wave of plantation establishment as Sappi built a new pulp and paper mill in eastern Transvaal and Mondi built a pulp mill in Richards Bay.
The government subsidised the expansion of the pulp and paper industry with tax incentives and a General Export Incentive Scheme, which was withdrawn after 1994.
In the early 1990s, the area of plantations increased at a rate of 45,000 hectares a year. Since 1996, the rate has been about 11,000 hectares a year, although a coalition of South African NGOs, Timberwatch, points out that the real amount is higher because this figure excludes illegal, unregistered plantations. Timberwatch estimates that up to 40 per cent of timber plantations may be unlawful because they were not registered before planting started.
The timber industry and government is currently expanding the area of plantations in Eastern Cape Province. Timberwatch reports that an area of 200,000 hectares of new plantations is planned mainly in Eastern Cape, “mostly on community land”  . Mondi, for example, has established an area of pine plantations in Maclear and Ugie districts in Eastern Cape.
In neighbouring Mozambique, the government has ambitious plans for industrial tree plantations. A 2006 “National Reforestation Strategy” outlines plans for at least 2 million hectares of tree plantations in the next 20 years. A further 3 million hectares is to be zoned and made “available for potential investors for the development of industrial plantations”. In total, the plan identifies an area of 7 million hectares as suitable for plantations.
Impacts on water, people and biodiversity
Impacts on the environment from plantations in South Africa include the irreversible conversion of species-rich grasslands. Biodiverse landscapes have been replaced by monocultures of tree plantations. Trees from plantations (in particular acacia, but also eucalyptus and pines) have spread outside the plantation areas , invading further areas of natural ecosystems. Timberwatch estimates that the area now covered by exotic trees which have spread from industrial tree plantations , is at least as large as the area of plantations themselves: “There is at least as much unmanaged scrub timber as there is formal plantation.”
Boet Fourie, a former Natal Agricultural Union (NAU) president, describes exotic tree plantations as being like “giant water pumps, which suck up ground water before it reaches the rivers” . Plantations have caused springs, streams and ponds to dry up. John Blessing Karumbidza of the of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in a recent report for World Rainforest Movement (WRM), talked to villagers in Sabokwe and found that the issue of water came up frequently. One woman told Karumbidza that “The thing is that we compete for water with these plantations. They use up a lot of water. I remember in 1996, the stream close to our garden was running perennially because the eucalyptus trees were not here.”
In 1972, South Africa introduced an Afforestation Permit System in an attempt to address the impact of tree plantations on water resources. Planting trees in wetlands and close to rivers and streams was restricted. But the plantations still use huge amounts of water and impact the rural communities they surround. Although the environmental costs are borne by local communities, the expansion of tree plantations has continued – driven largely by the expansion of woodchip, pulp and paper mills in the country.
As World Rainforest Movement’s Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann note in “Pulping the South”, the conversion of grasslands to plantations has destroyed vast areas traditionally used by pastoralists. “It has become more difficult for farmers to raise livestock for meat and milk” and “Reeds needed for making mats or cords used for roofing or trays have disappeared after plantations have caused small watercourses to dry up”, comment Carrere and Lohmann .
John Blessing Karumbidza, in his report for WRM, found that security and safety are among the most serious concerns for people living near plantations. “As parents with girl children we worry a lot about the plantations,” a villager told Karumbidza. “There are always strange men wandering around aimlessly and many sexual offences have been reported. So they cannot go to fetch water or firewood any more. Besides, these offences, the plantations are used by thieves to hide and to store their loot. When the police discover these things they come and harass us by searching our houses apartheid style. We are not safe here with these plantations.”
The loss of land and dramatic changes in the landscape caused by industrial tree plantations undermines the culture and identity of rural people. “We are locked here in the midst of plantations as you can see. We are like people who are in a prison,” Chief Mbuyazi in Sabokwe community told Karumbidza. “Whenever you get out of the house, all you see are these eucalyptus plantations. They have robbed us of a sense of community and the typical rural environment to which we are accustomed, which is characterised by diversity. When you think about talking to the ancestors, there are specific trees where we used to take a pot of brewed beer and our offering and then appease the spirits. You cannot do that under a gum tree. They erode our culture by denying us the opportunity to practice our culture.“
“We cry because our children have no clothes and no shoes,” a villager told the Natal Witness newspaper in 1994. “Life has been difficult since the trees came.”
* UPDATE (20 August 2007): York Timber took over Global Forest Products earlier in 2007. During July 2007, 6,000 hectares of York Timber’s plantations were burnt as fires raged through 259,000 hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.
 “Country profile: South Africa”, BBC News,
 Garforth, Mike and James Mayers (2005) “Plantations, Privatization, Poverty and Power. Changing Ownership and Management of State Forests”, Earthscan, London, page 228.
 “The Timberwatch coalition in 2006”, Timberwatch website.
 “Pulp and Paper Sector Summit Resource Book”, compiled by Naledi, October 2005.
 Nuñez, Raquel and Vera Ribiero (2006) “Mozambique: Paving the way for industrial tree plantations”, World Rainforest Movement Bulletin 107, June 2006.
 Cited in John Blessing Karumbidza (2005) A Study of the Social and Economic Impacts of Industrial Tree Plantations in the KwaZulu – Natal Province of South Africa, World Rainforest Movement.