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Post: If the Forestry Sector is no longer a key driver of habitat loss and the associated decline in biodiversity in South Africa, could it contribute to its prevention?

Forestry

If the Forestry Sector is no longer a key driver of habitat loss and the associated decline in biodiversity in South Africa, could it contribute to its prevention?

Absolutely no one would disagree that habitat loss is a major driver of the decline in biodiversity we are currently witnessing. Indeed, anything that alters land use – be it settlements, infrastructure, agriculture, mining – will impact biodiversity and that includes forestry. In South Africa, information on the state of the country’s environment is captured through State of the Environment Reporting (SOER) and on 15 February 2024 Forestry South Africa presented to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment State of the Environment Community of Practice Meeting on biodiversity in a Forestry Sector context.

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When we consider habitat loss, and thus the associated decline in biodiversity, distinction is made in the SOER website between historic habitat loss –pre-1990 before the advent of modern conservation methods – and recent habitat loss. Forestry is often considered a key driver of both historic and recent habitat loss, certainly this is the case on the SOER website.

The presentation offered FSA an opportunity to address this, making a distinction between historic and recent habitat loss and the role forestry has played in both. The presentation also considers the opportunities the forestry landscape and forest management practices present in terms of habitat preservation.

Forestry is no longer the key driver of habitat loss it once was

Across South Africa forestry landholdings occupy over 1.5 million hectares of land, while some of this still remains the grasslands, indigenous forests, fynbos and wetlands it once was, the majority has been converted to planted timber stands. What is interesting, however, is that if you look at forestry’s footprint, over 70% of it was planted pre-1972 where there was no legislation governing how and where commercial timber plantations were established. A further 25% was established between 1972-1998, when new plantations required permits from the Department of Forestry which contained some environmental considerations, meaning only 5% of the forestry landscape was planted post-1998.

 

Looking at this in terms of historic and recent habitat loss, with around 95% of the forestry landscape falling within the former category of habitat loss, can forestry still be considered a key driver of recent habitat loss?

Certainly, if you look at the 2022/2023 State of the Environmental Headline Indicators, the Ecosystem Area Index, produced using SANBI data, makes for alarming reading. Across every ecosystem type trends in area covered over the past 30 years (post-1990) show troubling declines – declines that have dramatically increased in most cases between 2015 – 2020.

At the same time, Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) data on the same SOER website show an 80,000 ha decrease in land under forestry. While this is a net-loss and around 5% of the forestry landscape has been established during this period, some on old agricultural sites and others on undisturbed natural ecosystems, it would appear forestry is far from a key driver of recent habitat loss.

Does the forestry landscape have the potential to preserve natural habitats?

Habitat preservation was indeed a fortunate consequence of commercial forestry when it was first initiated in South Africa almost a century ago to meet the country’s ever increasing demand for wood. By providing an alternative timber source, commercial forestry helped prevent the total depletion of indigenous forests.

Forestry

 

Since those early days, the Forestry Sector – perhaps unwittingly at first, but in recent decades quite deliberately – has done its bit to help preserve the natural ecosystems found within the forestry landholdings.

Like every other business, individual, sector or government department that utilises South Africa’s natural resources, Forestry has a responsibility to do so sustainably, ensuring these natural resources can be passed on to future generations – hopefully in a better state than we received it.

Lasting sustainability is built on three pillars – environmental, social and economic – and focusing on one, to the detriment of the other two, will ultimately prove to be unsustainable. When we think about forestry in this context our aim is to minimise the Sector’s environmental footprint while yielding the greatest social and economic benefits. This can only be achieved through a multifunction landscape approach where you no longer solely focus on the production (economic) potential of the landscape, you also look at the social and environmental potential too.

Forestry landholdings – again unintentionally at first – have been operating as multifunctional landscapes since they were first introduced, thanks to their patchwork nature. While the current forestry footprint spans over 1.5 million hectares, only 1.1 million hectares of this are planted. The remaining 30% remains unplanted and a large proportion of this – upwards of 20% of forestry’s total land area – remains as natural and semi-natural ecosystems. These include over 170 000 hectares of grassland, over 62 000 hectares of indigenous forest, almost 60 000 hectares of wetlands and water bodies – rivers, streams, lakes etc. and in the Cape almost 13 000 hectares of fynbos

 

In short, upwards of 20% of forestry landholdings are preserved as natural ecosystems, which are proactively managed by the Forestry Sector. This suggests that there is ample capacity within the forestry landscape to aid with the preservation of both habitats and biodiversity.

Habitat and biodiversity preservation in a forestry context

Environmental stewardship can be considered at three levels in a forestry context, the first of which is at ground level, with individual forestry companies.

The majority of corporate forestry companies have whole departments dedicated to environmental stewardship of their landholdings. They also have environmental policies that are incorporated into their operational procedures to ensure proactive management and preservation of these natural ecosystems.

Through partnerships with environmental NGOs like WWF, EWT, government environmental bodies like SANBI and academic institutes, forestry companies are involved in programmes, projects and initiatives aimed at understanding, preserving and in some cases expanding the natural ecosystems, their functions and the biodiversity they harbour.

Forestry

Some of these take the form of formally protected areas, that the companies themselves have initiated to ensure these areas of land are formally protected under National Legislation. Others are proactively managed by the companies as conservation areas and form ecological corridors that dissect the plantation landscape creating an interlinking network of natural habitats for biodiversity to move through. These natural spaces provide homes for rare, endangered and endemic species, they provide conservation and research opportunities, as well as recreational space the wider community can enjoy.

Globally, we are becoming more aware that formally protected areas, like national parks and sites of special scientific interest, cannot conserve biodiversity and ecosystems on their own. There is now a shift towards incorporating conservation into production and urban landscapes, be it hedgerows in an arable landscape or artificial reefs in a commercial harbour, and the Forestry Sector provides an ideal blueprint for this.

One level up and you have Sector level environmental stewardship. The Sector’s commitment to this is illustrated by emphasis placed on environmental management at an industry association level. Compared to other agri-sectors, Forestry South Africa is relatively small in terms of its staffing and yet it has a dedicated environmental consultant and environmental portfolio – that guides and assists the members of FSA in the execution of their environmental programmes.

The Sector also operates the Environmental Management Committee – initiated in 1990 – which meets several times a year and pools environmental expertise from across FSA’s members. They drive many of the environmental policies, procedures and collaborations that the Sector adopts.

Forestry is also a Sector that self-regulates, producing and regularly updating the 140 page plus environmental guidelines containing detailed overviews of all the environmental regulations and requirements pertaining to the Sector and the best practices for implementing these. To ease implementation of these on the ground – especially for FSA’s smaller members who may not have the environmental expertise on hand – a series of forester’s guidelines in the form of infographics are being curated that provide a step-by-step process for evaluating what needs to be done and how to implement it.

Over the past decade, FSA has moved from simply promoting environmental stewardship to our members to helping them facilitate it. This illustrates the Sector’s commitment to sustainable practices and reducing forestry’s environmental footprint. Examples include the Guidelines on Alien Invasive Species and Integrated Management Practices, both of which were produced as a result of the Sector pooling resources and expertise and facilitating knowledge sharing on best practices to benefit biodiversity.

While chemical pesticides are not used in forestry to the levels they are in other agricultural sectors, they are subject to far more compliancy requirements – due to the international certification criteria that will be discussed later. Overseeing the responsible and effective use of pesticides within the Forestry Sector is one of FSA’s longest running committees of industry experts – the Timber Industry Pesticide Working Group or TIPWG for short.

The TIPWG website provides foresters a treasure trove of information – a lot of which is open access, to benefit those beyond the Forestry Sector. Items to highlight include the TIPWG Standard Operating Procedures – a set of easy to access infographics providing industry best practice guides that cover all things pesticide – from transport and storage, to handling, application and disposal.

Forestry

TIPWG also plays an invaluable role in pesticide awareness and knowledge transfer, regularly running industry-wide campaigns to promote best practice. Recent campaigns have included the importance of reading the label, why we need to calibrate and the safe disposal of pesticide containers. These campaigns and the TIPWG infographics have been adopted by agri-sector associations like CropLife who have gone on to use them in their own awareness campaigns – spreading the messages to a far broader agri-sector audience.

At a Sector level, hundreds of millions of Rand are spent annually across nine broad corporate social investment areas of which the environment is one. These projects, programmes and initiatives are designed to be sustainable and to have a lasting beneficial impact. A great example is the industry’s involvement in the conservation of the critically endangered pepper bark tree. Sappi has been involved with the pepper bark conservation project – a collaboration between multiple NGOs – since its onset, providing tree breeding knowledge, technology and capacity, with seeds from wild specimens collected from the farm of one of FSA’s medium-scale members. Last year, in celebration of Arbor week, FSA donated funds to the project and helped with the distribution of seedlings to rural communities. It is hoped these trees, which were delivered with instructions on how to tend and harvest the trees, will alleviate some of the pressure on last pockets of natural populations in the area. It doesn’t stop there, the pepper bark project has been so successful that its endangered status is likely to be downgraded and the programme will be used as a blueprint to help conserve other critically endangered trees, whose seeds we hope to harvest from within the forestry landscape.

Going above and beyond what is nationally expected

As alluded to earlier, the Forestry Sector often goes above and beyond national legislative requirements to comply with the 10 Principles and multiple criteria of international forest certification bodies like the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®). This covers social as well as environmental aspects of forestry, from employee wellbeing and housing provisions to wetland delineation and the undertaking of environmental and social risk assessments every time a chemical is used.

Certification requires annual audits which are not limited to the company themselves but extend to the contractors being utilised and business forestry companies buy from. Audits are long, and arduous, often taking several days to scrutinise every aspect of forestry management and operational practices. Yet, despite the laborious nature of certification and the high standards needed to be achieved, over 85% of the South African forestry landscape is FSC certified and 40% have achieved PEFC certification through the newly instated Southern African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS).

And it should be stressed that it is not just our commercial trees that are audited. The natural environmental areas within the forestry landscape are audited too against their own international indicators and criteria, providing international assurance that proactive stewardship of these spaces is being maintained by the Forestry Sector.

Forestry

In conclusion

Like any human-activity that alters the natural habitat, historically forestry has played a role in habitat loss and therefore biodiversity decline. Whether this loss would or wouldn’t have happened if commercial forestry was never bought to this country over a hundred years ago, would only be speculation – however, common sense suggests some other land-use that provided economic gains would have filled forestry footprints, but may not have saved South Africa’s remaining indigenous forestry from the country’s incessant demand for wood. What’s more, it is unlikely an alternative land use would set aside so much of its landholdings for natural ecosystems to be preserved and managed.

Forestry’s declining footprint in recent years suggests it is no longer a key driver of habitat loss, however, its patchwork nature could be part of the solution. The landscape is already preserving thousands of hectares of natural habitat and the associated ecological services and biodiversity. Through collaborations with environmental NGOs, research institutes and the State, the Forestry Sector is showing the conservation potential of these natural spaces found in the heart of the plantation landscape. The fact that 85% of the forestry landscape – including these natural areas – are internationally audited against principles, criteria and standards that go beyond the requirements stipulated by National Regulations makes the industry active custodians of this landscape.

In short, the Forestry Sector provides a great blueprint for mainstreaming biodiversity considerations into a production landscape, promoting sustainable environmental stewardship, whilst yielding social and economic benefits across some of the most impoverished rural communities in South Africa.

What’s more, this is just one of environmental benefits sustainable forestry yields. There has not been time to discuss the role the forestry landscape can play in mitigating climate change, or its capacity to provide green energy that feeds into our national grid. We also have not discussed the incredible array of renewable, carbon neutral, recyclable and sustainable products our Sector produces the feedstock for – these include green alternatives to fossil fuels and plastics – key drivers of the global climate crisis.

When it comes to utilising a natural resource sustainably, it should be a journey of continuous improvement. The ultimate goal is to minimise the environmental footprint left, while maximising the social, environmental and economic benefits it yields. As a Sector, Forestry can hold its head up high as we are actively invested, at every level, in achieving both sides of this equation.

By: Dr Katy Johnson and Dr John Scotcher, Forestry South Africa Consultants
Source:
FSA Magazine

 

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