Big timber accused of unauthorised tree switch

The commercial timber industry in Mpumalanga is under fire for replacing pine forests with gum species without authorisation and in the process jeopardising communities’ water sources.

Vast tracts of the Mpumalanga highveld are home to about 494 004 hectares of commercial tree plantations, most of them pine. It is an industry regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the Department of Water and Sanitation, among others. Forested areas, some of them catchment zones, are regulated, too. This includes specific areas and the species of tree with which they are forested. 

Now, environmental activists in the province say local timber growers have been converting pine plantations to eucalyptus species without authorisation from relevant officials and institutions, resulting in them using more than their fair share of catchment water.

Long history of conflict 

Complaints about the timber industry “stealing” water from farmers and other communities go back a long way.

As far back as 1915, concerns began to emerge that exotic timber plantations were sucking up significant volumes of water from some of the country’s richest mountain catchment areas, thereby drying up river flow and depriving downstream users of scarce water resources.

The first exotic tree stands were planted to provide a substitute for the rapidly dwindling timber supplies from indigenous forests and in 1935, the British Empire Forestry Conference was held in Durban to debate and find solutions to emerging conflicts arising from the plantation industry’s growing water use.

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This culminated in the establishment of a series of water-use research experiments to study exactly how much water was consumed by exotic tree species such as pine and eucalyptus (gum).

To do this, commercial species were planted in several mountain water catchments such as Jonkershoek in the Western Cape, leaving some of the adjacent catchment undisturbed as control areas so that scientists could measure and compare differences in streamflow and water consumption.

These “paired catchment” tests were later extended to include long-term experiments and monitoring projects in the Cathedral Peak area in the Drakensberg mountains and the Mokobulaan area in Mpumalanga province.

During one of these studies, gum trees were allowed to grow for 16 years before they were felled, but the full perennial streamflow in the area did not return until five years later.

Surreptitious switch

Fast-forward to 2020 and the simmering conflict over water “theft” has flared up once more in Mpumalanga.

Philip Owen, a resident and founder of the Geasphere group, has been campaigning for two decades around the negative impacts of the timber and pulp industry on water resources and the environment.

In recent months, Owen says, he has received reports that timber growers in the area have been converting their pine plantations to eucalyptus species.

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To many people, changing tree types may seem to be of little significance. It is not – the catchment experiments at Jonkershoek and elsewhere have demonstrated that gum trees are measurably thirstier than pine trees – especially during dry spells.

Research has shown that gum trees, with some exceptions, can use anywhere between 20% and 50% more water than pines.

Owen, fellow activist December Ndhlovu and interested groups in the area are concerned that switching tree species may have a significant impact on water supply following the recent drought, changing climate patterns and the growing demand for water for human needs and water-intensive agricultural expansion.

Sappi in the thick of it

In an open letter to Sappi chief executive Steve Binnie on 11 March, Owen raised questions about companies converting land from pine to gum, apparently without applying to the relevant authorities for a revision to water licensing conditions.

Owen said he was concerned about such conversions at a time when water supply remained low in the wake of the 2014-2016 drought and amid ongoing poor rainfall.

“The shift by Sappi Ngodwana towards producing more cellulose, with an increased demand for eucalyptus, is driving species conversions, not only by Sappi but by other timber growers such as Safcol/Komatiland,” he said. Komatiland Forests is a wholly owned subsidiary of South African Forestry Companies.

“Residents in affected areas are extremely concerned. Plantations are located in the upper catchment, highest rainfall areas and thus have first use of available water. This is leading to a situation where users lower down in the system have little or even no water for domestic or subsistence use,” Owen says in his letter.

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The Sappi group, which has extensive plantations in the region, says there are several other reasons for water shortages in the region.

“It should be mentioned that in recent years, several catchments have seen an exponential increase in the establishment of irrigated crops and an increase in human settlement in small towns such as Barberton, which is experiencing water shortages,” said spokesperson Mpho Lethoko.

“These shortages are no doubt also aggravated by the destruction of municipal water infrastructure, the lack of maintenance and investment in such infrastructure. The perception that forestry’s plantations are playing a major role in this water shortage and that eucalyptus conversion will exacerbate this situation, when in fact plantations have been in existence for many years, prior to the occurrence of water shortages or the expansion of small towns, does not seem to be highlighted in any way.”    

Nevertheless, Sappi evaded direct questions about how much land it has converted from pine to gum in Mpumalanga over the past decade and declined to disclose “confidential” information about gum tree supply agreements from contracted timber suppliers.

Safcol/Komatiland was cagey about similar detailed queries, responding with a one-line answer: “Please note that Safcol is not busy with genus conversion and should Safcol do this, all the necessary steps will be followed.”

Why the switch?

To contextualise the reasons why timber companies might wish to switch species, it is worth noting that Mpumalanga is home to one of the country’s biggest tree-crushing factories, the Sappi Ngodwana pulp mill, about 50km from the regional capital of Mbombela (Nelspruit).

Established in 1966, the Ngodwana mill produces nearly 1 million tonnes of paper and pulp every year, of which about 70% is exported. In its 2016 annual report, Sappi explained that there was increasing global demand for cellulose fibres to produce textiles, particularly in China, India and Indonesia.

“Against this backdrop, we will be expanding our dissolving wood pulp capacity at Ngodwana and Saiccor mills by 40,000 and 50,000 tpa [tonnes per annum] respectively, beginning in [the financial year] 2017.”

As this type of pulp is produced from gum tree fibres, Sappi and its timber suppliers now have a major incentive to convert existing pine plantations.

But Owen and the Department of Water and Sanitation insist that when timber companies convert from pine to gum, they should be compelled to reduce the area of land planted to compensate for the increase in water required to grow gum trees.

Forestry South Africa’s role

Owen is calling for a blanket 30% reduction in planted areas when land is switched from pine to gum, while the department is calling for similar reductions based on streamflow reduction tables developed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 2002.

But Forestry South Africa (FSA) – the industry association representing Sappi, Mondi and other commercial timber planters – has a very different view.

The FSA told its members in 2016 that it had secured a major victory for them by overturning draft regulations that aimed to compel them to apply for or amend licences when switching from pine to gum.

FSA executive director Michael Peter says there are no legal mechanisms to compel timber growers to obtain new authorisation when switching species.

The association says hydrological computer models used by the water department are inaccurate when applied at the scale of timber compartments.

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Peter adds that the FSA had contracted a senior CSIR hydrologist to analyse the draft regulations and he had demonstrated that the water department made “a fatal error” relating to percentage reductions required when converting from pine to gum.

According to the FSA, this meant that companies would only have to reduce the extent of gum plantations by 3% rather than 30%.

As a result, he says, the department had agreed to withdraw the regulations in 2016 and the association was therefore advising members that they could continue to switch species without reducing the size of planted areas.

Activists threatened with law suit

But last month, after he wrote to Sappi and called for a 30% reduction in newly converted gum plantations at a meeting of the Crocodile Catchment Forum, Owen received a response he did not expect.

In a letter to Owen, Peter said he noted with “grave concern, certain incorrect allegations” made in recent correspondence and meetings.

Peter charged that Owen’s allegations had been ”deliberately widely distributed to a number of people and organisations with the intent to cause harm to our members.

“FSA therefore requests that you retract your statements by Tuesday 24 March 2020 and furnish it with an undertaking not to repeat these allegations in future . . . Should you refrain from doing so, FSA will consider instituting an interdict to prevent further libellous allegations and costs, as well as an action for damages against yourself.”

Owen has responded to Peter, denying that his statements were defamatory, and hit back at the apparent attempt to intimidate him, stating: “I am advised that the justice system would not look kindly on such an attempt to silence criticism, or to curtail my or any other activist’s constitutional right to free speech.”

Owen is not the first activist to be threatened with legal threats that have come to be known as SLAPP suits.  

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Derived from the term Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, the acronym SLAPP was coined in the United States to describe the use of litigation to intimidate or strike fear into the hearts of social and environmental activists, thereby stifling public debate and scrutiny of mining and resource projects by powerful corporate interests.

The Centre for Environmental Rights has noted an increase in the number of these actions in South Africa and recently helped launch a campaign known as Asina Loyiko. It is an IsiXhosa phrase that means “We do not fear”.

Meanwhile, the water department remains adamant that all species conversions must be guided by streamflow reduction tables published by the Water Research Commission.

“Sappi and Forestry South Africa are well aware of the authorisation requirement when genus exchanges are planned,” said spokesperson Sputnik Ratau.

“The industry was told in a meeting on 15 July 2016 at the department’s Midmar Dam offices and in a letter to the Forestry South Africa Board on 14 December 2016 that the genus exchange regulations are placed on hold and in the absence of the regulations, genus exchange may only be done if a specific National Water Act, 1998 licence, in its conditions, allows for the exchange. 

“Failing this, the water user wanting to do genus exchange must contact the department for a licence or the amendment of existing National Water Act licences.”

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Former University of KwaZulu-Natal hydrologist Graham Jewitt also disagrees with the FSA’s position.

“I really object to the way that FSA have approached this. It’s typical of the sort of thing we have seen with climate change sceptics,” he said, suggesting that the association was “cherry picking” results and statements to suit its purposes.

Jewitt, who is currently lecturing at the United Nations’ Institute for Water Education in Delft in the Netherlands, dismissed suggestions that the department made any significant or “fatal errors”.

“We explained the approach several times, at several meetings, and everyone accepted that the numbers were valid. However, FSA were never prepared to accept the implications and embarked on this misinformation campaign,” he said.

“It’s quite clear that the [required] reduction in area is in the order of 30% and that by converting pine to eucalyptus without a reduction in area, the industry is using more water than they are licensed to.”

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Significantly, the former CSIR hydrologist whose report and advice to the FSA played a major role in derailing the draft regulations has modified his position.

Mark Gush, who is now living in the United Kingdom, stated that while his 2016 report to the FSA had highlighted a number of shortcomings in the published streamflow reduction tables, “in the intervening period, and on further reflection, my considered opinion has moved on regarding streamflow reduction impacts associated with converting from pine plantations to eucalyptus plantations”.

As a result, Gush said that were he to be asked his opinion today, based on the streamflow reduction tables developed by the CSIR in 2002, he would more likely advocate for average planted area reductions of around 22% (but with due allowances for specific locations) and not the average of about 3% that he indicated in his earlier report to the FSA.

Yet, regardless of how these disagreements play out over the coming months, Owen remains concerned that a solution has to be found to safeguard the region’s water resources.

“Trees cannot be switched off immediately like a water tap or an irrigation scheme during a drought,” he says. “Once they are in the ground, they keep using water until they are chopped down several years later.”

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