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A natural abundance of timber-producing resources is something South Africa does not have. In response to the need for timber and as a solution to fast-disappearing timber resources, the afforestation industry in the country started developing in the 1870s. Afforestation can be described as the conversion of cultivated land into forest, for commercial purposes.(2) This conversion involves the planting, sowing, tending to and harvesting of exotic timber species, such as pine, acacia and eucalyptus. In general, the South African landscape is characterised by open woodlands, rather than closed-canopy forest. However, indigenous forestry is present in some areas and is conserved and sustainably managed through selective harvesting.(3) The United Nations (UN) considers afforestation to be a key climate change mitigation strategy, available to governments worldwide.(4)
Despite the growth of protected land, biodiversity – including forestry resources – continues to decline across the globe. Biodiversity in the form of ecosystems provides goods and services which are crucial to human survival, in addition to playing a vital role in the bio-geochemical processes that underlie the functioning of the Earth’s systems.(5) Despite this vital importance, research on the relationship between human population growth and consumption and demand levels indicate that unsustainable pressure is being placed on the Earth’s ecological resources and services. Effective conservation thus requires new approaches that address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss. According to studies, there are a number of economic reasons to opt for a voluntary or no-net biodiversity loss, such as a company’s need to develop and maintain its position in the market through creating a competitive edge, by demonstrating the sustainable use of natural resources.(6)
This paper discusses afforestation in the South African context, covering biodiversity and conservation. The background of the development of legislative policies and guidelines surrounding the afforestation industry will be discussed, as well as the tools and assessment plans needed for effective management and decision-making.
Ensuring environmental sustainability
Goal 7 of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aims to “ensure environmental sustainability.” Target 7a specifically seeks to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; thus making a contribution to reversing the loss of environmental resources.(7) Target 7b further seeks to reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss.(8)
One way of reversing or reducing the impacts of deforestation, and thus striving towards achieving MDG 7, as described above, is through agro-forestry. Agro-forestry is an integrated approach towards agriculture that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees. It combines the use of forestry and agricultural technologies, inclusive of the use of livestock, to create sustainable land-use systems.(9)
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has set out a ‘2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture and the Environment’ which acknowledges that there is a link between agriculture, which includes agro-forestry, and climate change. Agriculture is considered to contribute to the climate change problem, with a 13.5% annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) rate, and forestry contributing to an additional 19%, globally.(10) At the same time however, agriculture is also considered to be part of the solution, as it can have the effect of reducing GHG emissions through carbon sequestration, soil, land-use management and biomass production.(11) Considered from the other side, climate change has the effect of threatening agricultural production through higher variable temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, as well as increased occurrences of droughts and floods.
Members of the International Association of Impact Assessment have created a conceptual framework that integrates biodiversity considerations into Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). By defining biodiversity, in terms of composition, structure and key processes, in conjunction with human activities that affect components of biodiversity, information pertaining to a conceptual framework for screening and scoping in EIAs was developed.(12)
EIA systems that better conservation and biodiversity are highly encouraged. However, the onus with regards to implementation remains with each respective country – to establish a set of biological, social, legal and administrative characteristics.
History and development of afforestation in South Africa
It is estimated that South Africa uses 1.3 million hectares of land for commercial forestry.(13) Moreover, 1 million hectares of land in South Africa will be needed by 2020, in order to meet the growing and projected timber demands.(14)
Afforestation, within South Africa, is mainly practiced in grasslands and fynbos habitats. The differences between afforestation and reforestation must be noted. Reforestation is defined as the restocking of existing forests and woodlands that have been depleted.(15)
Approximately, 16% of South Africa, primarily the wetter eastern parts is suited to afforestation.(16) Owing to a favourable climate, locally pines from Europe or North America can grow at two to three times the rate than in their indigenous habitat. These types of trees fare better due to not being affected by insect pests and plant diseases, which affect the indigenous vegetation.
Presently, South Africa is believed to export two million tonnes of timber and timber products.(17) Commercial plantations account for roughly 4.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employ both directly and indirectly 200,000 people, mostly in rural areas. This is an economic support base of over a million people.(18)
In 1972, the Afforestation Permit System was created and administered by an inter-departmental committee that had the power to approve or reject applications to afforest new land or reforest land that had not been used, for a period exceeding five years. Restrictions were also placed on areas or regions, stipulating where trees could be planted and which areas were to be left unplanted. The Permit System focused on maintaining natural water resources such as springs and wetlands, while promoting the creation of inter-locked open corridors between different patches of land. The strong influences of the permitting system of 1972 are apparent in the National Water Act (No 36 of 1998) and National Environmental Management Act, 107 of 1998 (NEMA). The requirements in both Acts stipulate that detailed surveys on flora and fauna need to be undertaken by companies operating within the sector.
Historically, the mainstreaming of biodiversity occurred primarily within larger companies and not within smaller ones, as the need to obtain forestry certification facilitated the ease of implementation of legislative measures, stipulated by the National Water Act and NEMA.
Biodiversity, conservation and afforestation: The National Environmental Management Act
The NEMA is an overarching Act governing co-operative and environmental governance. Informed decision-making concerning matters affecting and involving the environment is mandatory. The State must ensure the protection, promotion and fulfilment of the social, economic and environmental rights of the people. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that every person has the right to an environment that is not harmful to his or her health or well-being.(19)
At a national level, there are nine broad priority areas. These priority areas have been selected on the basis of biodiversity features, such as the degree of representation of flora and fauna species, as well as current and future perceived threats.(20) The requirements of the local people, economic and social development, and the overall well-being of the environment must be taken into account, with regard to land planning. Reconciling the ecological, social and economic benefits should be highlighted, as well as mitigation measures identified.(21)
It should be noted that conservation assessments occur over different geographical scales. Within South Africa, there are three important biodiversity areas namely: the Karoo region, the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) and the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany region.(22)
Environmental indicators provide a glimpse into the situation at a particular point in time. Monitoring indicators, on the other hand, provide for an analysis and assessment for conclusions to be drawn on the existing trends, exhibited over a period of time.(23)
Environmental and ecological concerns: Water resources
Conserving limited water resources has always been a key factor in the mainstreaming of biodiversity, within South Africa, especially in the forestry trade. The need to maintain a minimum water reserve cannot be emphasised enough. This is to ensure that forestation development occurs with consideration for the environment.(24)
Water quantity and water quality are essential and complementary factors that vary from catchment to catchment. Other factors such as changes to the climate, geo-chemistry, point-source pollution and future land-use should also be considered. Furthermore, it is important to note that water from forested catchments is likely to be of higher quality, if there is a presence of fewer livestock and reduced human activity.(25)
Water quality problems can persist through negligence or badly designed amenities, such as roads, thus posing a serious threat to agro-forestry. Highly invasive woody, alien vegetation can suppress the growth of plantation trees. They can also have the effect of transforming ecosystems by adding resources, most notably nitrogen, by stabilising sand movements and/or promoting erosion or through accumulation or redistribution of salts in sand.(26)
Such changes can potentially alter the flow regime or quality of nutrient resources in the bio-geochemical cycles. Modifications are also known to occur in trophic resources of food webs as well as the physical resources, such as habitats, sediments, light and water.(27) Salinity control, catchment water balance and understanding catchment hydrology are important factors to consider. Over time, it can be seen that water stored in a catchment, whether groundwater, soil moisture or surface pondage, can be measured. Through recognising the importance of the water balance – surface runoff entering and leaving a catchment – it is possible to predict the hydrological implications of planting trees on a given area of land.(28)
The use of biological control measures, such as fertilisers and pesticides, has implications on soil pollution and infiltration into the water table. Grazing of animals and overall forest management must be incorporated into an afforestation management plan. The utilisation of soil-binding grass can be helpful, in order to avoid soil erosion, which is another environmental concern.
Afforestation in South Africa has been practised for many decades as a means to address diminishing timber resources. Currently, the industry contributes 4.4% to the country’s GDP. South Africa is estimated to use 1.5 million hectares of land for commercial forestry, and it is believed that one million hectares of land will be needed by 2020, in order to meet the growing and projected timber demands.
Forestry is a high-impact form of land use that, despite its considerable benefits, can also have a negative impact on the environment. The economic and environmental costs should be weighed heavily against the need for timber and timber products.
Within the South African context, planning for future development, at a strategic level, through various assessment models, is highly beneficial. Strategic development plans should encompass feasibility studies on the diversity of flora and fauna in the region of concern, as well as involve measures that can provide for EIAs.
Factors such as water quality, water quantity, salinity control, the catchment water balance as well as the catchment hydrology should be considered and mitigation measures identified, in order to allow for informed decision-making strategies with regard to biodiversity and conservation, within the sector.
(1) Contact Sarah Kiggundu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa Unit (email@example.com).
(2) Merriam Webster, ‘Definition: Afforestation’, 2011, http://www.merriam-webster.com.
(3) Mark Gush, ‘Modelling streamflow reductions resulting from commercial afforestation in South Africa: From research to application’, CSIR, 2006, http://researchspace.csir.co.za.
(4) Arora, V.K. and Montenegro, A., 2011. Small temperature benefits provided by realistic afforestation efforts. Nature GeoScience, 4, pp.514-518.
(5) Gitay, H., Suarez, A., Watson, R.T. and Dokken, D.J., eds., 2002. Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Technical paper V. Climate change and biodiversity. http://www.ipcc.ch.
(6) Steven de Bie and Bopp van Dessel, ‘Compensation for biodiversity loss - advice to the Netherlands taskforce on biodiversity and natural resource’, De Geymeynt, May 2011, http://www.taskforcebiodiversiteit.nl.
(7) United Nations Development Programme, ‘Millennium Development Goals, Basic Facts, Goal 7’, http://www.undp.org.
(9) Wikipedia, ‘Agro-forestry’, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org.
(10) Gerald C. Nelson (ed.), ‘Agriculture and climate change: An agenda for negotiation in Copenhagen’, The 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture and the Environment – Focus 16: Brief 1, The International Food Policy Research Institute, May 2009, http://www.ifpri.org.
(12) Slootweg, R. and Kolhoff, A., 2003. A generic approach to integrate biodiversity considerations in screening and scoping for EIA. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23, pp. 657–681. http://docs1.eia.nl.
(13) Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, ‘Forestry: Commercial plantations’, http://www.dwaf.gov.za.
(14) Van der Walt, T.J., Struwig, A. and Van Rensburg, J.R.J., 2004. Forestry as a streamflow reduction activity in South Africa: Discussion and evaluation of the proposed procedure for the assessment of afforestation applications in terms of water sustainability. GeoJournal, 61(2), pp.173-181.
(15) The World Bank Environmental Department, ‘Mainstreaming biodiversity in development: Case studies from South Africa’, 2002, http://www.wds.worldbank.org.
(18) WWC Enviro Facts Index Page, ‘Afforestation’, 2001, http://www.bcb.uwc.ac.za.
(19) Republic of South Africa, ‘Government Gazette 401:19519. National Environmental Management Act (No 107 of 1998)’, 1998, http://www.info.gov.za.
(20) Research Institute of Forest Ecology, Environment and Protection, ‘CDM Afforestation Project - IMAR (Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region: Environmental and Social Impact Assessment’, 2008, http://www.bei.org.
(21) City of Cape Town – Environmental Resource Management Department, ‘State of the Environment Report 2009’, 2010, http://www.capetown.gov.za.
(22) L.Joubert, ‘Biodiversity value of grassland ecological networks in afforested areas’, 2011, http://scholar.sun.ac.za.
(23) The World Bank Environmental Department, ‘Mainstreaming biodiversity in development: Case studies from South Africa’, 2002, http://www.wds.worldbank.org.
(24) The World Bank Environmental Department, ‘Mainstreaming biodiversity in development: Case studies from South Africa’, 2002, http://www.wds.worldbank.org.
(25) L. Zhang, et al., ‘Afforestation in a catchment context: Understanding the impacts on water yield and salinity’, Land and Water Science Reports Number 01/07, CSIRO, 2007, http://www.ewater.com.au.
(26) Richardson D.M. and Van Wilgen, B.W., 2004. Invasive alien plants in South Africa: How well do we understand the ecological impacts?, South African Journal of Science,100, pp.45-52. http://www.dwaf.gov.za.
Written by Sarah Kiggundu (1)