• Special branch

    The forestry industry is ensuring environmental sustainability along with job creation

    Special branch

    Forestry is a genuinely renewable and sustainable industry. In fact, the industry’s commitment to environmental sustainability is illustrated by more than 80% of South African plantations being Forest Stewardship Council certified, as well as the recent launch of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS).

    With an export value of more than ZAR38 billion, it is a key contributor to the local economy, providing around 0.6% of GDP. It is also responsible for 9.8% of South Africa’s agricultural GDP, and 4.9% of its manufacturing GDP. Ronald Heath is the director of research and protection at Forestry South Africa, which represents 11 corporate forestry companies, around 1 100 commercial timber farmers and 20 000 small-scale growers. Collectively, these growers own or control no less than 93% of South Africa’s total plantation area of 1.2 million ha. Heath says that even through the worst of the pandemic, the sector remained sustainable and competitive and was able to prevent job shedding. ‘Although the sector saw a 14.6% year-on-year decrease in volume production in 2020, it was still able to invest ZAR10.2 billion and created more than 3 000 jobs.’

    Responsible forestry requires attention to sustainable, efficient and effective practices that have the least environmental impact and yield the greatest social and economic benefits, says Heath. ‘The forestry landscape is a patchwork mosaic of planted compartments and natural areas. Only 66% of land managed by timber growers is under production, with the remaining area including natural grasslands, water bodies and indigenous forests – all managed, monitored and maintained by the industry.’ 

    The sector is not only environmentally sustainable but economically sustainable too, investing on average 1.6% of its GDP into research and development – a figure that Heath says is more than double the national average. ‘This keeps the sector competitive in the global market [and] ensures that productivity and profitability keep increasing.’

    Paper has an important role in the circular economy, prompting companies and regulators alike to ensure responsibility

    Forestry plays a key role in the development of rural economies, and is a major employer (there are more than 149 000 people in its value chain), particularly in rural areas of provinces such as Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. ‘Even though the sector has seen significant modernisation over the last few years, we have not seen a decrease in employment levels,’ says Heath. This was especially noticeable during the 2008 global economic crisis, the implementation of the minimum wage, and the current pandemic, he adds. The industry has further committed 100 000 additional jobs in the next five years, and invests millions annually into a variety of rural, community-based initiatives, such as health and welfare, food security, education, infrastructure development, community engagement and upliftment, enterprise and supplier development, and the environment.

    Global company Sappi operates in three regions – Southern Africa, Europe and North America. In South Africa, it owns and leases 394 000 ha of plantations, one-third of which is managed for biodiversity conservation. Core to Sappi’s business philosophy is the fact that its fibre-based products are made from a renewable and sustainable fibre resource that is both biodegradable and widely recyclable.

    Earlier this year, Sappi achieved the first PEFC-endorsed SAFAS certification in South Africa (PEFC being the acronym for the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). The SAFAS project is a collaboration between Sappi and several South African forestry organisations that saw the need to develop a local certification standard with international recognition, explains Duane Roothman, VP for forestry at Sappi. He says the certification is extremely important for the company and offers an independent view on the success of its sustainable forestry practices. It also allows smaller growers to achieve certification, which has been difficult in the past, he says. 

    ‘It gives entry to small and micro growers to operate as sole growers or to come into a group scheme. It’s a step towards a formalised certification and brings new forestry projects or transformation projects into the fold of certification and sustainable forestry.’

    Currently, about 5 500 people are directly employed across its South African forestry and manufacturing operations, while another 10 000 are indirectly employed as contractors or through entrepreneurial entities in Sappi’s supply chain. Roothman says these figures have remained fairly stable over recent years, with only a slight downwards movement as it is sometimes difficult for contractors in isolated areas to find workers.

    Recognising itself as an important component of the local communities where it operates, Sappi tries to make a purpose-driven contribution. One of the company’s ESD programmes, Sappi Khulisa, funds small growers with an interest-free loan, free seedlings and extension services to equip growers with the skills to manage their farms properly and productively. Currently, the programme involves around 3 644 growers. In 2020, more than 284 000 tons of timber worth about ZAR232 million was delivered to Sappi’s operations under this programme.

    Since 1967, Mondi has been operating in South Africa, where it sustainably manages 254 000 ha of plantation forests, and manufactures and sells pulp, virgin container board and uncoated fine-paper products. The company currently has 1 500 permanent employees across its forestry operations and two mills (in Richards Bay and Durban). 

    Over recent years, Mondi has been recognised as the most transformed forestry company in South Africa, and is a Level 1 BEE contributor. It makes a significant investment into skills and leadership development – particularly for women, who hold positions such as artisans, foresters, safety managers and nursery managers, as well as roles in engineering and finance. In 2018, the company announced that it would be investing ZAR8 billion in its domestic operations over a five-year period, which would include ongoing investment in its forestry assets, and the modernisation of pulp, container board and paper assets.

    Announcing that it is ‘determined to make a difference’ to the circular economy for paper, Mondi recently launched the Mondi Action Plan 2030 (MAP2030), which maps out the actions it will take over the next decade to meet its 2030 sustainability goals. ‘There are so many areas I am proud of, but three stand out for me,’ says Viv McMenamin, CEO of Mondi South Africa. ‘The work we are doing to reduce our water impact – right from growing trees that use less water, to protecting water catchment areas and wetlands through our work with partners, to using significantly less water in our operations. The progress we have made in becoming a diverse and inclusive workplace where people can grow to their full potential and contribute to our success. And our globally competitive operations that produce high-quality, fully recyclable products from sustainably sourced fibre.’

    The sector is well regulated in terms of sustainability, and growers maintain much of their land under biodiversity management

    South Africa’s paper recycling sector is well established, with the use of locally recycled paper fibre dating back more than a century, according to the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). Jane Molony, executive director of PAMSA, says that South Africa, with an average paper recovery rate of 70%, compares well internationally and beneficiates more than many other countries. ‘Some of this is because European countries, for example, have greater access to sustainably managed forests so that virgin fibre is relatively cheap, and mills are designed for this rather than for recycled pulp.’ She adds that South Africa’s recycling industry has proved to be fairly resilient. However, like all of the pulp and paper industry, it suffers from being linked to the commodity market, she adds, which means it is extremely cyclical.

    Francois Marais is the manager of Fibre Circle, South Africa’s producer responsibility organisation (PRO) for the paper and paper packaging sector. Explaining the idea behind the circular economy, Marais says that ‘in a circular economy, which encourages an infinite loop of take, make and reuse/repurpose, lies the potential for zero waste. A circular approach means that, from the start, companies design their products for recovery and recycling, so that the product becomes raw material for a new product. By taking a step back instead of just designing packaging that is “fit for purpose”, a company can make something that can be both easily recovered and easily recycled’.

    As of 5 May 2021, extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations were promulgated by Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, making it mandatory for producers of identified products to belong to an EPR scheme and pay an EPR fee. 

    Fibre Circle facilitates EPR programmes for paper producers, helping companies to stay in step with this legislation and work towards zero waste to landfill and a circular economy. As for how well South Africa is taking up the principles of a circular economy, Marais says there is a lot of work still to do, from systems and infrastructure to service delivery and developing markets for waste. 

    ‘A massive shift in behaviour is still needed at producer and brand-owner level, and at consumer level,’ he says. ‘It is about education and awareness.’   

    By Toni Muir
    Images: Unsplash, Gallo/Getty Images