In South Africa, 1.3 million hectares (ha) of pine and eucalyptus trees are sustainably managed for commercial processing into wood and paper products. Through modern science and nanotechnology, wood fibre – cellulose – is used in automobiles, aerospace, defence and even medicine.
While Arbor Week traditionally calls on all South Africans to plant indigenous trees as a practical and symbolic gesture of sustainable environmental management, timber plantations deserve due recognition for the benefits they bring to the economy, society and the environment.
Wood and paper products touch our lives every day and it’s a relationship that often goes unnoticed, unless we were to take those same products away. From furniture, roof trusses and timber poles to books, writing paper, magazines, as well as boxes and packaging in innumerable shapes and sizes.
“When we grasp that trees are farmed for commercial use, we are able to understand the important role they play,” says Forestry South Africa executive director Michael Peter. “Just like any agricultural crop, trees are planted, harvested and replanted to ensure a sustainable supply of wood. And like any crop, plantations have an impact on the environment.”
Such impacts, Peter explains, are offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed and oxygen released by trees, by the employment and development benefits which forestry brings to communities, and by the biodiversity that is conserved by land owners.
In commemoration of Arbor Week and the theme ‘Forests and Water’, Forestry South Africa shares the facts about timber plantations, water, biodiversity and people.
Plantations and water
- Plantations are not irrigated as trees get their water from rainfall. This means that there are none of the high costs associated with delivering water to other users, such as dams, pipelines, pumping stations and water purification plants.
- Plantations also use a small fraction of the fertilisers and herbicides used in other land uses and, as such, negative impacts from these activities on biodiversity and water quality are very low.
- Plantations are one of the most efficient and beneficial water users – both in respect of the timber produced and the associated carbon dioxide sequestered (absorbed) in the process.
|Species||Tonne water required for growth per tonne of CO2 absorbed||Tonne of CO2 absorbed per ha per annum|
|Sugar cane molasses||3,152||2.2|
- Plantations use both soil and water resources but these can be measured against the returns they provide:
- Forestry uses just 3% of available water in the country. This is just 5% of the water used by agriculture (62%). (Strategic Overview of Water Sector in South Africa, 2010. Department of Water Affairs)
- Forestry occupies about 1.2% of the land used for agriculture
- Plantations and the forest products sub-sector provide 22.5% of jobs in agriculture
- All forests are vital to the Earth’s water supply as they influence how and where rain falls, filtering and cleaning water.
Plantations and biodiversity
- The South African National Biodiversity Institute concluded in a seven-year grasslands programme funded by the Global Environmental Facility that the grasslands managed by plantation growers were the most diverse and best conserved of all land uses in the programme.
- There are more formally protected grasslands and natural forests under management of the plantation industry, than in any other commercial land use sector.
- Some 80% of the land reserved for plantation forestry is certified to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council. Approximately 25% of this land is not planted to trees and is conserved for biodiversity.
- The Living Planet Report published in 2014 by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London lauded the Mondi Wetlands Project among the four solutions to global wildlife loss.
Plantations and people
- Apart from the 165,000 jobs in forestry, there are an additional 551,000 forestry-related jobs in upstream and downstream sectors (pulp and papermaking, furniture, timber for mining and construction etc).
- Forestry provides other social benefits to about three million people in rural areas: access to education, training, health care, housing, nutrition, transport, infrastructure and business development and support.
Trees – in all forms – are essential to life on our planet. They absorb excess carbon dioxide and pollutant gases, and provide clean air, water and climate regulation. As a renewable resource and a livelihood for many communities, forests are an important part of the solution to meeting global needs for food, fuel, fibre, medicine and other products essential to daily life.