The timber industry in South Africa and the Western Cape specifically has been fighting a desperate battle this past year to keep the pine plantations upon which so much depends, alive. The issue, which pertains to the afforestation and management of already planted tracts of land, has a huge economic, environmental and socio economic impact and is finally being discussed in earnest in Parliament.

For some in the industry, this is a great victory, but it may be too little too late to save what was once a thriving industry and a great asset to our country.

Parliamentary reporter for the Business Day, Linda Ensor recently filed a story quoting Forestry South Africa executive director Michael Peter addressing Parliament’s trade and industry committee colloquium on beneficiation and saying;

“We believe national policy is being sabotaged by medium-and junior-level bureaucrats who do not face any consequences when their actions limit communities from planting timber.”

Mr Peter noted that the government decided six years ago to reverse its decision to exit forestry in the Western Cape and Mpumalanga and to begin replanting plantations. However, the process has not yet started and more plantations and saw mills are closing down.

The Franschoek Tatler ran a story on the socio economic impact that the exit policy, which should be cancelled, is likely to have on the Boland community. “Cape Pine will be forced to shut and sell its Stellenbosch Sawmill before the end of 2015, and the alternative plan of moving the saw milling operation to the ideally located Wemmershoek Sawmill will also have to be shelved.”

The time is so tight now that if replanting does not begin this year, forestry operations in the Western Cape will be limited to the area east of George… in addition to direct job losses in forestry and sampling much knowledge of the industry also stands to be lost.

The Cabinet originally decided in 2001 that 45,000ha would be converted over a 20-year period for use for conservation, agriculture, community forestry and human settlement, but this decision had been reviewed because of its negative effect on jobs and on the timber supply.

Ensor reported that “MPs were told that total roundwood production in the country generated R6.7bn in annual turnover, with about 75% of this wood being made into pulp and about 25% into timber. Turnover from primary processing plants amounted to about R20.4bn annually, and paper and packaging R17.4bn, making a total contribution to gross domestic product of R42bn. About 98% of the round-wood produced was beneficiated locally.”

Wood is such an important resource in these environmentally troubled times that such prevarications seem absurd. Coming out of the Smart Innovation on Tour, The Better Living Challenge, a project of Western Cape Government’s 110% Green initiative, aims to promote low-cost sustainable housing solutions and enable green building alternatives to get to market.

The challenge calls on designers, architects, residents, inventors and students to submit new or exiting products, services and systems that can be used for low-income home improvement. One of the submissions that made it through to the final round is centered on the benefits of our local forestry industry. Finalists, Collis & Associates and their California Pine entry has been earmarked as one of 3 possible winning submissions.

“The entry looks to stimulate local economies and make the most of South Africa’s renewable, locally grown California Pine to tackle the housing shortage. Timber is considered the most sustainable building material on earth. It can help to drastically reduce atmospheric CO2 levels & alleviate resource depletion, since it is the only material that is truly renewable & absorbs CO2. However, specifying imported timbers, such as Balau, from the tropics is having devastating effects on global biodiversity,” says entrant Vernon Collis.

“All species of pine timber in South Africa, have until now been labeled & marketed under the name SA-Pine. Pinus Radiata, however, is a specific species that is indigenous to parts of the USA. Pinus Radiata or California Pine is favoured as a high quality, plantation timber the world over & grows best in the Western Cape. This versatile, local material can be used for structural purposes as well as in architectural finishes in economic, gap & high income housing. Locally, the timber industry has the capacity to create jobs, deliver sustainable low-cost housing & build an economy,” says the company regarding its submission.

You can view the full submission here:

Or visit the Better Living Challenge website at:

Imagine the outcry should this submission win and there are scant plantations left to supply the demand it would create for Pinus Radiata.

Even for the wood that is not quite up to the standard of the great Californian Pine, there is a market that will create jobs because wood by its nature must be worked by hand, even if those hands are guiding great machines. An interesting story by John Yeld of the Cape Argus tells of Farleigh, a forestry station of the former government forestry department, that is now making desks for the Department of Basic Education using wood from decommissioned forests that are a legacy of the exit policy.

“In terms of the lease agreement, commercially unusable pines and the gum trees that were used as firebreaks in the plantations should be felled and left to decompose as part of the properties’ rehabilitation to nature area. But that’s a serious waste of a potentially valuable natural resource, even if it doesn’t meet commercial timber industry standards,’ writes Yeld.

“So the government’s innovative Working for Water programme stepped in and came up with the desk-manufacturing project, based on its own principles of achieving a number of positive outcomes.

These include the removal of water-guzzling alien and invasive plants; creating work opportunities for the unemployed, especially women and young people; providing training that will allow some of them to develop into independent contractors; and, where possible, creating socially useful items from what would have been waste products.”

The Farleigh Eco-Furniture Factory, consisting of a wet mill, dry mill, storage facilities and administrative centre, is the first of five such facilities being established around the country.

Because SANParks is the implementing agent for the factory, timber was first harvested from invasive alien trees cleared from its existing property, explains Yeld. Now, however, all the timber from the old fire breaks in the form of bluegum belts that surround Cape Pine’s plantations, as well as some pine due for felling via the exit strategy is being handed over to Farleigh.

“There are 141 people employed on the Farleigh project that ranges from the initial clearing and timber harvesting, through to the wet mill where the logs are planked before being placed in kilns to dry, and then to the dry mill where the planks are processed,” reports Yeld.

The final product are eco-desks, made mostly from non-commercial wood and invasive plants. But it is clear that there is a market for such a product. So far nearly 50 000 desks have been delivered to needy schools. Surely the Department of Forestry and Industry, along with investors should be looking at this project with a long term view and seeing forestry as a major job creator.

Surely the time for lengthy discussions in parliament are over and the time for planting has come.