Safcol’s berry bright future

Oct 08 2017 06:00
Vukile Dlwati

Johannesburg - The government’s forestry company was eyeing new opportunities and had done a preliminary review of producing berries, the results of which have indicated the potential for making more money than forestry itself, Lungile Mabece, SA Forestry Company Limited (Safcol) chairperson, said this week.

“One of Safcol’s interventions is using our forests for berry farming. Berries like acidic soil and the leaves of pine trees produce acid. When the leaves of a pine tree fall, they serve as compost to make the soil acidic.

“We keep our trees for a period of 20 to 30 years before felling takes place. Berries take about three years to mature; thereafter they reproduce annually without the need to replant,” he said. “The international market for berries is very good, but they are expensive in South Africa due to importing.”

Speaking at the Forestry Industrialisation Conference 2017 this week, Deputy Minister of Public Enterprises Ben Martins indicated that the national profile of forestry in South Africa was hidden by general ignorance around the value, contribution, opportunities and benefits in the industry, as well as the products that can be derived from wood.

Forestry in South Africa is suffering from ignorance as a means for economic growth yet it is an industry that is teeming with opportunities.

“Despite the steadily growing contribution of forestry in the national agricultural GDP increasing from 4.5% in 1980 to 11.1% in 2015, and the provision of more than 158 400 direct and indirect jobs, the forestry industry remains poorly marketed and this needs to change urgently,” Martins said.

“Forestry has the potential to contribute more significantly to the economy of South Africa to alleviate poverty and to create more jobs, including transforming the economies of rural communities by a greater margin.”

Martins said it was important for ordinary citizens to know that the forestry value chain included more downstream opportunities, like further products, which could be produced and manufactured from primary and secondary timber processing, such as furniture manufacturing and timber construction.

“Timber frame structures, such as bridges, houses, schools and clinics, have benefits that include shortened construction time and better earthquake resistance, among other things.”

Agroforestry is another phenomenon with the potential to ensure food security and profitability, however, it is not promoted adequately.

It involves using the same piece of forest land to cultivate other produce while awaiting the harvest of mature trees for timber.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Bheki Cele said he supported the promotion of agroforestry as a means of food security and economic benefit.

“Forestry is essential for food security, and agroforestry is a means to ensure it. There is a gap between the youth and forestry and it must be closed through education in agricultural and forestry studies.”

He said it took about 10 years for trees to mature, which meant agroforestry must be promoted.

In KwaZulu-Natal, he saw community foresters herding their cattle within their forests; the very forests are used for the grazing of livestock.

“In South Africa, 13.7 million people go to bed on an empty stomach. The hungriest province is KwaZulu-Natal and least hungry one is Limpopo. In Limpopo, every household has a fruit tree which provides food security,” Cele said.

Communities and youth around forests should reap rewards from their natural surroundings, he added.

“We can’t be a country that tolerates an unemployment figure of 9 million people of which 60% comprises the youth.”

Another challenge Cele noted was the hostile relationships between the forestry industry and the communities around forests, which he believes should be improved for healthier economic participation.

Meanwhile, Mabece feels that “when people don’t understand something, they become generally negative. In this country, particularly government, there’s a lack of knowledge about things that should add value to this country, and forestry is one of them.”

Mabece said the “biggest threat to forestry” was the land issue.

“Land claims are the biggest threat to forestry because currently there are delays in the land reform process. The department of rural development and land reform has been seen as a culprit by communities. In fact, we as Safcol end up being the victims.

“Last year, just before the local government elections, there were forest occupations during which people tried to prevent us [Safcol] from operating. This was their way of putting pressure on government, which is not concluding the land claims, and I foresee this situation playing out in 2019.

“It should be easy for government to deal with the land issue because the land we are operating from is not owned by Safcol; it’s the state’s land.”

Safcol has a good working relationship with communities around its forests and they have done a lot as a company, including the building of schools and clinics using timber, as well as making water provisions for them.

“Some of the communities treat us like their local government,” said Mabece.

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