Timber plantations in South Africa
Formal alien tree plantations, consisting mainly of Eucalyptus spp. Pinus spp and Mimosa (Acacia) spp. occupy approximately 1 500 000 hectares in South Africa. These managed plantations have been established within the high-rainfall belt along the eastern coast, mainly in areas with deep fertile soils.
An even greater area (an estimated 1 700 000 hectares) has become heavily infested with predominantly the same species, that have spread from poorly managed or abandoned formal plantations. These 'feral' tree plantations are particularly problematic in that they have encroached into sensitive natural areas, where they displace or shade out the natural fauna and flora; clog streams and wetlands, consuming vast amounts of water; and present ideal conditions for wildfires to start and spread into adjacent natural habitat, farmland, and human settlements.
South Africa has an average rainfall of less than 490mm p.a., while industrial tree plantations generally require a minimum of 800-900 mm p.a. to be financially viable. As a consequence tree plantations have come to occupy a significant percentage of the high rainfall arable zone, which means that they are in direct competition with important agricultural land-uses, especially food-crop, dairy, beef and other livestock farming.
Another major problem is that the large-scale establishment of industrial tree plantations usually results in the direct displacement of the rural communities that previously occupied the land. Together with reduced water availability, loss of employment, and the destruction of the biodiversity that previously provided medicines, food, building materials and a Nature-based cultural identity, this has effectively forced rural communities to abandon their traditional way of life and to migrate to city slums and urban informal settlements.
When compared with the rainfall distribution map below, it can be clearly seen how timber plantation growing areas fall into the higher rainfall zones. Because most rain falls during the summer months, plantations tend to draw more heavily on groundwater during the winter months, and this results in greatly reduced streamflow when water resources are already scarce, with considerable negative impacts on downstream users.
The bulk of the tree plantations in South Africa are grown to produce pulp and paper, mostly for export. Domestic consumption demand is mostly for construction timber and furniture produced from Pine trees, while exports of woodchips use mainly Wattle, and most Eucalyptus is processed into pulp and cellulose. For comprehensive information on the industry read the NALEDI report available HERE