The Origins of Commercial Tree Plantations in KwaZulu-Natal


                                          Harald Witt


“The vegetation over the greater portion of the area afforested to wattle in the summer-rainfall area was originally pro-climax grassland. This is composed of xerophytic, deep-rooted species, and the need for complete control of these grasses from the outset, if thrifty growth of wattle were to be ensured, was recognised by growers from the earliest years of the industry.”        (S.P. Sherry)

The foundations of the large-scale and highly profitable commercial tree plantations in KwaZulu-Natal have their origins both in the initiatives of private agriculture and in the state forestry sector. To a large degree it was the early development and prosperity of privately established wattle plantations that paved the way for tree crop farming in general. The spectacular economic success of these trees also hastened the economic transformation of the local rural economy. This was accompanied by an equally significant and more visible ecological transformation of the Natal landscape. Initially the efforts of state foresters were geared primarily towards experimenting with and introducing a greater variety of economically viable tree species such as eucalypts and pines - many of which were subsequently planted in state plantations. The state also actively encouraged and assisted the private sector to participate in the establishment of commercial plantations.

As with most alien plant species, there is a degree of uncertainty as to when the various timber trees were first introduced. Private growers did not keep records, yet it is not inconceivable that tree seeds may have accompanied the first white settlers in the early nineteenth century. Official records suggest that as early as 1846 an assortment of Australian wattles and gums had already been planted in the Howick area. Botanic gardens (Durban 1851 and Pietermaritzburg 1874) initiated a more rigorous introduction of potential tree crops. The first wattle plantation in KwaZulu-Natal was established in the early 1870s. Other plantations soon followed, especially when the tannin-rich bark emerged as a highly lucrative commodity. The economic success of wattle bark soon led to the formation of companies, which converted more and more land to wattle plantations. Other farmers continued to plant wattle trees on a lesser scale, either for domestic use, fuel, shelter, or as landscape modifiers to alleviate the "bareness" of inland Natal. The usefulness of the tree contributed to its popularity, and the deliberate distribution of the fast-growing wattles grew dramatically. These deliberate introductions, together with the vast amounts of seed inadvertently distributed by wind and water, ensured that the wattle tree was soon permanently established in the Natal landscape. By 1910, the known area of commercially grown wattle in Natal was around 200,000 acres while a few years earlier the extent of eucalyptus plantings was estimated at 5,000 acres while pine plantations were almost non-existent at this stage.

Despite the prolific increase in tree crops, wattle was often unsuited for certain uses and South Africa remained highly dependent on imports to satisfy the growing demand for more sophisticated wood and wood-related products. Although the growing demand for mining timber stimulated some expansion into the planting of eucalypts in the pre-war period private farmers had little inclination to plant softwoods. Instead it was the State; through it's employment of poor whites in forestry settlements, and through more traditional means that took the lead in softwood cultivation.

 To encourage farmers to plant additional tree crops, forestry officials and private tree-growing enthusiasts resorted to the tool of propaganda and monetary incentives. Many of the propaganda strategies that evolved had their origins in the environmental and ecological debates that had begun to emerge locally in the late nineteenth century. In many instances, large-scale tree growing was advocated as the only solution and alternative to the impending ecological and environmental disasters that jeopardised the continued existence of civilised habitation in Natal and South Africa.
These visions were accentuated by concerns that international timber supplies, on which South Africa depended, were about to be exhausted. Propagandists also emphasised the physical and aesthetic improvement of the landscape that tree growing facilitated while pointing to the opportunity to accumulate wealth. Furthermore, timber farming was depicted as an occupation of relative leisure, while tree-growers were praised for their sense of patriotism. Private farmers however, were reluctant to move beyond the cultivation of wattles and short rotation eucalypts for the mining industry. This comes as no surprise as farmers were unwilling to make long-term investments in crops that had as yet not proven their economic viability, unlike wattle, which continued to prosper for much of the first half of the 20th century. This prosperity was accompanied by the growing concentration in the ownership of wattle plantations, and by the 1930s Hunt, Leuchars and Hepburn (HL&H), and Natal Tanning Extract (NTE), had emerged as the single largest tree cultivators with extensive interests in both wattle growing and wattle-processing. (NTE would later provide the core plantations to the tree-growing giant, Mondi.)
During South Africa's trading isolation caused by World War II the few locally grown eucalypts and pines realised exceptional prices when marketed. Tree farmers, especially wattle growers and the established companies gradually shifted into the cultivation of pines and eucalypts. This shift accelerated in the post-war years, which also witnessed the emergence of a new player in Natal's tree-growing sector - the South African Pulp and Paper Industries (SAPPI) - which moved to Natal in the 1940s. The growing dominance of these three companies in the commercial tree-growing sector was similarly reflected in the related processing sectors. The large-scale capital investment in these wood-consuming industries was indicative of the recognised potential of the Province as a tree-growing region. In their turn tree-growers, assured of a ready market, transferred this security into higher levels of commercial tree-growing. Various factors, such as the crisis experienced by the wattle industry in the 1950s, and world shortages in the supply of softwoods in the 1950s and 1960s also contributed to the increasing emphasis by tree-farmers, on the planting of alternative industrial tree-crops in Natal and South Africa.

The expansion of tree growing as a land-use activity was also facilitated by the growing mechanisation of the agricultural sector. This enabled tree-farmers to clear and prepare extensive areas, while easing the harvesting and transportation of this bulky crop. Unlike the conditions that followed World War I, the South African economy was now far more developed, with a growing manufacturing and industrial sector. In addition, the pioneering and experimental plantings of the state and a core of progressive farmers had ensured that the risk factor in commercial tree growing had decreased substantially. Through trial and error, the most suitable species had been selected and the appropriate silvicultural methods established. By the 1960s the foundations had been successfully laid, and the growth of tree farming was a natural step in the broadening natural resource base of an industrialising economy. The factors always retarding the industry, such as the dearth of local saw milling facilities, the lack of an adequate infrastructure, labour shortages and the prejudice against local timber, had been addressed by the state and almost entirely eliminated. In this sense, the role of the state had shifted from that of innovator in the timber industry, to its facilitator. Unlike wattle however, the cultivation of pine, and to a similar extent eucalypts, had become a mass-production business requiring formidable resources of capital, technical and managerial resources, and control over the market; a requirement best suited to the large agro-industrialists rather than small-growers. With the diversification of the South African economy, commercial tree growing moved away from simple mine-prop and saw timber production, towards satisfying the needs of the more sophisticated wood, timber and fibre consuming industry in South Africa, and the global market. By 1960 there were over 1 million acres under trees in KwaZulu-Natal.