What is Timberwatch?
Timberwatch is a coalition of non-governmental environmental organisations and many concerned individuals. Members share a concern for the ways in which alien timber plantations impact on the environment. Biodiversity, natural landscapes and ecosystems all suffer, as do human communities in areas affected by plantations or pulp and paper mills. Until fairly recently, the government authority responsible for approval of new plantations in South Africa only considered impacts on water resources when considering new applications. As a result large areas of valuable biodiverse naturally vegetated and agricultural land have been converted to timber plantations, with little thought being given to the consequences to the communities in those areas.
How do Timber Plantations Affect Communities?
Many of the negative impacts on rural communities are not immediately visible: for example, permanent employment is replaced with contract work, which offers only limited economic benefits to workers, but increases corporate profits. Contractors also employ displaced people that come from poor neighbouring countries because they accept lower wages. Loss of access to their land and other natural resources, and poor local pay prospects, encourages local people to migrate to slum settlements outside nearby cities. Plantations destroy food and medicinal plants, water supplies and pastures, craft and building materials, which were previously available to rural communities..
How Viable Are Timber Plantations?
If the concept of “resource economics” was to be properly applied to the activity of timber growing, it would mean that all the cumulative, indirect, off-site and impacts would need to be properly measured and valued. Although it seems that timber growing is still viable in terms of short-term benefits to the plantation and pulp and paper companies, our government needs to start looking at the extent to which the industry externalises environmental and social costs. It also needs to take into account the value of direct and indirect subsidies, as well as lost alternative economic opportunities. If a full cost-benefit analysis were to be undertaken, timber plantations would not appear attractive to landowners.
Do Timber Plantations Damage the Land?
Industrial timber plantations established on slopes contribute substantially to soil erosion. As soon as natural vegetation cover is lost due to shading or herbicide application, run-off silt load increases and this causes further abrasion and loss of topsoil from lower slopes. Increased run-off velocity due to reduced absorption contributes to further erosion, while at the same time resulting in a reduction of the amount of groundwater available for later release into river systems during dry seasons and drought. When plantations are felled, timber extraction inflicts severe damage, especially if cable logging and skidding techniques are used.
It is often said that our rivers have become little more than storm-water drains and our estuaries silt traps. A consequence of this is that estuaries no longer function effectively as fish nurseries and this reduces catches for fishermen along the coast. Timber plantations are not forests. They are sterile monocultures that destroy biodiversity; pollute water, land and air; and undermine rural economies.
Can the Land be Restored after Plantations?
Once land has been planted to gum, wattle or pine, it is very difficult if not impossible to restore the original vegetation. Plantations inevitably result in topsoil loss, soil ph alteration, nutrient depletion, soil compaction, alien tree seedling regeneration, loss of beneficial soil micro-organisms and infestations of alien invasive plants. Lost agricultural markets, infrastructure and skills are also factors that make restoration an extremely expensive option. Landowners with a concern for the long-term value of their property investments should apply caution before selecting an option that could turn out to be a lemon.
Do Timber Plantations Hurt Farmers?
Established sustainable agricultural land-uses are often displaced by timber plantation expansion. Rural communities practising subsistence agriculture suffer social disruption when outsiders employed by contractors move into their areas, or the timber companies appropriate their land. Large-scale timber plantations situated upstream or on adjacent land reduce their already limited water supplies. Farmers who resist pressure to convert to growing timber are faced with increased isolation and escalating crime, especially stock theft. Additional insurance to cover fire damage risk for neighbouring plantations is a further burden. It takes many years to convert land that was under timber plantations back to food crops or grazing. During this time, very little or no income can be obtained from the land.