This text was originally published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur issue 4 2009. You can read the Swedish version here.
Natural forests aren’t the only landscapes being taken over by timber plantations. South Africa’s biologically diverse native grasslands are being rapidly replaced by water-intensive monocultures including eucalyptus and tropical pine – trees used for paper pulp exports.
We’re standing at God’s Window, a popular lookout point just at the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment in northeastern South Africa. Below us, a 700-meter cliff plunges into a dark sea of foliage. Mile upon mile of forest fans out ahead, stretching all the way to Kruger National Park on the border with Mozambique.
“The problem is that these aren’t forests. They’re gigantic monocultures of foreign origin,” explains Philip Owen, coordinator for Geasphere, an environmental organization supported by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.
When Europeans first arrived here on the low plains, the landscape beneath us was dominated by grassland and savannah, with native forests limited to the river valleys. Today only remnants of this original ecosystem survive.
“Many people see grasslands as uniform landscapes, when they actually contain an enormous range of diversity – 82 plant species per square kilometer and an abundance of insects, birds and small mammals. Only one out of six plant species are grass, whereas most are resilient perennials. In some cases they can survive for thousands of years in one location.”
Over sixty percent of South Africa’s grasslands have disappeared and can never be restored. Here in the Mpumalanga province, the process has continued unabated for generations – so long, in fact, that many today regard Australian eucalyptus and tropical Mexican pines as native tree species. The first of these were planted one hundred years ago as a source of timber for the mining industry.
Timber plantations now cover 1.5 million hectares in South Africa, including 600,000 in Mpumalanga. The road stretching from God’s Window to the capitol of the province, Nelspruit, has the feeling of a forest in northern Sweden. But the perfectly aligned tree rows and exhausted, grayish soil tell another story altogether.
The soil here lacks the microorganisms necessary for pine and eucalyptus leaves to decompose. The canopy above blocks out all light, while the roots stretch all the way down to the water table below.
“These pines absorb 25 liters of water per day, while eucalyptus can consume up to 600. This is significantly more than any of the native tree species,” says Philip Owen.
Philip started Geasphere in 1999 after a large summit on South Africa’s water crisis. In many respects, the damage in Mpumalanga has been done. The plantations are here, and the lack of available land limits their expansion. But Geasphere’s efforts reach far beyond Mpumalanga, spreading information and influence to the neighboring countries of Mozambique and Swaziland, where exotic tree species are rapidly taking root. In tiny Swaziland, they now cover a full ten percent of the country’s area.
“Development is crucial to southern Africa, but additional timber plantations aren’t the right model. They don’t provide a lot of jobs or income, and they drastically impact water access, biological diversity and social structures.”
Philip Owen is particularly upset that over 80 percent of South Africa’s timber plantations have received FSC-certification for responsible forestry. To consumers in the north, this picture is misleading. After all, it is here in industrialized countries that most of the timber is consumed.
West of Nelspruit lies South Africa’s largest papermill, Ngodwana. As we drive into the valley, the air is heavy with the stench of sulphate. A yellowish haze of smog surrounds us long before the smokestacks rise on the horizon.
“The water flow is regarded as sufficient for diluting waste to an ‘acceptable’ level. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that periods of drought are becoming longer, and water flow is diminishing.”
The mill produces 500,000 tons of paper pulp annually, most of which is exported. Demand is high, and the mill’s owner, the multinational Sappi group, plans to increase production by 70 percent. Additional raw materials will be supplied in part by converting plantations from pine to eucalyptus, which offers more rapid growth at the expense of increased water consumption. As production increases, staff levels will remain the same.
As South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, struggles for equality between blacks and whites, the working environment here seems to be frozen in time. The black workers live down in the valley, where we visit Bhamgee, a chaotic shantytown lacking so much as roads and basic conveniences. What was once a small village has now grown to accommodate the arrival of prostitutes, who have made their way to the valley at the prospect of a large population of millworkers and transport drivers. Prostitution, hiv and AIDS are now endemic to the area.
Further up the mountainside, higher-ranking employees live in gated communities. As white visitors, we pass by the armed, black security guard without a problem, despite the fact that we have no official reason for our visit. Only white employees can be seen outside the luxury villas, often with two cars parked in the driveway. Green parks separate the houses. It gives the impression of an affluent Swedish neighborhood.
Philip Owen was raised under apartheid. He describes his school years in Nelspruit as a form of brainwashing quite different from his experiences at home, where racial lines were often less clear. At Geasphere, whites and blacks work side-by-side. Thirty kilometers away, at Philip’s home, I meet Thelma Nkosi and December Ndlovu, both of whom work for the organization.
“The plantations have many negative social effects, and the lack of water affects women most of all. They’re forced to walk much further to collect water and wood,” explains Thelma.
Life has also become less secure. It is dangerous to pass the plantations, where rapists and criminals often hide. The trees cause erosion, soil depletion and threaten the food supply. The effects are also cultural.
“Our identity is threatened when ritual sites are forced out by plantations. Ancestors’ burial places become inaccessible, trees with traditional functions disappear and initiations, among other rites, can no longer take place,” explains December.
These experiences in Mpumalanga are important for less wealthy countries such as Mozambique and Angola.
“They’re crying out for investments because it’s easy to buy the timber companies’ propaganda. The drawbacks aren’t noticeable until later on,” says Thelma.
Philip’s environmental activism was sparked when timber plantations were established on the mountain above Sudwalaskraal. Here Philip lives on the family farm, which was purchased by his grandfather in the 1960s, and is now divided among relatives. The mountainside is covered by native rainforest, the cliffs pocked with three-billion-year-old limestone caves that were inhabited by humans (homo habilis) as long as 1.8 million years ago. The Sudwala caves are historical and geological wonders that attract throngs of visitors each year.
The effects of the plantations were clearly evident. Today, the caves have dried out and are now watered by hose. The springs that supported the rainforest have disappeared during the dry season.
We hike to the remaining grassland at the top of the mountain. The sunset offers a glimpse of the native landscape’s original, sweeping beauty. Philip’s wife, Elsmarie, points out rare herbs, grass species and snakes’ dens, along with the small pine seedlings that constantly creep in from the dark wall of the plantation on the opposite side of the mountain.
“It’s an ongoing battle to prevent the spread of non-native species. In South Africa, as much acreage is covered by tree plantations as by trees that have spread uncontrolled. Pines can be cut down, but to remove eucalyptus you have to poison the roots,” explains Philip.
Portions of blackened grasslands have recently been burned. This needs to happen on a regular basis in order to maintain biodiversity, but when the fires encounter timber plantations the results can be devastating.
“We’ve recently had severe forest fires that have killed many people. Previously, native trees would store humidity and act as buffers, but now it’s too dry. The heat is so extreme that the soil’s surface is baked into a hard crust. Rainwater runs off and evaporates instead of seeping into the earth.”
The next day we follow December to his hometown, Bushbuck Ridge, where the contrast to the white farms is drastic. Here, one million people live in a sprawling shantytown, often without water or electricity. December supports his family by washing cars in an open shed beside his house.
More than 80 percent of South Africans rely on traditional medicines rather than Western techniques. As the grasslands disappear it becomes increasingly difficult for practitioners to find their raw materials. December takes us to Hilda Calinah Manyike, a trained nganga, or herbal healer. She holds an official license for collecting herbs in national parks and preserves. Her reception hut contains a small pharmacy.
“Before, it was easier to find all the herbs I needed. Now I have to travel long distances to find them, and some are no longer there at all.”
Nowadays, Hilda finds it impossible to cure certain ailments such as asthma. Instead, she is forced to send patients to a Western doctor – if they can afford it.
Bushbuck Ridge borders Kruger National Park to the east. Within the park’s fences live the same huge animals that once wandered across the low plains and surrounding savannahs.
As we pass through the gate we are forced to brake for a passing herd of elephants. Gnus, giraffes, zebras and a variety of antelope meander along both sides of the road. Here, too, we see baboons, which the forestry companies exterminate in the plantations.
We spend the night inside the park. In the darkness I hear elephants crashing about like pieces of enormous lumber machinery. At dawn, a lion roars.
“The biological diversity of these grasslands has supported human life for thousands of years. In the past one hundred years, it’s been completely transformed,” says Philip, who wants to see a global awakening.
“Grasslands like the North American prairie, the Hungarian puszta and the Russian steppes are the most threatened of all types of vegetation. 80 percent are already gone, and beyond restoration.”
Text Mats Hellmark, Translation Grant Baldridge