Activists oppose switch from pine to gum trees over water use

29 March 2020 - 00:04 By TONY CARNIE

The timber industry is under pressure from civil society groups and government water regulators to halt "unauthorised" land conversion from pine to gum trees in the sprawling Mpumalanga timber plantations because of growing concern over regional water scarcity.It is also under pressure to reduce the size of some newly established gum tree plantations by as much as a third, to compensate for the increased water use by these trees.This is because extensive national and international research by scientists has shown that, with some exceptions, eucalyptus (gum) trees use significantly more water than pine trees - on average about 30% more and in some cases as much as 51% more.The plantation industry, however, is focused on the growing global demand for wood fibres from gum trees to produce dissolving wood pulp, including increased production at the massive Sappi pulp mill at Ngodwana, about 50km from Mbombela.Forestry SA (FSA) - representing the plantation industry - contends there are no legal mechanisms to prevent timber companies from converting from pine to gum, and further claims that there is a "negligible" difference in water use between the two tree types.FSA argues that should companies be compelled to reduce the area of new gum plantations by up to one-third, or if any plantations were to lose accreditation from the international Forest Stewardship Council, this could threaten the financial viability of numerous growers.Over recent months, civil society activists in Mpumalanga have been urging Sappi and other timber growers to halt any further conversion due to low river and dam levels in the wake of the recent drought.Philip Owen, head of the water and environmental conservation group GeaSphere, also wrote to Sappi CEO Stephen Binnie, urging the company to immediately halt current and planned conversions."We have been experiencing less than usual rainfall for the past number of years . this is leading to a serious situation where some areas are experiencing acute water shortages, even though we are now at the end of the rainy season."The department of water affairs was adamant this week that timber companies are obliged to obtain formal authorisation when changes occur between the two tree species.Spokesman Sputnik Ratau said his department required tree conversions to be based on stream-flow reduction tables published by the Water Research Commission.Ratau stressed that these tables do not require a blanket reduction of 33% when land use is converted from pines to gum, as there were different ratios for various water catchments.He acknowledged that a moratorium was likely to hit the industry economically as it would not be able to replant, or would be required to replant pine, a crop for which they did not have a market. "We understand the concern regarding the impact on the domestic use and economy of downstream users as a result of the 'over-abstraction' of water by the planted trees and do not regard the forestry industry's economy as more important than that of other users."According to Ratau, Sappi and FSA are aware of these authorisation processes, despite the fact that draft genus exchange regulations published in 2015 were suspended a year later following lobbying by FSA.But Sappi and FSA are adamant that such conversions are lawful. Sappi spokesperson Mpho Lethoko said: "There is no requirement in the legislation to obtain an authorisation prior to switching genera. "Similarly, there is no requirement in the legislation to reduce area when doing so."At the outset, let us assure you that Sappi takes a serious view of its neighbours' concerns and remains committed to working with local stakeholders and to collaborate on issues, including the issue of water and conversion . "Sappi believes that our investments into SA will earn more foreign revenue, create jobs, contribute to environmental sustainability and will consequently be of great benefit to SA and its citizens."It should be mentioned that in recent years, several catchments have seen an exponential increase in the establishment of irrigated crops and an increase in human settlement in small towns such as Barberton, which is experiencing water shortages." FSA chief Michael Peter did not respond to questions sent last week, citing increased responsibilities due to the coronavirus crisis.But responding to similar queries by the Mpumalanga NewsHorn newspaper on March 19, Peter repeated the legal positions outlined by Sappi. "The most recent hydrological research done by the country's erstwhile leading hydrologist instead demonstrates that the difference in the total water usage between the two genera is negligible, and in some cases pine trees can use more water than eucalyptus," he said. Last week he also threatened to sue Owen or seek a court interdict to prevent him from making "libellous allegations" against the timber industry.Owen denies he has made any libellous statements and suggested the justice system "would not look kindly on such an attempt to silence criticism, or to curtail my or any other activist's constitutional right to free speech".

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