File photo: Durban-based Timberwatch activist Wally Menne. Picture: Myrtle Ryan

Durban - Tempers flared at the World Forestry Congress in Durban on Wednesday as delegates argued about whether South Africa’s timber plantations could fairly be described as “forests”.

“This is not a forest. It’s a fake forest!” Durban-based Timberwatch activist Wally Menne declared as he presented slides to the congress, showing large-scale gum and pine tree plantations established by Sappi and other timber industry groups.

Menne said the use of the term “forest” reminded him of terms such as “separate development” or “mother tongue education” that had been used to put a pretty face on apartheid.

In the past few decades there had been a massive expansion of these “fake forests” across South Africa, along with efforts by the industry to “greenwash” the negative social and environmental impacts of timber plantations by signing up to certification schemes such as the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC).

Pointing to a slide showing an FSC-accredited Sappi plantation in Mpumalanga, Menne charged that there was no topsoil left on the plantation and that riverine vegetation had also been destroyed.

“Yet it is still certified with the FSC’s certification stamp. The FSC should be ashamed of itself for allowing this to happen … What will the rest of Africa look like if these planted trees are let loose on the continent?”

Although Sappi was not represented directly at the panel discussion, Michael Peter, the executive director of Forestry South Africa, shot back that it was a “little shameless” for Menne to suggest that a single image of a 30ha block of plantation in Mpumalanga was representative of almost 350 000ha of certified forests across the country.

As head of Forestry South Africa, which represents the collective voice of Sappi, Mondi and other large timber industry groups, Peter said he did not think it was appropriate for Menne to make such claims.

Menne interrupted, complaining that Peter was starting to rip his presentation apart and he (Menne) would not get a chance to respond.

Panel chairperson Eduardo Mansur intervened to say that “diverse opinions” were welcome, but it might be better for Peter to move on with his presentation and defer further argument on the issue until question time.

Peter said he believed South Africa had excellent timber legislation and certification had been an “extremely powerful augmenting tool”, avoiding the need to employ an army of government regulators.

“We have the highest rate of certification in the world,” said Peter.

Kim Carstensen, director-general of the FSC, seemed concerned that the chairperson had deferred debate on Menne’s criticisms, but said he believed “planted forests” had to be part of the future landscape.

Carstensen said he acknowledged that not all plantations were well managed and there were still significant social and environmental issues associated with plantations.

Yet there were examples of tree plantations that were well-managed.

“What we must do is admit that it’s not going to be easy. We don’t have all the answers, but the FSC is one of those tools,” he said.

Carstensen also said the council would not accredit timber plantations with genetically modified trees.

“We don’t allow it within the certified areas. If they do we will kick them out.”

The Mercury