Forestry faces big issues to remain sustainable — a role for forestry research

  • Colin Dyer, Director Institute for Commercial Forestry Research, PO Box 100281, Scottsville 3209, South Africa


In the Forest Owners Association annual report of 1973, the then Minister of Forestry commented that ‘the average rate of afforestation will have to be increased to at least 50 000 ha per annum'. In the same year, the Minister announced the commencement of the Green Heritage Campaign with one of its objectives being to draw the Public's attention to the importance of timber production and to promote the planting of trees.
In 2004, two independent reports (by Louis Heyl & Associates and Crickmay and Associates) predicted significant shortages of timber over the next 20 years and both implied the need for increased productivity from existing plantations and for new afforestation to meet the increasing demands. Yet in the last 20 years new afforestation has only averaged 2500 ha per year. South Africa has a limited land-use area that is suitable for growing trees. Much of this limitation is driven by competition for water, a scarce resource in what is essentially a semi-arid country. This has resulted in a reduction in the area currently under plantation forests, through withdrawal of production areas to accommodate conservation areas, especially those associated with wetlands and riparian zones, and through competition with other land uses. This means that the current area is likely to shrink even further and yet the demands for forest products continues to increase.
Plantation forestry remains an attractive land use, both from an economic perspective through the production of costeffective wood and from a sustainable development perspective through the generation of jobs in rural areas. The forest industry directly employs over 100 000 people and if one considers that all of plantation forestry is practised in rural areas where rural livelihoods are dependent on forestry, this industry plays a significant role in rural economies. Although plantation forestry has been part of the South African landscape for almost a century and still contributes significantly to the economy, the challenges facing the industry seem to have grown dramatically over the past 20 years.
Recent reports on demand for forest products in South Africa point to significant increases in current production from our managed plantation forests (Louis Heyl and Associates; Crickmay and Associates). This takes into account a projected growth in our economy of 4% per annum and a population growth of 1.7% per annum. These will drive a huge increase in demand for infrastructure, much of which is dependent on products derived from plantation forests.
Global climate change is no longer just a theory of scientists. Recent reports show that this is a reality and one that will affect the South African forest industry in the relatively near future. Estimates from a recent study show a likely increase in mean annual temperatures of 2–6°C. This is also likely to be accompanied by a reduction in mean annual precipitation of around 10%. In general, the predictions are for a warmer and drier climate.
The impact of pests and diseases increased exponentially in recent years. Since the outbreaks of Sirex and Fusarium in the 1990s, new pests and diseases are being reported annually and there appear to be more in the pipeline. Are we sitting on a time bomb waiting to explode? Will the effects of climate change exacerbate the situation further?
The business measures have changed from essentially a cost-accounting framework to one that is based on all three aspects of sustainable development(environmental, social and economic), the so-called triple bottom line. Although the economic aspects remain the most important, shareholders, customers and governments are demanding a greater emphasis on the environmental and social aspects of sustainable development. Sustainability in the broadest sense is a critical issue to business success.
The South African government's Land Reform and Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) policies place further pressure on a shrinking plantation area from which to supply forest products. In both cases, the concern is not of changing land ownership, but rather land currently under plantation forestry being converted to other land uses resulting in a shrinking areain which to grow trees. The Forest Charter and its associated criteria around the scorecards will no doubt pose challenges to the forest industry. The forest industry is highly regulated, through the forest and water legislation, environmental legislation, people legislation and a plethora of broad legislation that affects forestry directly. Compliance with all legislation, a requirement from the forest certification bodies, will add further costs to growing trees.
These are some of the major challenges that stakeholders in the tree-growing business face. Yet, the options for growth in the forestry industry remain positive. The role of research and its application is a key factor in addressing many of these challenges. Despite mounting pressures, the South African forest industry continues to take a positive view of the future. This is reflected in significant capital projects that have been initiated in the past two years, to upgrade current processing capacity in the pulp and paper sector and to install new capacity in the composite and solid wood sectors. Forestry remains a technology-based industry, both at the raw material supply side and in the processing sector, and technology is likely to play an even greater role in the future.
If one considers the growth in afforested area over the past 25 years, there has been an average of 0.8% growth per annum (from just over 1 million ha in 1979/80 to 1.333 million ha in 2005. This area has produced growth in roundwood production in excess of the growth in plantation area. Average annual growth in production over the past 25 years has been 2.5%. What has driven this? It is probably not a result of a single factor, but rather a combination of several factors. There is no doubt that silviculture and genetics have played significant roles in achieving the increasing productivity from the afforested areas. Site-species matching and the deployment of improved germplasm from tree improvement programmes have contributed enormously to increased productivity. Silvicultural practices have been refined and intensified to ensure that the gains predicted from species matching are achieved (through appropriate site preparation techniques, vegetation management and nutrition). At the same time an awareness of sound forest management principles and the implementation of these has ensured a strong environmental ethic in commercial forestry (e.g. almost all of South African plantations are certified and issues around sustainable production are being researched). Of course, there are other factors that contribute to the increased productivity. There has been an increase in the percentage of short-rotation hardwoods (essentially eucalypts) and the conversion of mining timber stands to pulpwood stands.
Increased productivity makes a case for research and the implementation of research done by the industry. The capturing of genetic gain through improved tree genotypes and its associated silviculture through site-species matching has played a role. In addition, improved silvicultural practices through vegetation management, site preparation, fertiliser management, and pest and disease management have also contributed to these gains. So in a presumptive way, I'm proposing that investment in forestry R&D has delivered the goods in terms of the crude measures used here. The question is whether this is sufficient, and the answer must be no. With a 2.5% annual growth in production, there is no way that the essentially static land area under plantations will be able to meet the future demands for forest products. We have to increase the afforested area through the establishment of new plantations. There is also a need to continue to improve productivity from the plantations and this needs to be done in a significant way — gradual or incremental improvements are not sufficient. Where we're currently producing 17m3 ha–1 year–1 of timber on average for the entire estate, this needs to be increased. Technology, and more specifically the application of technology, must play a much more prominent role.
We know that superior genetics focused on growing better trees with appropriate wood properties shows promise to increase the current levels from plantations. This has been demonstrated at research trial level. At the same time, there is still room to make improvements at the silviculture level, both through further research and through the implementation of research at an operational level. These two aspects must be considered together to achieve optimal tree growth. As scientists and technologists we're starting to understand some of the productivity limits of our stands but these are generally significantly above what we achieve from the commercial stands.
The exact nature and effects of global climate change are still uncertain, but our climate is likely to change within the time frame of stands of pine sawtimber planted this year. Again, genetics and silviculture will play a role in genotype selection and management of the trees. Our growing areas may become warmer and drier and foresters will need to understand and respond to these risks, especially for long rotation, high-value crops. This ties into the threat from pests and diseases. In addition to the native pests and diseases associated with introduced exotic trees ‘catching up' with their hosts, the effects of climate change are likely to exacerbate the problem further. In the insect pests, we've seen a strong link between infestation and stress of some sort, often drought related or off-site planting. Warmer and drier climates may induce more stress in our plantations resulting in more areas being predisposed to insect pest attack.
Do we need more species? I believe we rather need to refine our species choice for optimal site capture and utilisation, i.e. robust species that are matched to changes in climate. Pests and diseases and climate change, on their own or more probably in concert, are likely to be key drivers in species selection and deployment. There are opportunities for selection of new genotypes through classical tree improvement programmes and, of course, through the development of interspecific hybrids. The latter will probably play a significant role in alleviating some of the threats from pests and diseases. Research has a critical role to play in the development and deployment of new genotypes for a changing environment. The need for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) may also change, as may society's view of these. Although biotechnology and the use of recombinant technologies overpromised in the 1990s, these technologies are well advanced and can deliver GM products in the forest products markets in the next decade should these be acceptable to the customers.
Sustainability is a buzzword that has been overutilised and means different things to different audiences. In the case of plantation forestry the ability to grow successive rotations on the same site without either productivity or site quality decline is of prime importance. So why is a focus on sustainability so relevant? In South Africa approximately 100 000ha is reestablished to plantation forests each year and it is critical to ensure that these will produce forest products at the same or better productivity levels as the prior crop. Although the challenges facing forestry are undoubtedly daunting, there are opportunities to address many of these through appropriately funded and directed research programmes. Forestry will become more technology based and dependent in the future and as such will depend on an appropriate knowledge base generated through research.

Southern Hemisphere Forestry Journal 2007, 69(1): iii–iv

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