Change the world


The annual Southern Africa Regional Meeting (SARM) of the International Forestry Students Association was again successfully hosted by forestry students from the Nelson Mandela University during the period 24-28 June 2019. 

This year, forestry students from the five South African forestry education institutions, as well as those from the eastern and southern countries of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, gathered around the theme “Future multiple land-use and alternative business models for the Southern African forestry industry”.

The program was designed to keep the students engaged through a series of high level industry and academic talks and presentations, field tours and café dialogues. “I had the privilege of facilitating the café dialogues, and as an entry level lecturer, found it extremely rewarding to facilitate conversations between multiple students from diverse backgrounds”. With coffee and cookies readily available, these conversations succeed in getting even the most reserved person talking, while at the same time cultivating listening and reflecting skills, especially for the verbally gifted. The café dialogues create an environment that allows for uninhibited conversation on a personal level, free from the interruptions of daily routine, social media and other commitments on campus.  The organising team applied their minds to the formulation of conversation prompts and questions related to the conference theme. 

The rapidly changing local forestry industry, in terms of technology, patterns of land ownership and environmental related challenges formed the ideal background for a critical analysis and discussion of this nature.  In addition to the insight gained from thoughts and the vision of the delegates, the personal feedback of student experiences of the dialogue sessions was very insightful. Feedback from one of the students read: “I really had a good experience, because I learnt new things, how to share in the different minds of other young people, learning how people think and learning what they would do to change the world. I have also learnt a lot about forestry, that I would not have necessarily known from just being in class, and, I was also reminded of why I started studying Forestry after being lost and confused for a while”. There are many such hopeful personal notes, but the purpose of this article is to report on the dialogue insights.

Two café dialogues were facilitated. The first one allowed dialogue and engagement on the current forestry value chain in terms of sustainability and multiple land use opportunities and challenges in the forestry industry; and suggestions for addressing these challenges. The second dialogue prompted the students to envision an ideal South African forestry business model in terms of size, structure, technologies and management principles.  Students  reflected on their educational preparedness for the current and future forestry industry as well as their opinion on actionable recommendations for improving forest education in our region.

On the status quo of the current industry, the variable sizes of forest business entities was a general consensus point.  It was noted that although there are large, medium and small-scale plantation forestry entities, in technical terms they all have a similar production system, i.e. medium to long term intensively managed monoculture plantations of key species. The notion that came through was that forestry is forestry, the same species that is grown by a big corporate entity is the same one that is grown by a small grower and as such there are limitations to ways in which forestry can be practiced. According to the students this had two key implications to the sustainability of the industry. Firstly, risks to plantation forestry such as pests, diseases, fire, and soil fertility losses are realities that apply to all forestry entities regardless of their size.

Resilience, is what they students came up with as an important sustainability indicator, as they questioned the ability of the smaller and medium entities to bounce back in the event of a challenge such as a pest infestation. Furthermore, it was questioned who defines sustainability, the small-scale farmer, the big corporate or the medium scale plantation owner?  A general response was that sustainability has different expressions for the different scales at which forestry is practiced, yet the dilemma is that in the biophysical sense forestry is forestry.

Conversations around this conceptual understanding of sustainability led to the group noting that it very much depends on the form of environmental ethic that will dominate thoughts.  Also, stakeholders’ understanding of the inter-relatedness of the social, economic and biophysical components of the environment will determine how they approach sustainable forest management.  An example would be that, depending on size, design and leadership style, some entities would follow a stronger econo-centric approach to sustainability, while others would pursue a more bio-centric or human-centred approach. 

The group agreed that sustainability cannot be a one size fits all concept.  It should always be considered from the particular ecological context, the management intensity, economic expectations and lastly the broader ecosystem values present in the landscapes where forestry is being practised.

As far as challenges and opportunities related to the forestry industry are concerned, education and research programs for small scale/independent growers was priority.  An increased focus on community based forestry was viewed as an opportunity to invest in communities to stimulate growth in the forestry sector. This will not only create a sense of ownership of forestry landscapes and assets, but will also provide big corporations with a secure resource base.  A quote from one the students reads as follows: “Educate the communities to know why conservation is important, why certain landscapes must be protected and why others are suited for production purposes, and why they must better understand their functioning and value”.

Against this background, society needs an improved understanding of our biophysical resource, its inherent potential for forestry, and how it will affect the many aspects of modern forestry production systems, especially against looming uncertainties associated with global climate change and societal demands. Strategies for better adaptation must be developed, such as multiple resource use, product diversification, improved value addition, breeding of superior planting material and precision forestry in general.

An analysis of the status quo finally gravitated to insights on what an ideal forestry business in South Africa should look like. Semi-mechanised operations were viewed as the most feasible option for a South African forestry business. Technology must be part of the matrix, land use integration should receive priority, and jobs should be re-engineered to make skills development a core of the business. However, as far as technologies for an ideal forestry business are concerned, a strong case for human and environmental wellbeing was emphasized. It was stated that technology should be introduced not only for economic efficiency and profitability, but also for the sake of improving the social and environmental components of sustainability. 

It was agreed that a competitive and future forestry industry should consist of large corporate entities complemented by small and medium scale enterprises. This will facilitate the required consolidation and enable proper planning, timing, optimal production capacities and export market penetration. Such cooperation also matters for an array of other purposes such as training, research and preventing and mitigating risks. The potential of small-scale forestry, if properly organised, must not be overlooked.  It can certainly become a significant player to support a globally competitive industry through creatively designed cooperative programmes, and the integration of rural communities who to date often feel marginalised.

While these dialogues provide us with windows into the minds of the young generation regarding forestry, it is their transformative nature in getting the students to learn and contribute to the learning of each other that remains an awe. I conclude l with a quote from one of the students: “This dialogue was very educational, it encouraged me to think about advancement in the forestry industry, and solutions to current issues in Forestry. I got to learn that other people’s views can be combined with mine to give a way forward”. 

Special acknowledgements to the student participants of the 2019 Southern Africa Regional Meeting, industry leaders, academics and a huge thank you to the sponsors (FPM SETA, SAIF, SAPPI, NCT, MONDI, FSA, Nelson Mandela University) who enabled the success of the meeting.