It has also been the scene of bitter disputes between environmentalists and the forestry industry. Poorly located plantation forests on the western shores of Lake St. Lucia had reduced freshwater flows into the narrow estuary, increasing salinity levels and threatening the sensitive wetland ecosystems and the many species that depend on them.
Years of mutual mistrust hindered both conservation efforts and economic growth.
Eco-boundaryThat changed when the international paper and packaging group Mondi took over the coastal plantations, including those around Lake St. Lucia. To manage these areas, Mondi formed SiyaQhubeka Forests (SQF), in partnership with black economic empowerment organizations, the government and communities.
Mondi, as the controlling partner of SQF, worked with the government, environmental NGOs and the park authority to establish a 120km eco-boundary, separating the commercial zone, including SQF’s plantations and associated ecosystems, from the conservation zone, now incorporated into the World Heritage Site.
As a result of the eco-boundary agreement, 9,000 hectares of former state forest plantations (including 4,500 hectares allocated to Mondi) were transferred to the park. This land has now largely been rehabilitated to wetlands and grasslands, restoring soil and water conditions and encouraging biodiversity. A further 14,200 hectares of SQF’s commercial landholdings were officially incorporated within the park, a win-win for both parties.
“I was fortunate enough to visit the SiyaQhubeka Forests on a field trip following Forestry Stewardship Council's (FSC) 2008 General Assembly. I have to admit that I had no conception of what a model of effective commitment to local communities actually meant in practice until I saw it at work in reality. Mondi opened my eyes to what a company can achieve when taking seriously its obligations to FSC’s principles,” says Charles Thwaites, FSC UK Executive Director.
Ecological networksAccording to Professor Michael Samways of the Faculty of Agrisciences at Stellenbosch University, this pattern of combining appropriately located, well-managed plantations with protected areas provides mutual benefits. “One can visualize this rather like a starfish, with a central area and ‘arms’ of conservation area extending across the landscape in and among the production areas,” he says. “These ecological networks are nature reserves in their own right. It is a win-win situation as the protected area is increased enormously in size while production can take place to provide economic security to the area.”
As well as benefiting Lake St. Lucia’s many birds and freshwater species, the project has extended the habitat of elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, buffalos and other game, allowing them to roam freely in the park and the commercial forestry area. Maintaining the integrity of natural ecosystems also benefits the commercial plantations, Professor Samways adds.
All SQF’s areas are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, and this plays an important part in monitoring the success of the venture. “The FSC certification provides a consistent high management standard and monitoring,” says Peter Gardiner, who leads Mondi’s work on responsible plantations. “This helps maintain and control the quality of the management over time.”
Involving local communities and small growers in the plantation model has raised the levels of skills, education and viable small businesses in the area. In addition to providing jobs and technical forestry training to Khula villagers, SQF has promoted tourism in a part of Lake St. Lucia not previously accessible to the public. SQF supports small business initiatives such as honey production, nursery production and firewood collection, improving the livelihoods of local people.
Mondi has run timber farming support schemes to enable local communities to grow and responsibly manage commercial tree plantations.
Mondi is a participant in WWF’s New Generation Plantations project, which is developing and promoting principles and tools for ecologically, socially and environmentally sustainable plantations.
More examples of how transforming markets can make a difference can be found here.
Well-designed and well-managed plantations that take into account protected areas, high conservation value areas and ecological networks can maintain biodiversity at the landscape level and contribute to sustained economic growth as well as social and environmental benefits.