Environmental stewardship: an integral aspect of forestry in South Africa
Ms Hlengiwe Ndlovu – Divisional Environmental Manager, Sappi Forests
I am always taken aback when people ask me why a forestry company would invest in environmental stewardship. After all, why wouldn’t we?
On a personal level, forestry employees like our consumers and great swaths of society, have awoken to the impact we as a species are having on our planet. We have also become more attuned and mindful of the benefits the environment bestows upon us. The ecological services, which go beyond the obvious food, shelter and water, include the physical and mental benefits of being out in nature. This environmental awakening is the driving force in lessening our impact on the environment in both our personal and professional capacities.
As a company that manages a natural resource, our commitment to environmental stewardship is more than simply ideological, it is an everyday responsibility. We are custodians of a natural resource, and as such, it is our obligation to conserve and sustain it for the benefit of future generations.
The value Sappi places on positive environmental stewardship is perhaps best illustrated by our longstanding commitment to forest certification, something echoed by the South African Forestry Sector in general. Our plantations and value chain have a long history of Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) accreditation and more recently, we have signed up to the new Sustainable African Forestry Accreditation Scheme (SAFAS) endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
Our commitment to environmental stewardship is also evident when you look at Sappi’s company values, which emphasises our responsibility to look after and enhance the natural environment when and where we can. We see environmental stewardship as an integral part of our business philosophy and not a separate entity or add-on, and as such, it is integrated into responsible forestry practices at every level of our operations.
When we are talking about environmental stewardship we need to remember that the environment and society are intimately linked, meaning environmental and social stewardship often come hand in hand. As a landholder and custodian of a natural resource, we have an obligation to both.
In a forestry context environmental stewardship covers a wide array of elements. Biodiversity is a core commitment, so is water stewardship, soil conservation and preserving the areas of natural habitat within the forestry landscape. It also involves preserving and managing the social aspects of these natural resources, for example, the health benefits and recreational opportunities the forestry landscape provides as well as access to resources for cultural and traditional use. At a sector level, forestry has expansive landholdings and the way we manage these will inevitably have a big impact. Historically, a lack of knowledge, meant forestry practices impacted the natural environment in ways we would never accept if we were planting them today. I am proud to say a lot has changed over the past few decades, and the forestry of today is unrecognisable from the practices which preceded it. We have worked hard and tirelessly to reduce our footprint, looking beyond our boundaries when implementing policies and management practices. We do this to ensure that we are sustainable and deliver environmental, social and economic benefits creating shared value.
As an industry, we understand that to make positive impacts through environmental stewardship we need to form partnerships and collaborations. To make a lasting impact we need to scale up, as initiatives that are done in isolation, rarely meet their full potential. Scaling up is always challenging, by finding strategic areas of collaboration and partners who share our goals we can achieve this. Collaborations with organisations like SANBI on biodiversity, playing an active role in the Carbon Disclosure Programme and partnering with NGOs as we have in the Mkhomazi catchment with WWF South Africa, are all ways in which we can scale up the impact of environmental stewardship within the forestry landscape.
We now have an 181 page document, which has been incorporated into the TIPWG APL for FSA members to readily identify the ESRA mitigation steps they need to follow. The benefit of this collaborative approach is we have an industry-standard, which makes auditors lives easier, provides a benchmark for the corporate forestry companies to add to and is a document for small and medium scale growers, who do not have the technical capacity to produce their own, to follow.
The ESRA process has been in force since 1 January 2021, and reports coming back from those who have been audited are positive with auditors happy if companies show they are following the approach and mitigation steps laid down in the national ESRA. Whether this continues once auditors become more familiar with ERSA requirements and FSC develop their training programme is yet to be seen.
Going forward, I think there is a need to scale up even further. Globally we are facing multiple environmental crises, many of which are exacerbated by climate change. As a global society, we need to start working together to address the environmental challenges we face. This involves forming global partnerships and networks to work out how environmental stewardship programmes happening within the forestry landscape, fit within international frameworks designed to deliver positive change. A good example is the international Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs which South Africa is a signatory to. As the South African forestry industry, we can aid South Africa meet some of these goals and we need to be actively partnering with the Government and other stakeholders to do this. Goals like SDG 15: Life on Land, tie into the forestry sector’s commitment to promoting the biodiversity found within the forestry landscape. At a company level, Sappi’s seven proclaimed nature reserves, which are dedicated to the conservation of key ecosystems and biodiversity, fit nicely within this remit.
Moving forward, we can look at how other areas of conservational significance on Sappi’s landholdings could feed into this. SDG 13 calls for Climate Action, and forestry and forest products do not just act as carbon sinks, but also as perpetual carbon ‘pumps’, that offer sustainably produced, renewable alternatives to carbon-intensive products like plastics. SDG 12 seeks commitment to responsible consumption and production, and this too speaks to forestry. Forestry has the potential to be a major player in the Just Green Transition as part of a circular economy. In this respect, there are various opportunities like the production of biomass-based energy and paper recycling that can be explored. As could wood’s role as a sustainable alternative to plastic and an alternative source of textile materials.
As the impact of climate change becomes more and more apparent, I think it will have a role in determining environmental stewardship efforts in the future. Climate change can directly impact both our industry and our country through changes in weather patterns but also indirectly, exacerbating pest and disease outbreaks and increasing the frequency and vigour of fires. It needs to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind and we need to come together to address it.
Awareness is another big challenge. There is a huge amount of misinformation about forestry and forestry practices, which impacts the way society views forestry and the risks and benefits it associates with it. As an industry, we have not done enough to address this. Forestry has evolved dramatically in the past twenty years both in terms of our products and practices, it is time we opened up the dialogue and broadcast this. Yes, like any industry we have shortcomings and these need to be acknowledged and discussed along with the steps being taken to lessen their environmental impact. We also need to get better at communicating the environmental, social and economic benefits forestry brings and its potential to address real-world challenges across all these areas. It is time to initiate a new form of dialogue about forestry, rather than trying to defend our stance and fortify our position, we need to be open and transparent. It is time to contextualise the negatives with the positives, to show how much the industry has evolved and the key role environmental stewardship plays in forestry in South Africa both today and in the future.
Photos courtesy of Sappi Forests
Meet Ms Hlengiwe Ndlovu – Divisional Environmental Manager, Sappi Forests
Hlengiwe has enjoyed a 10-year career in environmental management in the forestry sector, after obtaining her degree in Forestry and Resource Management and Masters in Hydrology. The focus of her career has been on sustainable forest management and water resource management. She now heads Sappi Forest’s Environmental Department where she is responsible for driving environmental operational excellence, custodianship of FSC and PEFC, and overall leadership of sustainability initiatives. Before this, Hlengiwe worked for WWF South Africa where she led engagements with the forestry industry at a regional and national scale and coordinated community-public-private partnerships.