South Africa: Plantations – Green gold or green deserts?

23 Dec

Research by John Blessing Karumbidza of the University of KwaZulu-Natal reveals the impacts that industrial tree plantations have on rural communities in South Africa.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 101, December 2005.

Based on a presentation by John Blessing Karumbidza at an International Meeting on Plantations, 21-25 November 2005 in Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil (organised by WRM/FASE-ES/GJEP).

“Rural people are very knowledgeable, but they don’t have degrees. Neither do they speak the ‘right’ language. This study helps me to empower the community. I see myself as a voice of the voiceless, committed to the struggle for the advancement of the dignity of our people,” John Blessing Karumbidza said, opening his presentation in Vitória. Born in rural Zimbabwe, Karumbidza is a Junior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. He was commissioned by Timberwatch to carry out research into the impacts of tree plantations on rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa.

Although the environmental impacts were not a specific part of the research, Karumbidza noted that “environmental considerations and impacts are over-arching issues, relevant to social, cultural and economic impacts. In typical rural community life in the area, it is difficult to separate social, cultural, economic and political issues from each other and the environment.”

The South African plantation industry claims to be creating new jobs. When it sacks workers and hires subcontractors to do the work (at lower wages) it calls this “empowerment”. It claims to be developing infrastructure, such as roads. It claims to be putting money in rural people’s pockets and making a substantial contribution to the national economy. It claims to be preserving the environment.

Karumbidza’s research uncovered a different story, of evictions, resettlement and dislocation. Communities who were evicted to make way for plantations received inadequate or no compensation. Their new settlements had insufficient land.

The Sabokwe community in Richards Bay is today completely surrounded by eucalyptus plantations. “A sea of nothingness”, as one community member described the plantations. “We feel trapped being located so close to such huge plantations,” a Sabokwe villager told Karumbidza.

Into the sea of nothingness – eucalyptus plantations near the Sabokwe community, Richards Bay.

“We cry because our children have no clothes and no shoes,” another villager said. “Life has been difficult since the trees came.”

Villagers are concerned that they do not have enough land. They cannot grow enough food to live off and young people are concerned that when they grow up, their fathers will not be able to pass on any land to them.

Mrs. Ziqubu, one of the senior women in Sabokwe, told Karumbidza about the problems they have with water: “The thing is that we compete for water with these plantations. They use up a lot of water. I remember when we got here in 1996 the stream close to our garden was running perennially because the eucalyptus trees were not here.”

“The problem of water is as crucial as the access to land itself,” she continued. “You may get land, but without water there is very little one can do with the land. So we are here in the middle of a desert created by the plantation industry.”

Slovoville is a squatter camp near the town of KwaMbonambi. It is home to about 2,000 people who live in tiny houses built from timber off-cuts, black plastic, car tyres and anything people can lay their hands on. There is only one water stand pipe for the entire community.

The 2,000 people living in the Slovoville camp are at serious risk from fire.

The first people to settle in Slovoville did so in the 1980s, when pulp and paper corporations Mondi and Sappi went on a land buying frenzy. White farm owners sold their land, took the money and moved away. Black people who had worked on the farms were left with nowhere to go except to squatter camps like Slovoville. Since then other people have joined the settlement, including people from Mozambique who came to South Africa in search of work while others fled political violence in Zululand.

Both Mondi and Sappi shirk their responsibility toward the people living in Slovoville. After a fire raged through the settlement, neither company provided any help, not even timber poles to help rebuild the houses.

Timberwatch organised a meeting with representatives from communities and local NGOs in November 2005 to discuss Karumbidza’s research. After presenting his findings, Karumbidza asked whether there were any benefits to communities from tree plantations. None of the people present could think of any benefits. “Plantations have caused starvation not benefits,” said a villager. “There should be no plantations close to the community or close to the village,” another added. They produced a list of problems caused by plantations, including the impact on water, the reduction of grazing and arable land, the impact on soils, the reduction of indigenous and fruit trees, the reduction of medicinal herbs and the fact that plantations provide a hiding place for criminals.

In the discussion that followed, a villager explained that even people who have worked for 20 years for the plantation companies have not benefited. “They cannot show you good things and assets they have from the salaries, from the contract they have made, there is nothing,” she said. “We should do away with these plantations.”

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