Despite being certified by the Forest Stewarship Council, Komatiland Forests’ industrial tree plantations are far from environmentally or socially responsible.
By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 130, May 2008.
In November 2007, several representatives from World Rainforest Movement visited Komatiland Forests’ operations at Brooklands in Mpumalanga province in South Africa.
Under a photograph of J. Brooke Shires, who planted the first eucalyptus and acacia trees at Brooklands in 1876, we listened to a company presentation. Komatiland is a parastatal company managing a total of about 128,000 hectares of mainly pine plantations. The trees are grown on a 28 to 30 year rotation for saw logs. Komatiland employs 2,400 people with a further 1,200 people employed on a contract basis, we were told. The Komatiland plantations at Brooklands cover an area of just over 12,000 hectares. The company uses a horse harvesting system on about one-third of its land at Brooklands.
The company has been certified by SGS Qualifor under the Forest Stewardship Council certification system since 1997. A Komatiland official told us that there are four stages of certification: unknowingly non-compliant; knowingly non-compliant; knowingly compliant; and unknowingly compliant. In these days of corporate greenwash, this part of the presentation was refreshingly honest. “I’m buggered if I know where we are,” he said, laughing. “Somewhere between two and three.” This was a staff member of an FSC-certified company admitting publicly that Komatiland was not fully compliant with FSC standards. “There are problems with all operations. We are not perfect. You will be able to find problems in every one of our plantation units.” He said this to an audience that he knew was critical of both industrial tree plantations and FSC certification.
Winnie Overbeek asked about land rights and conflicts over land. “That sounds like a very European question,” came the reply. Overbeek explained that he has worked for more than a decade in Brazil supporting the Tupinikim and Guarani Indigenous Peoples in their struggle for land in the area occupied by Aracruz Cellulose’s plantations and that his question was based on this experience. Undaunted, the company representative continued. “South Africa is a very unique country”, he explained. “There are no indigenous people in South Africa according to FSC standards. Apartheid happened and there are lots of land claims. All plantations and farms have land claims. That doesn’t mean that they are valid land claims.” All of which sounds remarkably similar to the arguments that Aracruz used, before the Brazilian Ministry of Justice ruled in favour of the Tupinikim and Guarani (see WRM Bulletin 122, September 2007).
In 2007, Komatiland lost about 17,000 hectares of plantations to fire. “Global warming is making things worse,” said the Komatiland official. “For example, pine beetles are attacking native forest trees. No one knows what will happen next. We’re in for some changes and we’re scared of it.”
Wally Menne of the TimberWatch coalition pushed home the point that although the company is called Komatiland Forests, this is a misnomer, because Komatiland’s forestry operations consist of large scale industrial tree plantations.
After the presentation, the company took us to look at some of its plantations. We drove through Komatiland’s pine and eucalyptus monocultures. We saw huge areas of clearcuts and burnt areas of plantation. We drove past the company-built accommodation for workers – rows of small, crudely built terraced bungalows with tin roofs and large numbers painted on the doors. In its assessment of Komatiland, SGS states that the company directly employs only 1,729 people. Driving through the plantations and clearcuts we saw very few workers.
We stopped on a ridge, with lush green grassland on one side of the track and a scene of complete destruction on the other. Every living thing had been cut and scraped away, leaving what looked like a brown moonscape. We got out and walked past piles of logs, some of which were marked with SGS’s forest management and chain of custody number (SGS-FM-COC-0068). In the distance a machine was picking up logs and leaving them in neat piles.
In the company’s presentation we’d been told that 30 per cent of Komatiland’s land is open, and that since 1994, the area of plantations at Brooklands had been reduced from 10,000 hectares to 9,000 hectares. We were told that there was no planting within 20 metres of streams. There was a stream flowing just next to the clearcut. Eucalyptus and pine trees were growing right up to the stream bank.
We saw a log extraction operation using horses. Komatiland told us that using horses damages the soil less and employs more people than mechanised log extraction. The operation that we saw was on a slope that was in any case far too steep to use machines. It looked like brutally hard work. Four men were working with three horses. The horses pulled the logs one at a time down the slope. The men then had to unfasten the chains from the log and pull the horses back up the slope. Meanwhile the managers watched them from the bottom of the slope. One of them had brought his dog with him to work.
During the company’s presentation, we had been told that “Apartheid happened” in South Africa. Yet every worker we saw was black. And every manager we saw was white. In Komatiland’s plantations, it seems, apartheid still exists.
 The public summary of SGS’s 2007 Forest Management Certification Report is available here.
 SGS (2007) “Forest Management Certification Report“, Doc. No. AD 36-A-05, SGS Qualifor, page 13. SGS states that Komatiland Forests employs 3,495 contract workers, but provides no information on how many months per year they are employed.