Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)

Swaziland: The myth of sustainable timber plantations
March 2007
Wally Menne and Ricardo Carrere

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges the World Rainforest Movement as the source of this report:

Unveiling the myth of sustainable plantations in Swaziland

Although Swaziland is not a very well known country, many foresters not only know about its existence but are even able to use it as an example of “sustainable” plantation forestry. The person responsible for this is Professor Julian Evans – an English forester – who has for years been promoting the view that the Sappi Usutu Pulp Company’s pine plantations in that country are “sustainable”, both through research publications and public presentations at international events.

Swaziland has thus appeared to be an exception within a context of research findings in many other countries proving that this type of plantations is socially and environmentally unsustainable. WRM therefore decided to carry out research in Swaziland, which – as detailed in chapter 2 – demonstrated that the impacts of plantations in Swaziland were as negative as elsewhere.

The reasons for this apparent contradiction thus need to be analysed. A paper produced by Evans in 2000, can serve the purpose of helping the reader to understand what he means – in the first place – by “sustainability”. There he explains that “The question of sustainability in plantation forestry has two components. There are the general or broad issues of whether using land and devoting resources to tree plantations is a sustainable activity from the economic, the environmental or from the social sense. Is such development unsustainable or is it a threat rather than a help to people’s livelihoods and way of life? These, and related issues, are important and fundamentally depend on national policies governing plantation development, understanding their impacts, and ensuring full public participation in the process. They contribute to what is labelled ‘broad sense’ sustainability.”

Labelled by whom? What he defines as “broad sense sustainability” is what people, academics and governments alike understand by “sustainability” – without having to add anything to it. However, adding the words “broad sense” allows Evans to introduce his concept of “narrowsense” sustainability.

Instead of acknowledging that plantations in Swaziland are unsustainable, what he does is to look into one aspect of those plantations using a concept that he defines as “narrow-sense” sustainability of plantations. This simply means looking at wood yields over several rotations to determine if the trees “can be grown indefinitely rotation after rotation on the same site without serious risk of reduction in site quality or in crop yield”.

What he is then looking at is just the capacity of the site to continue producing wood. There is of course nothing wrong with this, were it not for the fact that Evans continues spreading the message that plantations in Swaziland have proved to be “sustainable”. For instance, at the launching of the FSC Plantation Certification Review Meeting held in September 2004 in Bonn, the WRM made a short presentation including a brief summary of the negative social and environmental impacts of large-scale tree plantations. Professor Evans was present at the meeting and raised his hand immediately after the WRM presentation to tell the audience that he had studied plantations in Swaziland and that he had evidence that they were sustainable. He did not explain that he meant “narrow-sense” sustainability, but only used the term “sustainable”, thus misleading the audience about this crucial issue.

Professor Evans had done exactly the same in 1999 at an “International Experts Meeting on the Role of Planted Forests for Sustainable Development”, organized in Chile by the United Nations Forum on Forests. In his presentation, he also said that pine plantations in Swaziland were “sustainable”.

The fact is that Professor Evans has never studied the sustainability of plantations in Swaziland. What he has been doing is simply studying the “long-term productivity” of Sappi’s Usutu pine plantations. He says that “for 32 years measurements have been made over three successive rotations of Pinus patula plantations, grown for pulpwood”, simply recording “tree growth during each rotation resulting from normal forest management by SAPPI Usutu”.

Although he acknowledges that “First rotation growth data were derived from stem analysis and from paired plots and are less accurate” than measurements data for second and third rotation growth that was “obtained from plots on exactly the same sites”, this does not seem to impair his capacity to reach the following conclusions:

  • Over most of the forest [sic] where granite derived soils occur third rotation height growth is significantly superior to second and volume per hectare almost so.
  • There had been little difference between first and second rotation.
  • On a small part of the forest (about 13% of area), on phosphate-poor soils … a decline had occurred between first and second rotation, but this has not continued nto the third rotation where there is no significant difference between rotations.”
It is quite revealing that he uses the expression “On a small part of the forest”, when in reality this implies over 9,000 hectares of plantations. As we shall see below, Sappi Usutu’s forestry management did not think that this was “small” and decided that fertilisation was necessary.

It is particularly interesting to note that after highlighting that “The importance of the Swaziland data … is that no fertiliser addition or other ameliorative treatment has been applied to any longterm productivity plot from one rotation to the next”, he adds that “according to Morris (1987) some third rotation P. patula is probably genetically superior to the second rotation.” Why “according to Morris”? Why “probably”? Is Evans unaware about whether the company has introduced “genetically superior” pines to the third rotation? Is this not a major issue when comparing yields?

According to his own words, Professor Evans has been monitoring these plots since 1968. He should thus know if the third rotation pines where “genetically superior to the second rotation”.

Moreover, it is difficult to understand how a person so closely-linked to this company could ignore that, according to Usutu forest manager Peter Whitfield, “the research effort is concentrated on two issues” and that the second issue is focused “on increasing forest yields through tree breeding, and improved silviculture practices. The tree-breeding programme was initiated in 1985, with a strategy for species and provenance selection and the genetic improvement of pine species for the forest … Seed orchards established over the past 6 years will make the company self sufficient in improved seed by the year 2000.” (Whitfield 1996). All this was obviously a reality when Evans produced his year 2000 paper quoted here. Why did he choose not to mention any of those issues?

Instead, he tries to counteract the argument that the genetically improved trees might be the cause of the increased or sustained yields, by saying that “The limited [why “limited”?] genetic improvement of some of the third rotation could have disguised a small decline, but evidence is weak [why “weak”?]. Also, it can be strongly argued that without the severe and abnormal drought [Evans says that “the 1980s and especially the period 1989-92 have been particularly dry”] growth would have been even better than it is.” Were there no other droughts since the plantations were established that may have affected the growth of first and second rotation plantations?

Moreover, it is important to underscore that the company’s tree breeding programme, was not simply a decision to improve yields, but, as Whitfield says “silviculture research has been focused on addressing second rotation yield declines due to phosphate deficiencies on about 15% of the forest” (2% more than quoted by Evans). Were those phosphate deficiencies the result of nutrient loss resulting from the plantations? Should not this issue be taken on board even within a ‘narrowsense’ approach to sustainability of plantations?

More importantly, Whitfield himself strongly erodes Evans’ credibility when he says that “more recently the issue of organic matter accumulation on the forest floor and subsequent potential yield declines has been addressed through the application of nitrogen fertiliser.” In spite of this – written in 1996 – Evans claims 4 years later that “these plantations are managed as intensively as anywhere and, so far, there is no evidence to point to declining yield.”

Unaware of the contradiction, Whitfield (1996) quotes Evans as stating that “There is no general evidence of declining yields resulting from intensive plantation forestry of cultivation of three crops of the same species on the same site. The prospects for this continuing are good. With good husbandry Usutu’s plantation forestry is demonstrably and wholly sustainable (Evans 1995)”. Of course both Whitfield and Evans “forget” to mention that the term “sustainable” means, in Evans’ terms, only ‘narrow-sense’ sustainability”.

The above make it quite clear that the example of the Usutu plantations as being “sustainable” is not “sustained” by evidence. They don’t even appear to have a “narrow-sense” sustainability.

WRM therefore decided to take a closer look at those plantations from a broader perspective than the simplistic “sustained yield” approach. In 2003 we got in contact with Wally Menne, from the South African Timberwatch Coalition, who has a long experience regarding the impacts of plantations and requested him to carry out research on the issue in neighbouring Swaziland.

The main objective of the study was to gather information and to present that information in the form of a preliminary report. This report would also attempt to evaluate the information, to arrive at conclusions, and where possible to suggest actions to address the issues highlighted by those conclusions.

In order to obtain a better understanding of the scale and nature of the impacts of large–scale tree plantations in Swaziland, visits were made to the main timber growing areas, and interviews were conducted with a range of individuals drawn from interested and affected groups. As far as was practicably possible, similar numbers of individuals from each group were interviewed.

Questions to establish whether there was an awareness of impacts, which specific impacts, and how great those impacts were considered to be were asked. In addition, other relevant comments and suggestions were also recorded. The groups from which representatives were interviewed are:

  • Community members
  • Environmentalists
  • NGO representatives
  • Government employees
  • Industry representatives
Wally Menne, Maria Rydlund (SSNC) and Chris Lang carried out a complementary visit to Swaziland in October 2004. Incidentally, while they drove through Swaziland, they noticed (and photographed) recently felled clear cuts being burned. A 1999 report that Evans wrote for the UK Department for International Development includes a photograph, with the following caption:

    “Burning debris after clear-felling in Swaziland led to loss of nitrogen from the site and death of replanted pine seedlings from Rhizina fungal infection. This undesirable practice was discontinued in 1973.” (Evans 1999).
Menne’s report was made public in December 2004 and copies were disseminated to people in Swaziland that participated in the study.1 In contrast with Julian Evans’ approach, the author of the study recommends “that this report be treated as an introduction to the topic, which is vast and complex, and requires much more investigative study.”

The following chapter is to a large extent based on the findings of that study and also incorporates other relevant information.

  1. The report is available on the internet at:

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