Transfer of state forests to communities: Department briefing; with Deputy Minister

Environment, Forestry and Fisheries

20 October 2020
Chairperson: Mr F Xasa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) briefed the Committee on the transfer of state forest plantations to communities. In a virtual meeting, it said the plantations were not economically viable due to the fact that they were operating below capacity and did not meet forestry industry standards and norms. There was a high incidence of temporary unplanted areas, dilapidated infrastructure and non-compliance with legislation. This situation was attributable to budget limitations and a lack of capacity due to an aging and ailing work force, timber theft, veld fires, pests and diseases.

The DEFF had identified the release of the plantations as part of implementing the commercial forestry sector master plan, and the process to approve the plan through Cabinet was under way. The release of these plantations would also contribute to the transformation of the sector, and the Department was committed to ensuring that the process was finalised.

The Committee asked if the DEFF’s work included supporting communities with both resources and capacity building. The Department responded that it planned to improve the level of community training so that communities were not only able to learn how to plant trees, but also how to run businesses. Members also warned against the hijacking of community projects, which had happened before in previous restitution projects. There was a need to mitigate against this possibility, because it was a widespread phenomenon.  

Meeting report

Chairperson’s opening remarks

The Chairperson said the Committee wanted to understand the process involved in the transfer of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DEFF’s) state-managed forest plantations to communities.

Ms Maggie Sotyu, Deputy Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, was present.

Transfer of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries State-Managed Plantations

Ms Morongoa Leseke, Acting DDG: Forestry Regulation and Oversight, DEFF, briefed the Committee on the transfer of state plantations. She touched on the current status of the plantations, and referred to the commercial forestry sector master plan, the community forestry agreement (CFA), and the role of the forestry branch after the transfer.

She said the release of the plantations was part of implementing the commercial forestry sector master plan, and the process of approving the master plan through Cabinet was under way. To ensure support for the communities, a post-settlement strategy would be developed to guide the interventions to support beneficiaries to manage the plantations optimally going forward.

(For the full presentation, see attached document).

Discussion

Mr N Singh (IFP) said he and his party agreed with the objectives of transferring the forests from being state-owned to being community-owned. The process of transferring them required the consideration of land claims that would arise. Consultation with communities and land claimants was important for the transfer process. It was also important to set time frames to guide the transfer process and to consider the transition of staff during the process. The transition process had to be an open one.

Due to the importance of timber for the economy, both for local consumption and for export, the government must ensure that it builds and promotes the forestry sector by giving people the chance to become not only fellers of trees, but also the owners of plantations.

Ms H Winkler (DA) said that trees were important carbon sinks which required sustainable stewardship.  She asked how the communities were to be protected from unscrupulous individuals who could hijack community trusts for their own personal benefit. The hijacking of community projects had happened before in previous restitution projects. There was a need to mitigate against this possibility, because it was a widespread phenomenon. When forests were transferred from the state to communities, it seemed as if the transfer was not accompanied with sufficient support in the form of investment, resources, skills transfer and capacitation. She said that only 12% of the forests transfers were successful -- the rest dissolve and become squandered assets.

She asked what happened to the forests that had not been rendered economically viable, but were being transferred to communities. Why would the forests be transferred to communities if they were not economically viable? She asked what the communities would do with those plantations. How would the DEFF assist communities with models of sustainable use?

She said the empowerment of women was very important, and there were concerns that women could be side-lined in projects. How many women were being involved in the community ownership of forests? She asked if gender equity was being considered in the transfer process.

Mr N Paulsen (EFF) said that public engagements had been completed in 2017 and 2018, during which stakeholders within the forestry sector had been invited to make representations to the Committee. What had happened to the representations made? He questioned if the representations had been taken into consideration. There were a lot of important representations that had been made which seem to have been swept under the carpet, and these needed revisiting. He thought it was premature to embark on the process of transferring forests from the state to the communities, given that section 25 was soon to be amended, which would affect the leasing of forests to the public.

Mr J Lorimer (DA) questioned the basis on which plantations were going to be released to beneficiaries. He asked if a tender process was going to be used, and how a balance was going to be struck between revenue possibilities for the state and the transformation process.

He asked whether the DEFF could confirm the 12% success rate of community-owned forests. Did the DEFF monitor the performance of forests once they had been transferred to communities?

Ms A Weber (DA) made reference to slide 7 of the presentation, where her concern was on the ratio of employees to land coverage. She asked how the ratio related to salaries. In the Eastern Cape, one employee attended to 65 hectares, compared to Kwazulu-Natal, where there was one employee for 120 hectares. In Limpopo there was a ratio of one employee for 34 hectares, and in Mpumalanga it was one person for 24 hectares. Were there salary differences between employees across provinces based on land covered?

Would the transfer process include training communities in other skill sets, such as how to run a business? She asked if the DEFF had this training in place to assist the communities.

In areas like Mpumalanga, communities were cutting down trees in areas that were not necessarily forests, and there seemed to be no regulations against this. She asked if it was the DEFF’s responsibility to prevent this. Was there a plan in place to combat this deforestation? She asked how DEFF was going to assist in educating communities on the negative effects of deforestation. How would trees be replaced in deforested areas?

The Chairperson said that the aim of the meeting was to discuss the transfer of ownership of forests and plantations from the state to communities. Could the Minister transfer forests to a state entity? He said that the White paper on which the transfer process had been based was a 1996 document, and they were now in 2020 and there was the Covid 19 pandemic. How had the DEFF responded to the Covid 19 pandemic?

Department’s response

Deputy Minister Sotyu said that the DEFF presentation had been focused mainly on the transfer of forests from the state to communities. The Ministry’s submission in regard to its responses to the Covid 19 pandemic and the economic recovery plan had already been submitted to Cabinet.

She had informed the DEFF team about the staffing issue, stressing that they needed to come up with a clear presentation which made it easy to see how many workers were affected and how many could be transferred or absorbed into other areas.

The DEFF was going to train community members. Some of the 931 current employees were skilled already and these could be used in the transfer of skills to the community.

She said that some of the questions raised required Members to have insight into the master plan. It would not be possible to transfer plantations without the adoption of the master plan, because the process was part of the master plan.

Ms Leseke responded on how the DEFF was responding to the economic recovery plan, and said the Department had also put in a proposal to improve the plantations before they were transferred to communities.

She said there were plantations that currently had personnel, while others did not. With regard to the enquiry on the staff list, the DEFF had already requested a human resources (HR) profile, but they had received it late due to information technology (IT) challenges. The HR profile was not specifically linked to the 931 employees linked to the plantations, but was rather inclusive of the profile of the whole branch. The DEFF would provide the HR profile to the Committee at a later date, if given the opportunity.

Referring to the ratio of employees to the land coverage, she said employees were paid according to their work grade. If they had the same grade, they were paid the same across provinces. If a province had more people than another, it was because of some other factors that the DEFF would have considered.  Skills transfer in areas such as running a business were important, and these would be considered during post-settlement support.

The challenge of people illegally cutting down trees would be solved by releasing the plantations from the state to communities, as this would ensure that there would be sufficient personnel for enforcement and regulation

In response to the question of how the trees that had been felled would be replaced, she said there was the greening programme where the DEFF worked with municipalities. This involved municipalities including tree planting in their integrated development plans (IDPs). She said that there was a target that had been set by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) of planting one billion trees per annum globally. South Africa aimed to plant one million trees per annum. The DEFF also rewarded municipalities that do well in planting trees through the Arbor City Awards which happen annually in September.

She agreed that it may be premature to initiate the process of transferring forests from the state to communities while section 25 was still under way.

In response to the question of what happened to wood lots that were not economically viable, there were different categories of forests, which include social, environmental and economic, and these had different functions. Some forests fell into the social category -- providing firewood -- as well as being important in religious and cultural practices. When wood lots were classified as not having economic value, it did not mean that they were not important.

She said that the DEFF had taken note of the empowerment of women. It could not at the present time inform the Committee on the number of women who would be involved. Gender equity would be considered.

With regard to the question of whether the selection process of beneficiaries was going to go through the tendering process, there were multiple models of transfer. There were plantations that had already been claimed by communities, and under the Community Forestry Agreement that was based on section 29 of the Forestry Act, these communities could ask the Minister to enter into the agreement, or the Minister could call for an expression of interest.

Ms Pumeza Nodada, DDG: Forestry and Natural Resource Management, DEFF, said that the public engagements that had been conducted in 2017 had been done when the Forest Act was still being amended, and the inputs were considered in the amendment bill, and some of the issues were included in the forestry master plan. The DEFF planned to revisit the issues when they returned to the communities for awareness campaigns. Some of the issues were in regard to land claims. There was need for consultations, since the communities would be the future owners of the forests, and their cooperation would be needed. She said that through the process of developing the master plan, the DEFF had had consultations with the department of culture, discussing in detail how to deal with land claims.

The Department had also brought in the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA), which would provide funding for the post-settlement support. She said that the DEFF planned to improve the level of community training so that communities were not only able to learn how to plant trees, but also how to run businesses.

There were communities that had been able to better manage forests, such as the community in Mabandla that had done very well. The DEFF had been liaising with that community so that in all the challenges that they had faced, they had been included in post-settlement support. The DEFF could not give forests to communities and leave them to deal with issues on their own.

There was a need for responsibility in production so that sustainable forest management principles were achieved, which encompassed social, economic and environmental issues. By doing so, the DEFF also considered transformation issues, taking into account which communities were likely to benefit, gender equity and youth empowerment, balancing these aspects with revenue that would come in through rentals. The Department would also engage a valuer to ascertain how much rent should be paid for the land.

Further discussion

Ms Winkler said she wanted to follow up on the question of how the process could be hijacked by unscrupulous individuals benefiting at the expense of the community. These people could end up selling large chunks of the land to the community’s detriment. How could communities be safeguarded to ensure that they benefited? How would the DEFF provide oversight and controls to prevent this hijacking? She asked if there could be interim measures to protect the forests before they were depleted by illegal tree fellers and poachers.

In areas such as Kwazulu-Natal, the illegal theft of timber and poaching was rife. Despite numerous attempts to engage the municipality and lobby the provincial government, there had not been any security mechanism introduced. She was sure that this was not an isolated incident. Could the DEFF put in place some interim measures to counter illegal felling of trees and poaching?

Mr Paulsen said that the Ingonyama Trust had forest land under its stewardship which they leased out to forestry companies. He asked how the money received from these leases benefited the communities who lived on land under the stewardship of the Ingonyama Trust. He said the Ingonyama Trust land would also become state land, and would be expropriated and distributed among the people.

The Chairperson said the Deputy Minister did not necessarily have to respond to the questions he had raised about the DEFF’S response to Covid 19. He did not know the process through which the master plan was proceeding. The master plan would answer the questions that the Members had been raising.

Deputy Minister Sotyu said that after the questions that had been raised about the illegal felling of trees and poaching, she was now convinced that Members needed to get some insights into the master plan. The master plan would go for approval to the Cabinet, and after that it would go to Parliament. Most of the questions that had been raised were dealt with in the master plan.     

Mr Ishaam Abader, Acting Director-General, DEFF, said that the issue of protecting the forests against deforestation was attended to in the master plan. If the DEFF received specific details of areas that were experiencing illegal deforestation, it would send environmental management inspectors (EMIs) to the area.

He said the DEFF would provide a list of staff members and their ages.

He explained the process that the master plan was going through, saying it was going through the Director-General cluster process, and would proceed to Cabinet for approval. Once that process was approved, the DEFF would have a more comprehensive consultation process.

Ms Gwendoline Sgwabe, Director: Forestry Management (DEFF Eastern Cape), responded on how the community could be protected from individuals who intended to hijack the projects from the communities, and said the DEFF would always be an overseer so that the communities got the maximum benefit.

Currently, the DEFF had a strategic plan with targets, and had been able to achieve its targets with its current personnel. It was doing work in monitoring, enforcing and forest development in plantations.

Deputy Minister Sotyu said that the DEFF had responded to all the questions, except for the one on the Ingonyama Trust. The question was difficult, and she would have to obtain more information on the issue.

The Chairperson said the DEFF would be called back to brief the Committee on staffing and the relationship of the Ingonyama Trust to the state.

He thanked the Deputy Minister and the DEFF team, as well as the Committee Members.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

 

 

 

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