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Monday, 20 July 2020
A watershed moment for FSC® in rural South Africa

Communal land South Africa – Communal land within the Sibi Traditional Authority. (© Manushka Moodley)© Manushka Moodley

For the first time in Africa, a FSC-certified charcoal production project is rolling out on traditional communal land, linking informal microenterprises in remote areas with big business and markets around the world.


In the pilot phase, 500 hectares in the Colana and Sibi traditional authority areas near the town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa have been FSC certified and two enterprises – Eco Char and KwaBhaca Nature Solutions (see sidebar) – have become members of the CMO Group Scheme.

The forest management units include pockets of indigenous natural forest, and the project involves removal of invasive wattle trees (Acacia mearnsii) to allow for the restoration of grasslands and water sources. Small community-owned and managed businesses will convert the wattle to FSC-certified charcoal and other biomass products for local and export markets.
Over time, wattle has run rampant here, invading traditional rangelands and drying out wetlands and watercourses in this important water source area.

Samir Randera-Rees, who manages WWF South Africa’s Water Source Areas Programme, points to research that shows this mountainous area straddles two of this water-scarce country’s 22 strategic water source areas, which make up just 10% of the country’s land area, but contribute 50% of its surface water.“It means that one in two drops of water in our rivers and lakes fell as rain in these water source areas,” he says. These two water source areas feed the mighty Umzimvubu River.

An interlinked whole

“It’s a first on the continent,” Amohelang Sibi, in the Sibi Traditional Authority, says of the FSC certification. “That makes us nervous and excited at the same time.” She explains that FSC certification is a logical fit for her area. “Our communities understand that the environment is not separate from us and we are not separate from the environment – the wellness of one is the wellness of the other in an interlinked chain. FSC certification is a way of ensuring that we take care of the environment and that the landscape and its resources continue to support us as an environmentally friendly community.” Amohelang says livestock and subsistence farmers are starting to see impacts of wattle clearing that has taken place: more grazing land and water. “I took a walk and saw that a stream, usually dry, is flowing again.”FSC, she says, has brought new strength to clearing wattle and improving livelihoods. “It’s bringing the opportunity to create jobs to this rural community, with industries coming out of this. Community members now also have an understanding of invasive plants; many had questioned why their infinite supply of firewood would be removed.” She was pleasantly surprised by the ease of attaining FSC certification and partnering with CMO. “It would be expensive to try to get certified as individual businesses. FSC has been very supportive. They have the expertise and they patiently guide people through the process.”

A Novel approach

There is certainly more to come. With experience in countries like Uganda, Thailand and Namibia, CMO started rolling out its Group Scheme in South Africa just over a year ago. This is the first time it has worked with communities in a traditional authority land-tenured area. Its system builds on economies of scale, using a software tool it developed to manage its schemes; this tool can be taken into the field, allowing monitoring via mobile phones.

Dr Michal Brink, CMO Group CEO, is excited about the “novel bottom-up stance” to unlocking supply chains and value in removing wattle on communal land. “We’ve added the first two community members to our group scheme – many believed this was not possible at scale, and we’ve shown how easily that can happen. CMO will add ecosystem services to the mix: a possible example is a large bottling company buying water conservation offsets against the use of water in its business. “We see that money going into wattle eradication aftercare,” Michal says.

Wattle paying for its demise

Indeed, ensuring that the wattle does not grow back is one of the big values of FSC involvement, Nicky McLeod, a founder member of local NGO Environmental and Rural Solutions (ERS), says. Set up in 2002, ERS has been a driving force in getting the wattle eradication project off the ground and flying. “Wattle is usually a total liability,” Nicky says. “We’ve been able to flip the switch and turn it into an income-generating asset. The FSC certification is like a gift because we can get alien plants to cover the costs of their own demise in a market-driven scheme while we bring back our rangelands.“We’ve been trying for years to find a methodology where the removal of wattle is self-funding. There are wonderful state programmes, such as Working for Water, but they depend on limited funding – and we’ve been dependent on those programmes because we don’t have other sources to fund removal.
“FSC brings that in. Sustainable wattle management in this landscape means for us exactly what FSC has been so amenable to: restoring the natural grasslands and indigenous forest and then selling green value-added products and the higher value of ecosystem services.”Nicky adds that it does not matter “whether those ecosystem services are sold through FSC to big corporations or whether people derive the benefits locally from healthy grazing, fat cattle or income from sales”. It all contributes to “the bigger pot of the value of the landscape and people deriving livelihoods”.

The power of partnerships

Partnerships are a critical foundation and Matatiele is a leader. Samir at WWF explains: “Working in a communal landscape is known to be difficult, but here, there is a unique situation where there is very close collaboration – and trust – between local communities, chiefs, NGOs and government.” As Nicky says: “ERS is a two-bit player in a rural area.” She’s joking, sort of, but you get the idea. “There’s no ways we could do any of this stuff alone. A lot of the way we operate is through partnerships, joining the dots, meeting with like-minded groups, many of which have come together into the Umzimvubu Catchment Partnership.
“We all see this big picture where everything is interlinked. Here are people moving in a common direction – healthy landscapes underpinning resilient livelihoods. We all contribute a piece of the pie.”

A green pilot

Government is one of those partners. Matatiele is not a pilot for just FSC and CMO; it is also the pilot area for the three-year Green Business Value Chain programme, now called the Clear to Grow programme, aimed at unlocking South Africa’s biomass value chain while supporting environmental restoration. It is funded by the national Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and facilitated on the ground by Avocado Vision, a social enterprise that works with grassroots communities to stimulate small businesses. “We knew from the start that if we could set up the pilot for the programme in that area and it worked there, it would work anywhere,” Garth Barnes, Deputy Director at the DEFF, explains. Here, you have a combination of remote rural landscapes, communal land, excellent relationships built up with communities via NGOs – and an abundant pest with potential to be processed into a commercial product. “It’s all pioneering work.”


The Clear to Grow programme involves working closely with microenterprises, providing capacity building that introduces new ways of working with biomass and new ways of thinking about business and markets. It also involves working with corporates, looking for ways to introduce take-up of invasive alien biomass into their supply chains.
One of the many socioeconomic impacts, Garth points out, is that it brings sustainable income into rural areas and the emerging of sustainable enterprises. This means that people are less likely to pack up and move to urban areas in search of jobs, which are scarce anyway.


FSC slots easily into this scenario. It was at a biomass technology day in Namibia late that year that Garth was alerted to the potential that FSC could bring to the invasive alien biomass sector, especially as a catalyst to stimulate rural economies. Things moved fast. “It shows what can happen when public and private partners really want to make things happen,” he says. “And it’s a testament to the work that the Umzimvubu Catchment Partnership Programme has done in the Matatiele area.”

The missing piece

At Avocado Vision, founder Jules Newton describes FSC as “the perfect part of the puzzle that was missing”. “It creates that bridge that helps the informal economy move itself into the formal economy and formal supply chains,” she says. “Someone in Singapore will be able to take a bag of charcoal off the shelf, scan it, see exactly where the charcoal was made and be absolutely secure in the fact that no environmental harm was caused in the harvesting of that product.”Far from harm, harvesting in this case creates huge benefits: rivers flow again; grasslands are restored for healthy cattle; livelihoods are supported and grow. As Jules puts it: “A food value chain is unlocked by driving an invasive biomass value chain, improving the wealth of the community. FSC creates that as an opportunity.” She expects that around 25 small-scale providers, employing local people, will come on board to convert invasive biomass into charcoal in the Matatiele area. More opportunities will come with the addition of a processing factory that can add value with, for example, bagging, sorting, shipping and logistics. “One small producer will battle on his own to find markets because he can’t produce at a scale big enough to supply the markets. We’re looking at a critical mass of charcoal providers that will supply into one processing plant that will then be able to source markets.”

A tool for a wider challenge

The damage that invasive trees do to water resources and natural forests is an issue across many landscapes in the region, and Manushka Moodley, FSC Sub-regional Coordinator – Southern Africa, is enthusiastic about the prospects the Matatiele experience could offer for other areas. She says it illustrates that use of the FSC Forest Management Standard as a tool to regain ecological integrity in degraded landscapes holds great potential in Southern Africa and beyond: “The implementation of the FSC Standards by traditional communities and other smallholders in South Africa provides greater access to international markets, investment opportunities linked to ecosystem services and enhancing local social values in well-being and livelihoods via job creation and skills development.”


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