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Forestry stakeholders, employees, alarmed at demise of local economy as humanitarian disaster lingers

Around 150 employees at the Boskor Sawmill in Tsitsikamma despair at the prospect of losing their jobs as MTO Forestry trucks logs to George, 150km away. MTO Forestry is partly owned by the Global Environment Fund, a US-based investment fund and its products are certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC).

The sawmill and the forestry operations in the area were originally set up by the State specifically to generate sustainable socio-economic activity in the Tsitsikamma area. That effort and investment is now in jeopardy, says Hans Hanekom, CEO of Swartland Investments, one of South Africa’s major manufacturers of windows, doors, garage doors and related products, and a locally owned business that has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the workers and other sawmills in the Tsitsikamma area.

Hanekom says, “It’s shocking to us – and to the hundreds of workers affected, and their families – that MTO is risking the economic viability of an entire community at a time when unemployment is soaring and everyone should be made to avert job losses.

“This will quite simply be a humanitarian disaster for the area. MTO has not responded to any of the pertinent concerns raised about its actions. One: trucking logs out of Tsitsikamma sabotages the State’s efforts to create and sustain jobs and socio-economic development in the area, a crucial intervention in the light of Covid-19.

“Two: Doing so contravenes its FSC accreditation. As it stands, the current total area that hasn’t been planted with trees is very high. What is worse is that MTO intends to have this percentage of unplanted area increase in the future. This will certainly lead to a total destruction of the sawmilling industry in the Tsitsikamma in the near future if not rectified. 

“Surely, MTO should be utilising the insurance pay-out received after the fire to replant the burnt area as soon as possible, and not use this capital as a short-term payout for their foreign investors, as it appears to be doing?  

“Three: apart from creating untold humanitarian hardship, MTO is causing environmental damage, including carbon emissions, all of which are avoidable.”

Hanekom says that MTO’s plan to remove logs from the area for processing, “Will force its sawmill to start the retrenchment process in 2021 and also force Swartland to lay off about 200 employees at its manufacturing plants in Cape Town.”

The removal of logs from the Tsitsikamma will also result in other sawmills having to reduce staff in 2021. This could result in around 300 more people being workless in the Tsitsikamma area. 

“It’s been suggested by players in the forestry fraternity that MTO is intentionally creating a shortage of logs in order to drive up prices. Doing so at the expense of the livelihoods of hardworking breadwinners would be callous. Higher log prices and fewer logs available will halt any emerging equity businesses from being able to enter the industry which contradicts MTOs past statements about transformation and development.

Hanekom’s concerns are echoed by a number of long-time personnel at the Boskor mill, many of whom are second- or third-generation workers there.

Mpumleli Ndyindila started working at the sawmill as a labourer 15 years ago and through diligence and training has been promoted to senior operator. He says, “Through mentoring from senior personnel, I grew from a youngster into a responsible family man. About 80% of Tsitsikamma’s people are employed at the sawmill and in forestry. A few years ago, it was green all over the Tsitsikamma and it was full of pine-trees.

“But at this moment I cannot see a bright future for any of us living here. Without trees, there will be no logs and with no logs, there will be no sawmills, and that means that there will be no work or jobs for anyone in the Tsitsikamma area. Most families will struggle to survive. My community is very unhappy about the situation we have with MTO Forestry. Some of their workers were retrenched during the lockdown and if MTO continues with this, we will also be jobless soon.”

Randal Kettledas has worked at the Boskor sawmill for more than 26 years. At age 21 he was the plant’s youngest foreman and since 2017 has headed his department. His father worked at the mill for 30 years until his retirement in 2006. “After being a soldier in the Second World War, my grandfather worked in the forestry in Tsitsikamma area until he retired in 1980. Some of the trees he planted are now being harvested.

“It will be tragic and devastating if myself and 140 of my colleagues would lose our jobs because MTO is harvesting and transporting the logs from our area to their George sawmill.

“The people of Tsitsikamma rely heavily on the forest and sawmill for work. The only other source of jobs, tourism, has totally crumbled due to Covid-19. This has already caused big job-losses. My wife was retrenched recently, making me the sole provider for our family.

“MTO preaches social and economic redress for previously disadvantaged groups, especially in the Tsitsikamma region. I would like to ask them how the harvesting of logs for the George sawmill, and then postponing the planting of new trees benefit the poor of the poorest in The Tsitsikamma?”

  • MTO is part-owned by the Global Environmental Fund, a fund that aims to promote sustainability;
  • MTO’s actions are in breach of its FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certification;
  • Its actions imperil hundreds of jobs in the Tsitsikamma, a threat that could not come at a worse time for the workers, communities and the economy in the area, especially in the context of efforts by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the business community to drive economic recovery and investment, and SA’s downgrade by rating agencies. The area has suffered two hammer-blows: devastating fires and the collapse of its tourism economy due to the Covid-19 shutdown. This is apart from the environmental implications such as carbon emissions.

Venicia Danster has worked at the Boskor sawmill for 29 years and is an HR and admin clerk. She worked her way up the position from starting as a packer in 1990. “Each promotion gave the me opportunity to learn more in the company, and I’ve enjoyed every moment. But if the sawmill closes, I will have to sit at home, without an income. I support my daughter who is 20 and is studying HR in Port Elizabeth. I also have an adopted daughter, aged 10, who I support. I am very unhappy about the situation, as we all need an income to survive and support our families.

Althea Kivett was born and raised in Tsitsikamma and has worked at Boskor for 14 years. Her great-grandfather worked for many years planting trees and most of her descendants have too. She says, “Our lives have revolved around forestry as a sustainable, renewable resource, which MTO has now jeopordised.”

Allton Kamineth has worked at Boskor for 24 years and is a foreman in the plant’s kilns. She says, “Closing the mill would be catastrophic for the people of Tsitsikamma and what MTO is doing is terribly unfair. Our fathers and grandfathers planted these trees so that this community would have a livelihood, but what will become of our children and their children? How will we survive if MTO cuts down all the trees without replanting any?” 

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