In 1929, long before the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable forest certification” were coined, a forward-thinking geologist purchased a farm called Westfalia in the Tzaneen area. He pioneered the higher-value use of Eucalyptus species for furniture and construction, as well as a responsible approach to doing business, while simultaneously protecting the environment. His thinking was way ahead of its time.
Decades later, we would come to know these approaches as sustainability management or a “triple bottom line” approach to business. This pioneer was none other than Dr Hans Merensky, who in 1949, founded Hans Merensky Holdings (HMH) and Merensky Timber (Merensky). Born in Botshabelo in 1871, Merensky became a legend: a world-famous prospector and geologist, humanitarian, entrepreneur, philanthropist, devotee of nature, afforestation, agriculture, water and soil conservation – a true visionary. Dr Merensky died in October 1952.
Twenty-one years later in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) was established as the first voluntary certification for sustainable forestry, promoting environmentally-sound, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests, formalising many of the principles that Dr Merensky and other forestry and environmental pioneers expounded.
In 2022, FSC and Merensky were proud to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Northern Timbers (FSC C010117) and the 21st birthday of Singisi Forest Products (FSC C013164). We invited Merensky employees to share their recollections of the first FSC certification, their experiences as well as the value of certification in the day-to-day operations:
Not sure what to expect
- “Back in the day, the Department of Forestry was still struggling to figure out the bare basics around environmental management, and the thought of meeting the FSC principles and criteria was very daunting. It would take a big effort just to get the basics rights, let alone getting certified.”
- “Yes, 21 years ago, I had just moved over from human resources manager to production manager. That was also the time when we decided to apply for FSC certification for our plantations and our sawmill. I was very uncertain of what to expect.”
It’s all about good management
- “Hmmm…interesting how our management has changed over the years through FSC certification.”
- “At company level, we have grown from having a single FSC file in the early days, to a set of FSC files and today, ta-da, no FSC files whatsoever. The FSC principles are now firmly integrated in all aspects of our business processes. It has just simply become the way we do business.”
- “And actually, FSC certification has entrenched good practices throughout the industry and has led to the industry and other role players stepping forward to develop best forestry practices, which today ensures that the modern forester understands the impacts of all operational decisions on the environment and society.”
FSC’s role in driving change
- “Very noble and aligned to our purpose to do good, which we inherited from our founder Dr Hans Merensky.”
- “For me personally, with the indiscriminate deforestation worldwide, wouldn’t it be great if governments worldwide would legislate to FSC requirements and educate the people of the benefits that it brings. Education, collaboration, and awareness would be the driving force. It’s a journey, you know.”
- “I agree, but you know, with the huge climate crisis we have, I wish FSC could focus more on those issues that drive climate change.”
- “We are seeing progress here, FSC is aligned with the Environmental, Social and Governance framework, the UN’s Sustainable Development Global Compact.”
- “The Ecosystem Services Claims process enable forest owners to quantify and obtain sponsors for ecosystem benefits, such as biodiversity, watershed restoration, soil conservation, recreation, and carbon storage. Forests will play a pivotal role in ensuring mankind’s future on earth.”
There are challenges
- “Some FSC requirements are Eurocentric and need to consider local situations. An example of this is the FSC pesticide policy. FSC needs to acknowledge Africa as uniquely different. Safe use of pesticide should be a more logical and focused requirement.”
- ”Personally, I would allocate more resources to make FSC certification better known and desirable for producers and customers. I really do see a great future for FSC, on condition that they stick with their original principles and criteria.”
- ”That’s right, I see a bigger footprint for FSC particularly in first world markets, but also in developing markets, the communication of the value of purchasing higher priced certified products is a challenge. FSC must find innovative ways to achieve this. “
- “It’s a journey”
Dr Hans Merensky’s Legacy
Merensky is a leading player in South African forestry and lumber processing. With over 65 000 hectares, Merensky’s plantations are the largest privately-owned commercial forests being managed on a saw-log regeneration rotation in South Africa.
Merensky plantations include both Pine and Eucalyptus species and its own sawmills supply quality lumber, poles, and logs to southern African and offshore customers. All Merensky-grown lumber carries the prestigious FSC® Forest Management Chain-of-Custody claim to responsible forest management.
Merensky’s purpose to “Do Good”, has its origins with its founder, Dr Hans Merensky, and can be seen in action through the implementation of its core values of health, safety and wellbeing; integrity; inclusivity; innovation and quality throughout the organisation.
The health, safety and wellbeing of its employees extends beyond its voluntary implementation of safety standards like NOSA, to fostering and nurturing an inherent safety culture in the lives of its employees. This culture is also supported amongst Merensky’s contractors.
More than two-thirds of Merensky’s employees are from the communities in the vicinity of the forest plantations and processing operations. The land claim processes, which are in progress by these communities are supported by Merensky as it implements another one of its core values, that of inclusivity. The Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment legislation and the industry benchmark score has been successfully exceeded through a program, which integrates all levels and all business functions. Enterprise development, supplier development and training are key components which receive focus.
Merensky Timber provides bursaries for the education and training of students in the fields of study required by the company. Training extends beyond just its employees, also includes community members and the employment of young people as interns.
Enterprise development at Northern Timbers, Limpopo is active, as is the support of food security which is encouraged with a community program, which cultivates peanuts and groundnuts between newly established trees. An entrepreneur incubator project that produces school desktops and refurbishes old desks has also been supported. The project donates these desks to local schools.
At the Weza Sawmill in KwaZulu-Natal, the Nkomazi Woodworking Centre trains community members in woodworking and furniture making skills. This is one of many community projects aimed at providing economic development opportunities in the local communities. Assisting and supporting bee keeping enterprises in and around the plantations also serves to prevent forest fires, as honey poachers are known to set fire to the trees to assist in honey retrieval. The program trains and informs the community of the benefits of organised hive collection and honey production. Bee-boxes are made under supervision of the Merensky community development department and donated to communities.
Merensky is guided by its purpose to “Do Good,” and to go beyond sustainability into the realm of restorative economics – giving more than it receives.
By living the purpose, the Merensky Timber Group aspires to build on its rich legacy to become global leaders in Eucalyptus solid-wood and related products over the long term, recognising the importance of a values-based approach to business, stakeholders and the environment.
From all at The Forest Stewardship Council, congratulations on your anniversary milestones and thank you that we share your journey.
With thanks to Hans Merensky Holdings and the following staff:
Johan de Graaf, CEO, Merensky Timber
Tammy Makgatho, executive manager, Northern Timbers Sawmill (NTS)
Mark Frey, sales and marketing executive
Hamish Whyle, research, technical services, environmental and planning manager
Marius Koch, production manager, NTS
Marius Jonker, forestry manager
Gerrit Marais, GM, Connect