GEORGE NEWS - MTO Forestry Pty (Ltd) is exiting the Bergplaas plantation in September this year as their lease agreement with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (Deff) comes to an end.
The company's exit forms part of government's reduction of plantations in the Western Cape as announced in 2001.
According to the company's communications specialist, Tashne Singh, the Bergplaas exit will affect 32 MTO staff members, of whom 14 are being redeployed to other areas of operation, including the George Sawmill.
"The affected staff are predominantly from Touwsranten and Bergplaas. With regard to retrenchments, MTO is engaging with trade unions with which we have recognition agreements to ensure that the process is fair and concluded within the prevailing labour laws which govern the business."
MTO is also engaging directly with staff who are not represented by trade unions.
Its employee assistance programme for staff affected by retrenchments includes training to help expand their skills and enhance their marketability when searching for jobs. She said Deff has granted permission to the community living in Bergplaas to remain. "Other current tenants such as staff can apply for a license from the department to remain in the houses they occupy."
Dr Jaap Steenkamp, CEO of the SA Forestry Contractors Association (Safca), said it is a "disaster" for George. He has strong views regarding the reduction of forestry activities in the Southern Cape and the negative effect it has on the local economy. The association has been appealing to the department to reverse their exit strategy, which is adding to the massive losses in the industry that resulted from the Knysna fire in 2017 and last year's fire in George in which 17 000ha of plantations were destroyed. The exit date was brought forward from September 2020 because of the fire damage.
Steenkamp said these losses are having a stupendous negative impact on the local regional economy. Timber supplies will dry up and sawmills will "become quiet" in two to three years' time. Safca is asking for reforestation through the private sector, in alliance or partnership with the community.
The initial vision of government with the exit areas was to repurpose them for conservation, community forestry, agriculture and housing. However, the private contractors are of the opinion that the forestry department does not have the capacity, means or finances to maintain these areas.
"Input costs are extremely high and increasing on a daily basis and expertise and experience are paramount," said Steenkamp.
No response has been received from the department to questions regarding the future use and management of the Bergplaas property. Jonkersberg, in the George area, is another plantation that must be exited in 2020.
MTO said in a statement that it has identified potential areas in Jonkersberg and Bergplaas where communities could be empowered with sustainable enterprise development initiatives. Engagement of all stakeholders, including government and the community, is needed for these options to be further explored. Possibilities include forestry with the local community as an implementing partner, cash crops, and ecotourism opportunities.
Deff not at meeting
A meeting of the action group to replant the Southern Cape was held at the head-office of PG Bison in Johannesburg on Wednesday 24 July. According to Steenkamp, three delegates from the region, representing the community, Safca and Sawmilling SA, attended, just to receive the message on the morning that Deff, who should have chaired the meeting and presented terms of reference for reforestation, could not attend.
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