FSC-certified plantations suck Sudwala caves dry

Philip Owen of Geasphere in South Africa circulated this statement and article about the impacts of Sappi’s FSC-certified plantations on the water flow in the Sudwala Caves.

Here’s what Sappi’s plantations look like – it’s difficult to imagine that anything could be more of a monoculture:


Dear FSC Stakeholders

With the International Symposium on Plantation certification to be held in Stellenboch, South Africa later this month I would like to direct your attention to the following matter.

Industrial timber plantations composed of alien timber species (primarily eucalyptus and pine) have a major impact on the water resource of Southern Africa. In the heavily ‘aforested’ Mpumalanga region there has been significant negative impacts on stream-flow, sub-surface water replenishment and the capacity of the land in general to absorb and retain the water. As a result, many streams and fountains which used to be perennial have ceased flowing completely.

This is not only due to the fact that fast rotation, high impact timber use a lot of water for growth, but also due to other associated factors such as water being ‘intercepted’ by canopy and leaf-litter: evaporating before being able to penetrate the soils.

In addition – major damage has been done in the recent runaway plantation fires (which is becoming more frequent due to the plantation induced de-hydrated conditions). The top soil is literally baked hard – which worsens the hydrophobic effect and further inhibits water penetration. We await the spring rains with a sense of urgency but trepidation – no doubt the soil damage will again lead to major erosion of valuable soil.

I put it to you that just in terms of water use impacts – the ongoing promotion through certification of the destructive industrial timber plantation model is irresponsible.

A case in point – the world renowned Sudwala Caves are drying out – dry conditions compounded by a maturing FSC certified pine plantation in its catchment area.

(article copied below).

For more information please visit www.geasphere.co.za – which contains information about the Sudwala Caves and some of our correspondence with FSC.


Philip Owen


Pine plantations suck Sudwala Caves dry

by: André Bakkes


NELSPRUIT – A work of art that’s been in the making for approximately 3 000 million years is being threatened by industrial timber plantations.

For countless centuries, man have been awed to silence by the magnitude of the Sudwala Caves. One would hear nothing but the squeal of bats and the drip… drip… drip of water. Now, the acidic water trickles reluctantly down the ancient formations, slowly corroding what took Mother Nature millennia to create. According to Mr Philip Owen, the chairperson of Geasphere, the acidity is a problem, but the fact that the amount of water that gets through to the cave is even bigger.

“A dry cave is a dead cave,” says Owen before explaining that a cave is considered alive while it grows. “We first noticed a few years ago that some of the ponds above the caves were drying up. We knew it would have an impact on the caves and now we see the full effects.”

The property above the caves now belong to Sappi and the pine trees that were planted there has nearly reached maturity. The trees are about 15 to 20 years old and, besides the fact that they use a lot of water themselves, the pine foliage plays a massive role in hindering the natural process of water seeping through to the caves. It is also a known fact that rotting pine needles are extremely acidic, which is one of the reasons why so little grows on the ground around these trees.

Owen also explains what an impact canopy interception can have on the caves when he mentions the massive hindrance the pine needles can have on groundwater. “When it rains, the water is absorbed by the foliage and evaporates before it can seep through. For the first time ever, measures have now been implemented by cave management to control the dust by hosing down sections of the cave.”

It is very important to note that there are several reasons for the drying up of the caves and it is not only due to the plantations above. The Lowveld is currently experiencing one of its driest periods in living memory, but according to Owen the plantations definitely play a big role. “This, compounded by the evergreen industrial timber plantation may just be too much for the system to tolerate,” says Owen. In countries like Canada, it is illegal to grow plantations above karts ecosystems (landscapes formed through the solution of rock in which caves are a common feature).

Owen has been in contact with Sappi, trying to get them to acquiesce, but to date he has had no success. An area of roughly 50 hectares is affecting the groundwater above the caves. Ms Elsabe Coetzee, spokesman for Sappi, responded by saying that Sappi was well aware of the problem at the Sudwala Caves. “The caves are important to the Lowveld and we will conduct an environment impact assessment over the next few months to determine what the impact of plantations are on the groundwater,” she said.

Coetzee added that Sappi would consider either selling the plantation or cease planting there should the tests prove that it has an adverse effect on the caves.


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