South African Forestry Company Ltd (Safcol), in collaboration with key government stakeholders, has launched an exciting initiative aimed at raising the profile of forestry as a strategic resource that has the potential to deliver solutions to many of the country's biggest challenges.
The initiative was launched at a two-day 'Forestry Industrialisation''conference held in Johannesburg recently. The Departments of Agriculture Forestry & Fisheries, Public Enterprises, Trade & Industry and Rural Development and Land Affairs are Safcol's 'partners' in the initiative, and were participants at the conference.
The initiative has been welcomed and endorsed by industry partners including Forestry SA, Sawmilling SA, Institute for Timber Construction, plus researchers, academics and private sector stakeholders.
The core message that forestry could be a game-changer in terms of unlocking rural development, creating jobs, boosting diverse downstream industries, breaking new ground through technology and innovation, driving transformation, carbon sequestration and mitigating climate change, is nothing new. This has been the essential message that FSA and other industry associations have been peddling for years.
The mere fact that the state forestry enterprise plus four government departments have seen fit at this moment in time to stand up in public and sing from the same hymn sheet - with four deputy ministers in attendance - is nevertheless highly significant.
Whether it translates into meaningful action and progress across the numerous fronts where the decisive and positive action is sorely required in order to begin to realise the sector's potential, remains to be seen.
Understandably, some industry insiders who have grown tired of the government saying one thing and then failing to put their money where their mouth is when delivery of services or financial resources is required, remain sceptical.
Some of the black conference delegates also voiced their impatience with the slow pace of transformation in the industry, and called for 'radical economic transformation'. One delegate raised the issue of what he perceived as the "theft" of state forestry assets which have been acquired by the private sector. This a reference to the long term leases over state forestry land granted to private sector companies.
Nevertheless, the intention of the Forestry Industrialisation initiative is sound, the commitment from role players appears to be genuine. So this conference could very well signal a turning point in the fortunes of the forestry sector that has been constrained by contradictory and investor-unfriendly regulation, and a lack of government support for decades.