The Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS) – Making forest certification effective for all scales of forestry

The Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS) has taken great strides during this Covid-19 lockdown towards levelling the certification playing fields in the forestry sector. With this ground-breaking approach, a system has been developed that will allow responsible plantation owners, communal and small scale growers, to access markets requiring certification in a credible and systematic way while addressing the key risks to sustainable forest management.

The project has been generously supported by the South African National Biodiversity Institute – United Nations Development Programme’s Biodiversity and Land-Use Project, Forestry South Africa, South African Pulp and Paper Industry (Sappi), NCT Forestry Agricultural Co-operative Limited (NCT) and Transvaal Wattle Growers Co-operative Limited (TWK).

To achieve this SAFAS developed a tool to assess and rank a particular plantation’s risks to sustainable forest management. For example, one plantation may be in an area where a number of factors makes fire risk high, while the soils and topography may result in a low risk to soil erosion.

Understanding the relative importance of risks is vital when deciding how much effort to allocate to a particular management activity. As a certification tool it demonstrates to the certifier and manager which aspects are irrelevant or have negligible risk so that focus can be on the important issues. The system is called the ‘Value-Based Platform’ because it is designed to help protect the values that exist within a particular forest setting.

There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the introduction of the SAFAS certification programme to Sappi plantations and NCT members’ farms. In the NCT’s experience, the first phase of rolling out the SAFAS system involved assessing 21 private farms and two communal areas against the SAFAS certification requirements using the Value-Based Platform.

In this phase the growers completed a questionnaire covering important aspects of their operations, allowing SAFAS to determine the key risks for each operation. The operations range from a mixed farmer growing 20 hectares of wattle, to a grower with over 600 hectares of gum and wattle, as well as wood-lot owners in two tribal authority areas.

A checklist for each operation has been generated and a programme of farm visits set up to cover the important aspects that need verifying on the ground. Based on the responses, some of the smaller operations appear to meet all of the requirements of the standard.

Operations that are addressing their key risks to sustainability can be certified under the SAFAS certification programme, which has been endorsed by Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) international, the largest certification system in the world.

An example of how the system works is that grower A, is a mixed farmer in the Greytown area with tribal authority lands and extensive grasslands on the northwest boundary. This grower’s efforts need to be directed towards maintaining a good relationship with that community because a number of risks such as fire, poaching and timber theft depend on it.

In this case the farmer works with the community to burn a fire break on their boundary. This farm is mostly flat with few wetlands in the timber areas. Soil erosion and impact on water resources are low risk and this is reflected in the risk assessment. This frees up the farmer to deal with the essential management aspects.

Woodlot owners in a communal area only have management control of the portion of land that is allocated to them by the Tribal Authority. In such cases the system takes this into account, guiding the woodlot owners to those aspects which are under their control.

Phase 2, field verification, was due for completion at the end of July. After this, growers that comply will be certified under SAFAS. Phase 3, third party verification will happen once the international flight ban is lifted, allowing third party auditors, based in the UK to evaluate the scheme. At this stage growers can sell to PEFC markets.

The BLU project is one of the partners that developed the SAFAS, and consequently the ‘Value-Based Platform’ that allows small and communal growers to manage their plantations sustainability and in turn produce quality timber and other materials that can be sold at premium rates on the national and international markets.

The BLU project is being implemented by SANBI, with funding from the Global Environment Facility through the UNDP.

For more information, please contact Steve Germushuizen via email at steve@aes.co.za.

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