The past year has indeed been a challenging and difficult year for all.
We have suffered the biggest retraction of the economy and unprecedented job losses, realities experienced by all Sectors of the economy. For the Forestry Sector, this came on the back of depressed international markets and low international prices. Even before the impact of Covid-19 and the onset of the subsequent lockdown, the Sector saw a 14% decrease in year-on-year volumes by end of March. At the peak of lockdown, volumes had decreased by 25% year-on-year with the effect felt across all timber products. Yet the Sector has been performing well in weathering the storm, being declared as essential goods and services played a huge role, saving the Sector over R10bn and countless jobs that could have been lost as they were in other sectors. It should also be noted that during this period, the South African Forestry Sector did not decrease investment, maintained high operational levels and supported the opening of many related sectors enabling the Forestry Sector to continue its increased investment as committed to in the Presidential Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI).
As we near the end of the year, it is positive to note the Sector is indeed recovering well and much quicker than the cynics predicted. At the end of August, we saw a 6% improvement from the 25% lower year-on-year slump in May, to 19%. Although we expect sawtimber and pulpwood sales to remain under pressure for the remainder of the year, the faster than anticipated recovery suggests a far more positive outlook for our Sector then was predicted in May and can be attributed to a proactive, responsive and resilient Industry. We should not forget our Industry collaborators, including our research partners and service providers, who need to be commended for their efforts and their continued support of the Sector. The immense value of the Industry’s collective approach and the importance of combining the efforts of all involved in this valuable value chain certainly are made clear during challenging times.
Looking forward, if Forestry is to contribute to the country’s recovery, it will require a collective approach between Government and the private sector, a process already put in motion through the PPGI and the recently approved Forestry Masterplan. Some of the low hanging fruit these initiatives offer include the expansion of forestry areas and subsequent job creation, transformation, development of new enterprises and the protection of natural resources (that will receive increasing pressure due to increasing unemployment). This will, without doubt, also result in socio-economic development initiatives that benefit local communities.
Still, significant uncertainty remains. It is difficult to predict the rate of economic recovery. We are not sure what the effect of the resurgence of infection levels in the northern hemisphere will be. We are not sure for how long we will continue living with Covid-19. We can, however, be sure the Forestry Sector, as a collective, will remain resilient and continue to utilise all our resources to mitigate the impact this pandemic has on our Sector, the sectors reliant on our timber and the South African economy as a whole.
Dr Ronald Heath