Research and Development: an essential element of sustainable forestry

Dr Ilaria Germishuizen – ICFR: Group Leader – Sustainable Forest Research


To ensure forestry is sustainable, both today and in the future, we as a sector need to be continually investing in research and development (R&D), innovative technology and capacity building. We also need to consider how best to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow, putting in place plans today that will help us navigate these in the future. Today, the challenge is sustaining productivity, in a constantly changing environment on a fixed land base. In the future, the challenge will remain the same, but the environmental changes are likely to be more pronounced as climate change is increasingly felt and its impact amplifies the current threats to forest productivity like pests and diseases and water security.

R&D, innovative technologies and capacity building will play a central role in helping the sector navigate these threats to productivity while reducing its environmental footprint and enhancing the social benefit it provides. It must be remembered, that sustainable forestry goes beyond sustained productivity and is based upon three interconnected pillars: economic, environmental and social sustainability. When considering how we as an industry are to achieve true sustainability, we need to look at the problem across all three. We cannot focus on one at the expense of the other two and expect our platform to remain strong.

Over the past decade, forestry has made huge leaps forward both in terms of sustainability and productivity and it has been the industry’s investment in R&D that has facilitated this. The use of innovative tools like spatial technologies and remote sensing have both improved and extended our research capabilities. Their practical application, at ground level, has ensured they become an integral part of forest management. Going forward, as the costs of using drone, lidar or satellite technologies continue to drop they will become increasingly available and can be used across an array of forest management areas – from the identification of clones to investigating soil types and everything in between. While I may be biased, as the ICFR Spatial Technology falls under my remit at the ICFR, I truly believe this technology has revolutionised forestry in South Africa and will continue to do so.

Looking forward, I think we will begin to realise both the impact our investment in R&D is having but also a greater need for R&D. Climate change and the predicted increase in the threat posed by pests and disease will see R&D tools and disciplines, like gene editing and tree breeding, come into their own, as we look to change our approach to pest and disease control and seek species that are more resilient to the changing weather patterns predicted. I think future challenges will require a willingness to adapt the way we work and to an extent, have a mindset shift in the way we approach R&D going forward. We are still, to a large extent, working in silos and keeping our data and findings to ourselves, despite many of the issues being countrywide, if not global. Data ownership is a challenging issue, one that is linked to a competitive advance, but in a world where the challenges we face are intrinsically connected and often cannot be addressed in isolation, we need to start working together and adopting the global R&D trend of developing big data sets and platforms that can be mined for answers to cross-sector issues. I believe this is the only way we will ensure forestry remains sustainable in the future.

The good news is that cross-sector collaboration is currently happening, certainly within the ICFR which has been providing a platform for industry collaboration since 1947 and will continue to do so. The changes ICFR has had to undertake in recent years have been both difficult and painful, with the loss of valued colleagues, but it has also forced the ICFR to reflect and realign its properties. We will continue to hold the Eucalyptus genetic base on behalf of the industry and maintain our wattle and eucalypt breeding programmes, but we are also focusing on developing platforms and capacity building that is aligned with industry needs. These focus areas include sustainable forestry management and forest protection and projects that include the Spatial Technology Platform, the ICFR analytic lab and our specialised forestry library. Central to all of these projects is cross-sector collaboration, working closely with the likes of FABI and industry partners to develop and align new ideas. It is an exciting time to be involved in forestry R&D.


Meet Dr Ilaria Germishuizen – ICFR: Group Leader - Sustainable Forest Research

A biologist by training, Ilaria specialised in animal ecology before moving over to forestry in 2002. Her early career focus on small mammal ecology, biodiversity and conservation both in Europe and Southern Africa equipped Ilaria with the spatial technologies skillsets and ecological modelling training to start unravelling the ecological role played by commercial forests in the South African landscape. Now the Group Leader of ICFR’s Sustainable Forest Research, who still conducts active research and mentors students, Ilaria is a role model for any woman wishing to pursue a research-based career in forestry.