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Forestry and Water Conservation in South Africa: History, Science and Policy.

Forestry and Water Conservation in South Africa: History, Science and Policy

Brett Bennett and Fred Kruger

Australian National University Press, 2015, 266 pp. ISBN 9781925022834 (Print version) $28.00 (GST inclusive) ISBN 9781925022841 (Online)


This fascinating read covers an unusual topic for foresters and forest scientists. It is a thorough history of forest science and policy in South Africa, concentrating on the study of the hydrological influences of forests, the management of mountain catchments and the development of policy for forestry and water conservation. Ultimately these aspects were integrated in a comprehensive system run by a single, central ministry of forestry, responsible for manmade timber plantations, conservation of native forests and the management of a much more extensive area of non-forest land in the humid mountains regions of the country.

The book explains the evolution of this impressive science-based management system, its dependence on professionally trained foresters and the unique characteristics of forestry in South Africa. In an arid country, remarkably limited in native forest (<0.4% of the land area) and with few areas suitable for the growing of trees, a new kind of forestry was needed from that practised in India and Europe, where South Africa's first foresters were trained. By the time of the Fourth Empire Forestry Conference, held in South Africa in 1935, South Africa had the largest area (400,000 ha) of exotic tree plantations of any country in the British Empire (Bennett & Kruger 2013). The plantation area had been increased to 1.5 million ha by the mid-1990's, by which time the forest industry was supplying not only all the local timber needs but also generating a considerable surplus for export, and was responsible for 2.01% of the country's GDP.

Up to the middle of the Twentieth Century, South Africans held to the traditional European view that forests only do good things for water, namely, moderate climate, tame floods, filter water and sustain perennial flows. This perspective was particularly espoused by the French school of forestry as illustrated by the influence of Gifford Pinchot, trained at Nancy, in establishing the US Forest Service. But as is detailed in the fascinating paper by Vazken Andreassian (2004) this attitude goes back much earlier in European history, even to the writing of Pliny the Elder. By the 1920's and 1930's, such an optimistic view of forestry was strongly questioned by farmers who complained about reduced streamflow downstream of the expanding plantations.

To me the most fascinating historical titbit in this book is the high political profile enjoyed by forestry in South Africa during the early parts of the twentieth century. This included the personal interest of the botanizing Prime Minister and world statesman, Jan Smuts, pitted against his Boer War brother-in-arms, Denys Reitz, as Minister for Agriculture and Forestry and President of the South African Forestry Association. The high profile debate over the effect of plantations on water prompted, as recommended by a committee of the 4th Empire Forestry Conference, to the establishment of one of the most extensive and long-running forest hydrological studies in the world, based at the Jonkershoek Forest Research Station.

What makes the book such an easy and interesting read is that it is a story of people, often seemingly larger than life characters, rather than simply a dry record of institutions and policies. This personal approach is probably helped by the fact that one of the authors, Fred Kruger, is the grandson of one of the central players in the history, JDM Keet, at one time Director of Forestry in South Africa. Like many of the individuals in this history, Keet had an active interest in much more than conventional forestry, and he applied his mind to the bigger challenges of social issues, water supply, conservation of native vegetation, as well as a local timber supply. Kruger had his own distinguished career in forestry, becoming head of the South African Forestry Research Institute, the history of which institute is covered in this book. Brett Bennett, somewhat incongruously, is an American historian based in Australia and researching the history of forestry in the British Empire. The collaboration by Kruger and Bennett, though, is seamless and very readable.

But this book is more than a good read. This is thought-provoking history that provides insights and has the potential to inform policy making and planning. In any country where there are current or potential tensions between timber plantations and water supply, foresters and policy makers will find salutary lessons from the experience of South Africa.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of forestry in the British commonwealth, and those with an interest in South African history in general. But I think it will a very rewarding read to everyone involved in forestry in countries where the role of forests in water supply are still being debated.


ANDREASSIAN, V. 2004. Waters and forests: from historical controversy to scientific debate, Journal of Hydrology 291: 1-27.

BENNETT, B.M., and KRUGER, F.J. 2013. Ecology, forestry and the debate over exotic trees in South Africa', Journal of Historical Geography 42: 100-109.

Dr David F Scott

Earth & Environmental Sciences

FRBC Research Chair of Watershed Management

IK Barber School of Arts and Sciences

The University of British Columbia Okanagan

Kelowna, B.C. V1V 1V7

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Author:Scott, David F.
Publication:International Forestry Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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