Every South African citizen has the constitutional right to have the environment protected for future generations. Natural forests, wooded areas and plantations form an essential part of South Africa’s ecology and economy, and as such these natural resources must be managed sustainably.

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The National Forests Act, 1998 (Act 84 of 1998) (the Act) is the primary legislation regulating sustainable forestry. The Act was compiled and promulgated in the same era as various other pieces of environmental legislation, such as the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (Act 107 of 1998) and the National Water Act, 1998 (Act 36 of 1998). As such it forms part of a network of legislation aimed at regulating the sustainable management of natural resources.

Function of the Act

Essentially the Act aims to protect wooded areas, endangered forests and tree species and to promote community involvement in sustainable forestry. It also protects natural forests, wooded areas, plantations (but not orchards), any yields from these areas and the ecosystems of which these areas form a part.

The entity responsible for implementing and enforcing the Act is the Department of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry (the Department). The powers vested in the Department by the Act include the authority to establish specific measures, standards and criteria with which any person or entity that is involved in forestry must comply with.

The Department also has the power to declare certain areas and tree species as protected and to identify which areas and species enjoy special protection under the Act. These species may not be cut down, damaged, destroyed, disturbed, removed, transported, bought, sold or in any other way obtained, except if a special licence in terms of the Act is issued for such action or if one of the Act’s exclusions is applicable.

The Department is furthermore vested with the power to request the Registrar of Deeds to add an endorsement to the title deed of the land on which a protected area or tree species is found. Such an endorsement would notify prospective transferees of the property that a protected species or area is located on the land.

Regulation of authority

Although the Department’s authority in terms of the Act is far reaching, the Act stringently regulates the exercising of such authority. The Act makes provision for certain principles that officials of the Department must consider before a decision in terms of the Act is made.

These principles include the following:

  • As far as possible, natural forests must not be destroyed. These forests may only be destroyed in exceptional cases where the Department believes that the destruction (and the proposed new use of the land) is justified on economic, social and ecological grounds.
  • A minimum quantity of each type of forest and tree species may not be destroyed. In addition, forests and wooded areas must be managed in such a way that the biological diversity, ecosystems and habitats they form part of stay protected. The potential economic, social and ecological advantages associated with these species must be managed sustainably and the health of forests and wooded areas should be promoted. Furthermore, other natural resources, such as water and land, must be protected.

A closing thought

It is also important to note that should a person or entity fail to take heed of the provisions of the Act, such a person or entity may receive a fine, compulsory community service, imprisonment for a maximum of three years or a combination of these. – VDT Attorneys

This article is intended for information purposes only and is a brief exposition of the abovementioned legal position. The finer nuances as set out in the abovementioned legislation are not necessarily mentioned. This article should under no circumstances be construed as formal legal advice.