By Dr Ronald Heath, FSA Director Research and Protection
The impact of a disease on society has never been more prominent. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of strategic action plans that are supported by expertise to provide the essential knowledge base and capacity for implementation of measures to both protect and nurture. Furthermore, this approach needs to be proactive rather than responsive, enabling the identification and mitigation of threats from new pests and diseases before they take hold. This is an approach illustrated by the Forestry Sector in response to the ever-present threat of both current and future pests and pathogens.
Even though the Sector is privileged to have some of the best minds addressing these threats, complemented by highly functional organisational structures and supported by significant financial investment from the industry, pests and diseases remain a threat to its competitiveness. Investment and efforts, including research activities and the diligent monitoring of current pest and disease distributions, have proven reasonably effective in reducing these threats and enabling timeous and adaptive responses. It is however recognised that greater resources are required to manage the ever-escalating threat our Sector faces.
This year has compounded the pest and disease challenges our Sector faces. Even though most of the Forestry Sector was designated as an essential service and enabled Forestry South Africa (FSA) members to continue operations, the COVID pandemic has resulted in depressed markets with members reporting 25% lower harvested volumes than the same time last year. Coupled with the low international pulp prices since mid-2019, this will, without doubt, see financial investment decrease in 2021. Added to this is an expected decrease in 2021 of the already limited public funding due to the State’s reprioritisation of budget to address Covid-19 and its effects. This, in turn, will make it increasingly challenging to fund essential sector commitments, including pest and disease research and monitoring.
Although public funding remains constrained, with some Government funding commitments for the last two years still not honoured, we have at least seen some positive progress with our relationships with the Directorate for Plant Health of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development. Through engagements with the Directorate, Forestry has been included in the National Phytosanitary Risk Forum. Our Sector has also invited the Directorate to participate in the National Forestry Pests and Diseases Committee. These new developments will improve our collaborative efforts to address new pests and disease threats.
The pandemic and associated national lockdown did not only pose financial challenges to our sector’s efforts to mitigate the impact of pests and diseases, but it also posed a threat to research projects and control programmes. This was a result of our reliance on partnerships with higher education institutions, which were not designated as essential services. As a result, numerous research projects, control programmes and field services were significantly challenged by the restriction. Our research and implementing partners need to be commended for being responsive and agile in the face of these challenges, ensuring that impacts were kept to a minimum.
We still face significant uncertainty regarding the future impact of COVID-19, with challenging times lying ahead. As a result, we will need to be more adaptive and creative in our efforts to manage the threat posed by pests and diseases. The Industry’s collective approach, on which we have relied so much in the past, will be increasingly important for us to weather the future challenges. We can also take comfort from the past; the Forestry Sector has shown itself to be resilient and able to rise above the challenges.
I would like to thank all partners, committee and workgroup participants for your commitment and sacrifices towards supporting healthy and productive forestry in South Africa. Through your collective efforts, we are moving forward and reducing the impact of pests and diseases. I am also excited to announce that the 2020 National Forestry Pests and Diseases Committee Annual Report has been completed and will shortly be submitted for approval within FSA structures, before being officially released. Once again, I would like to acknowledge the exceptional work of Jacqui Meyer who has once again surpassed expectations in compiling the report.