Sustainable forest management in South Africa

Every South African citizen has the Constitutional right for the environment to be protected for future generations. Natural forests, wooded areas and plantations form an important part of South Africa’s ecology and economy and, as such, it is important that these natural resources are managed in a sustainable manner.

The National Forests Act (the Act) is the main piece of legislation that is applicable to the regulation of 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 and the National Water Act and, as such, forms part of a network of legislation aimed at regulating the sustainable management of natural resources.

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

The entity responsible for the implementation and enforcement of 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 certain measures, standards and criteria with which any person or entity that is involved in forestry must comply.

The Department also has the power to declare certain areas and tree species as protected, and to identify which areas and species include special protection under the Act and which may not be cut down, damaged, destroyed, disturbed, removed, transported, bought, sold or in any other way obtained, except if a special license 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 bring about an endorsement on the title deed of the land on which a protected area or tree species is found, which endorsement would notify prospective transferees of the property that a protected species or area is found on the land. 

Even though the Department’s powers and authorities in terms of the Act is wide, the execution of the Department’s powers is heavily regulated by the Act.  The Act makes provision for certain principles that officials of the Department must take into account before a decision in terms of the Act is made. These principles include the following:

– Natural forests must, as far as possible, not be destroyed.  As such, natural forests may only be destroyed in exceptional cases where the Department is of the opinion 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; and

– Forests and wooded areas must be managed in such a way that the biological diversity, ecosystems and habitat that they form a part of stay protected, that the potential economic, social and ecological advantages connected thereto are managed sustainably, that the health of forests and wooded areas is promoted and that other natural resources, such as water and land, are protected.

Lastly, it is also important to take note that, should a person or entity fail to take heed of the provisions of the Act, such person or entity may be punished by means of a fine, compulsory community service, imprisonment for a maximum of 3 years or a combination of these punishments.


This article is intended for information purposes only and is a brief exposition of the abovementioned legal position. Mention is not necessarily made of all the finer nuances as set out in the abovementioned legislation. This article should under no circumstances be construed as formal legal advice. Contact VDT Attorneys for assistance in this regard. 

December 8, 2020

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