The illegal timber treatment industry in South Africa is becoming increasingly bold, stealing drums of CCA in broad daylight and even starting to conduct armed robberies, in the face of years of inaction by the authorities.
Charges have been laid with police in cases where known theft of the preservative is taking place but little is done. It seems that either the police are scared of going to the illegal treatment sites or they have a vested interest, says Bruce Breedt, Executive Director of the South African Wood Preservers Association (SAWPA).
The industry is trying to address the problem, but the authorities are doing very little, he said.
“The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NCRS) inspectors visit treatment plants that are legitimate, verifying that their paperwork is in order and their NRCS levies are paid, but they drive past hardware stores and builders yards selling illegally treated poles, and nothing is done.
“The fact that this is an illegal activity seems not to bother the authorities. They acknowledge that they have a capacity shortage and say that the regulations are not punitive enough to take proper sanctioning action, and other such other arguments. They seem to be looking for excuses, as there has been no real effort from the NRCS to address their own shortcomings.”
Legal treaters are impacted and concerned that the illegal industry is stealing their business. They are also angry at having to pay levies to the NRCS as the regulator – which was not necessary when the SABS had oversight – while the organisation fails to do its job.
“Government must not make the mistake of thinking that this is job creation. It is deliberate criminal activity and creates funding for the activities of criminal syndicates.”
The illegal treatment has burgeoned since 2009 when the NRCS took over the duty of enforcement from the SABS timber department. The SABS used to enforce and charge illegal treaters under the Consumer Affairs (Unfair Business Practices) Act, and before that the National Forests Act.
The major hotspots for illegal treatment are Limpopo, particularly the area from Polokwane towards Tzaneen and Louis Trichardt, and KwaZulu-Natal, particularly around Pietermaritzburg, Pinetown, most of the Midlands, towards Harding and Port Shepstone, and the Zululand areas.
Some treaters in KwaZulu-Natal believe that more illegally treated than legally treated poles are available in hardware stores and builders depots.
There is uncertainty regarding how bad the problem is in the Eastern Cape, as the timber treatment industry is fragmented and smaller in the province.
There have been reports of thefts of CCA drums, with over 30 taken in one instance, and theft of small quantities of CCA now occurs daily. Operators and other plant workers are believed to be siphoning off these small amounts of the preservative that can be dip-treated or painted onto large numbers of poles, which inevitably fail months later.
In 2018, the NRCS investigated some illegal treaters in Limpopo that SAWPA had reported. This reduced the problem to an extent but there were no follow-ups, and in such cases, the illegal treaters are known to simply move on to a different site. No know action has been taken against any of the numerous informal hardware and builders yards selling illegal poles.
Illegally treated poles are typically sold by small hardware stores in rural areas and used to build shacks, fencing and kraals. Consumers, mainly from rural communities, pay considerably more for these poles than for untreated ones, assuming that they are properly treated and will endure. However, they are deceived – and soon disappointed.
“Government must not make the mistake of thinking that this is job creation. It is deliberate criminal activity and creates funding for the activities of criminal syndicates,” Bertus observed.
Consumers can identify properly treated poles by the anti-split silver plate on the end of CCA poles, which should exhibit a SABS, SATAS or ACT stamp of approval; an abbreviation of the plant name; the Hazard class e.g. H4; and the last two digits of the year of treatment. The anti-split plate must cover at least 35% of the pole ends. Some illegal treaters have put plates on their poles, but these are generally blank.
SAWPA is actively trying to make people aware of the problem and has approached several online marketing platforms, including Facebook, OLX and Gumtree, in an effort to remove the advertisements placed by illegal treaters. This is an ongoing process. SAWPA has also posted information on the Facebook pages of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo community newspapers.
“It is hard for the industry to remain calm and patient, as it feels overwhelmed by the threat the illegal industry poses.”
“We’re talking to Forestry SA to see how our two organisations can be of assistance to each other, as in many cases the pole material, along with the preservatives, is suspected to be stolen. The growers’ sector has also formed various timber theft forums,” Bruce said.
SAWPA battled for almost eight months to get the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to a meeting about the issue and followed up with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) at the end of 2018, including DAFF in the process. The meeting with DAFF was finally held in August this year.
The acting Director-General of DAFF asked Bruce to put together a concept note, which was sent in August. The NRCS has subsequently said another meeting must be arranged.
“The section in the NRCS responsible for timber preservation has had rotating general managers for a long time but has finally appointed a full-time general manager. He has responded to say a meeting must be arranged, and we’re waiting to ensure DTI and DAFF can attend,” said Bruce.
“There is hope for potential progress. It is hard for the industry to remain calm and patient, as it feels overwhelmed by the threat the illegal industry poses. Timber treaters are angry that the illegal treatment continues in full view.
“At the moment, the industry is sceptical about potential assistance from government. However, we choose to remain confident that we will receive co-operation from government once they realise the enormous threat this poses for industry, labour and business.”