In early 2020, the Dolphin Bay Brief first highlighted what was then the growing threat of illegal timber treatment.
The problem has mushroomed into a national industry crisis.
Concerted efforts by the South African Wood Preservers Association (SAWPA) for the authorities to take action had little effect over the years. The National Regulator for Compulsory Standards (NRCS), which is mandated to prevent industry illegality, conducts raids only sporadically, addressing a miniscule proportion of the problem, and fails to follow up.
Meanwhile, the illegal industry continues to grow unabated.
“There has always been illegal dip-treating of poles and planks,” said Dolphin Bay’s Mark Duckham. “But it was minimal. You’d see the odd guy on the street here or there. Now, because of the lack of policing, it’s completely out of hand. It’s seriously impacting our industry.
“And make no mistake, it is an industry problem, for both creosote and CCA treaters.”
Chemical suppliers, treaters and SAWPA are powerless to stop it. “These illegal treaters are thugs,” said Mark. “They are armed gangs, and nobody wants to confront them because they’re scared of being taken out. The only people who can assist us are the NRCS, who have the clout of the government, and who have been successful before.”
“We all still pay our monthly NRCS fees, but we’ve pretty much given up asking them for help.”
Yet when approached for comment in June 2023, NRCS Media Specialist Daniel Ramarumo confirmed: “There have not been any raids on [illegal timber treaters] in the last six months. The last one was in June/July 2022 [sic]. We are busy planning the next raid. It is anticipated to take course in the coming months. August to be precise, in the Eastern Cape.”
That’s not six months but a full year without any action being taken.
One timber treater, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, expressed his frustration. “For the past five years at least, as an industry we’ve tried our best to work together to get the NRCS to tackle this, but there’s just been no response,” he said. “We all still pay our monthly NRCS fees, but we’ve pretty much given up asking them for help.”
What’s particularly galling is how brazen many of these illegal treaters have become. “Everything is done in the open, right next to the road,” another timber treater told us. “We know exactly who they are.”
The problem is compounded by the volumes of timber available to illegal treaters. “In the past there were rules governing this,” the treater told us. “If a contractor bought timber from the supplier, you’d have to tell them who you were going to sell it on to, and you had to be approved. It was very strict. Now there are no formalities. They just sell to anyone. That’s why illegal treatment has increased: the guys have so much more timber on their hands now. In the past they’d steal a few poles here or there, but now they can just buy a whole plantation. It’s become a very big operation, with a lot of money involved.”
“The problem was small when it started, and it could have been snuffed out,” said Bertus. “It’s now become a large criminal enterprise – and it’s just growing. Illegal treaters don’t care about the market, and legal treaters are forced to compete with sub-standard timber. Few wholesalers in the informal economy pay attention to who they buy their treated timber from. Many of them don’t care about the quality.”
“The illegal treatment and trade of timber has a definite impact on our industry, especially in the regions where the problems are rife,” said SAWPA Executive Director Bruce Breedt. “This is perhaps more applicable in the difficult economic times we now encounter, and one can only hope that the Department of Trade and Industry and the NRCS as the responsible regulator will soon address the human capacity and logistical shortcomings to enable greater control over the problem.”
With only one raid a year, and no policing at retailers, that is unlikely.