Growing talent

Women are breaking down barriers in forestry


The association of humanity with trees dates back to the earliest human origins, making forestry one of the oldest forms of agriculture. One of forestry’s most persistent misconceptions is the outdated view that forestry is a male-only profession. In fact, the past five decades have seen women not just survive but thrive in forestry-related careers.

Moving into the 21st century, silvicultural and technological advancements have helped break down gender barriers. We are seeing successful women come to the fore in every role within the sector, from machine operator to chief financial officer. To dispel the “male only” myth, we asked six of the brightest, most dedicated and passionate staff women to describe their career in forestry, explain why they love working in forestry, and advise women who might be interested in entering forestry themselves.

The forester

Dorothy Makoetlana works at Stevens Lumber Mills as a silviculture forester. She has a BSc in Forestry.

“I manage the Stevens Lumber Mill plantation where we strive to produce the best quality saw timber with minimal knots. Part of my role is to ensure that operations are completed at the required standard and on time, both by our own employees and the contractors who work with us. Silviculture operations involve ordering seedlings, land preparation, planting, pruning, slashing, chemical weed control, tree enumeration, plantation mapping and firebreak preparation. We also respond to controlled and uncontrolled fires.

“I love being able to protect my farms from fire. During fire season, I wait for my radio to sound — just one call and I’m up. I want to get to where a fire has been spotted as quickly and as safely as possible. When I get there, I’m calm and start thinking of a way to control the fire and what resources I need. The satisfaction I get when everyone is safe and there has been minimal damage to a plantation or property is huge.

“Forestry develops legends! You must love it to do it as your work becomes your life. You must be dedicated, hands on and willing to do things on your own. To women who love a challenge, join the industry — every day feels like a huge accomplishment.”

The machine operator

Ephie Mogakane is a senior operator forwarder at SAFCOL. She has undergone Safcol Machine Operator Training and a CMO competency assessment. Forestry has been her career for 13 years.

“My job is to move logs from the field to the roadside. In the morning, we grease our machines and check them for faults, fill in the daily checklist, inspect the work area, attend toolbox talks and then start working. After a shift, we grease and check our machines again and report any problems before handing over to the next operator.

“I started out as a general worker, so forestry definitely provides opportunities for growth. It is also quiet and isolated, and the job is flexible.

“Forestry is a male-dominated industry but there is room for women too. Women like myself operate machines and there is scope to learn and improve. There are also many opportunities for growth, as long as you are willing.”

The tree breeder

Lizette de Waal is a tree breeder for York Timbers. With a BSc (Agric) Genetics and MSc Forest Science, she has nine years of experience.

“I assist with the management of York’s pine breeding programme which involves planning and coordinating annual operations to ensure that the nursery receives enough seed of the correct species for commercial establishment. I represent York at various industry forums to keep updated on developments and participate in collaborative projects.

“I love the balance between working outdoors and in the office. It enables me to improve my understanding of the environment and how it affects tree health and growth. In addition, I get to collaborate with people in a variety of fields involving tree improvement and conservation, climate change and the environment, pest and disease, silviculture and molecular genetics. Forestry also contributes to the local economy by creating jobs.

“Research in forestry is a great career to get into at the moment. There are a lot of exciting projects under way that will help us to gain a better understanding of how different species grow and respond to their environments. This will help us plant more sustainable forests in the years to come. It’s great to be a part of that!”

The communicator

Zelda Schwalbach is communications managers for Sappi Forests KZN. Qualified with a BA Communications, she has spent 18 years in the sector.

“In my role, I aim to achieve our objective of creating shared value that promotes local economic activity in rural areas where we operate, ensuring sustainability in all we do. In the process, becoming a trusted partner to our stakeholders, through building and maintaining a positive reputation, whilst also proactively managing risks that could impact negatively on our operations.

“Stakeholder engagement, risk and crisis management, branding, sponsorships and CSI programmes, media relations and employee engagement are all important aspects of this role; especially as the working environment itself is challenging and often geographically remote.

“Working in an environment which is blessed with producing an abundance of essential products from renewable resources - in a time when everything else is plastic, or causes harm to the planet - is quite inspiring! In addition, the forestry industry provides a wealth of opportunities for so many participants in the value chain – thousands of people are earning a modest living from this sector. There are many misconceptions out there relating to forestry – the most popular one being that we should ‘save the trees’ and use less paper. From a communications perspective, it remains one of our biggest challenges to slay some of these myths, and to continue spreading the good news about the wonders of wood fibre.

“Girls entering this sector should have a love and respect for nature, should know that they are going to be challenged in entering what is traditionally known as a very male-dominated environment; but also look forward to the fact that they are ultimately equipped to make a meaningful difference by contributing to creating shared value for our rural economies in their chosen careers.”

The geographer

Geographic information systems (GIS) technician at Mondi for three years, Nokukhanya Mthembu has a BSc in Geography and Environmental Management, a BSc Honours in Environmental Management, and is currently studying for her MSc in GIS and Earth Observation.

“I maintain Mondi’s spatial database, create maps, update roads, adjust compartment boundaries and write reports. I also use satellite images to monitor forests and work on various research projects.Working in forestry is fun! It allows me to utilise new technologies and work with different specialists within the industry. I love that I can apply GIS and remote sensing to different aspects of forestry like forest health monitoring and growth and yield assessments.

“If you want to work in an environment that is dynamic, consider forestry! It offers a variety of experiences.”

The tree farmer

Although her highest qualification is matric, Naddy Mbuyazi owns a 24ha forestry operation and was NCT Tree Farmer of the Year in 2015. She has been farming for 13 years.

“If you want the best results, you can’t run a forestry operation by remote control. Apart from planning silviculture and harvesting applications, I like to take a hands-on approach by working with my teams. It’s important to be directly involved.

“My late husband introduced me to forestry. It was hard in the beginning, but it has taught me patience and resilience. There are difficult times – like facing the possibility of losing your entire compartment to pests or diseases, but you learn to rise above these.

“With the correct mindset, you are bound for big success. Forestry needs people who have passion, are dedicated and who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.”

Compiled by Katy Louise Johnson BSc (Hons) PhD

Zelda_Schwalbach,_Sappi.jpg Nokukhanya_Mthembu_Mondi.jpg Naddy_Mbuyazi.png Lizette_de_Waal,_York_Timbers.jpg Ephie_Mogakane_SAFCOL.jpg Dorothy_Makoetlana,_Stevens_Lumber_Mills.png
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