Sappi Research Chair at Wits marks a milestone year of climate action.

Fire season predictions equip forestry industry with more resilience.

It’s been an eventful year since the Sappi Chair in Climate Change and Plantation Sustainability was launched at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). As we celebrate another World Environment Day on 05 June the Forestry team at Wits reflects on a year of significant progress, characterised by collaboration and dialogue.

Under the guidance of Professor Mary Scholes - an internationally recognised authority on tree physiology and climate change- the team has pioneered research and capacity-building initiatives that equip the forestry industry to navigate the challenges of climate change. With the southern hemisphere’s winter heralding a forecast of scant rainfall, the insights provided by the Wits Research Chair to the forestry industry on El Nino impacts and the risk of increased wildfire prevalence in the 2024 fire season in South Africa’s plantation regions, is just one of the crucial areas where this research is proving to be invaluable.

Wits visit to Sappi Forests
The Wits team during their visit to the Sappi Forests Shaw Research facility at Tweedie

“Although we are routinely proactive in this regard, these predictions from the Wits team will lead to us intensifying our annual fire readiness measures. This includes collaborating with our neighbours to ensure that fire prevention methods like fuel load reduction and fire breaks are properly implemented and maintained,” said Duane Roothman, Vice President of Sappi Forests. “Besides protecting our assets, and that of our surrounding communities from the risks of wildfire, this important research work will help us to be more resilient in future-proofing our assets. Like all other crops, our trees are negatively impacted by climate change, and although we practice climate-smart forestry and while our own Sappi research teams have been hard at work developing drought-resistant genotypes, for many decades, this collaboration at an industry level is essential for us to continue to thrive,” he said.

The Wits team is spearheading sustainability by bolstering plantation forestry climate resilience. Since its establishment, the team has fostered industry collaboration through workshops and partnerships and has participated in several influential speaking engagements sharing insights on climate change with key stakeholders, including the DFFE (Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment).
“The forestry industry in the country is benefitting enormously from the funds made available for the Research Chair at Wits. Through the frequent workshops held over the last 18 months, the appreciation for climate data and its sharing, has grown with all stakeholders, “commented Professor Scholes.

Professor Mary Scholes
Professor Mary Scholes

Climate data are being refined for user-friendly access and will soon be available on a platform, hosted by the University of Pretoria, improving industry-wide data utilisation and further academic collaboration. The past year has seen a notable increase in data adoption by partners, alongside the development of three scientific publications and ongoing student mentorship. The anticipation is high for the arrival of two postdocs to meet the growing demand for collaborative research.

By hosting technical data analysts, the team has facilitated the effective use of regional climate data, tailoring support to match the varying expertise levels within the industry. Their expertise was further recognised with invitations to join the FSA’s Climate Resilience and Technical Task Teams, contributing to resolving weather data challenges. On-site interactions at Sappi’s facilities underscored Wits’ commitment to the Forestry Seed Innovation Fund (FSIF) Climate Resilience Programme, where they continue to lead and manage pivotal data-centric projects.

“The partners from Universities, Industry, and Forestry South Africa are for the first time working closely together on the details of plant responses to climate change and the application of the climate data. A better understanding of extreme events and seasonal changes is also underway,” said Prof Scholes. “In 2025, we will continue with the climate modelling workshops, streamlining the accessibility of climate data, examining the changing fire regimes, and linking plant responses to climate change at variable spatial and temporal scales; from leaf level to plantations. We thank Sappi for the ongoing collaboration,” she said.

“In light of the United Nation’s World Environment Day 2024 theme, focusing on ‘Land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience,’ the forestry sector’s commitment to sustainable woodfibre production is a beacon of hope,” commented Giovanni Sale, GM Sustainability for Sappi Southern Africa. “As urban populations swell, Sappi’s Thrive business strategy aligns perfectly with this vision, championing responsibly sourced, sustainable woodfibre as a green alternative to fossil-based products. With rigorous certification and traceability, and by supporting this important work on climate change, Sappi is securing a sustainable woodfibre supply and fortifying the fight against climate change for a more resilient future, “ he said.

Sappi Chair announcement
Giovanni Sale


“By supporting this important work on climate change, Sappi is securing a sustainable woodfibre supply and fortifying the fight against climate change for a more resilient future."
Giovanni Sale
GM Sustainability Sappi SA