The numbers varied a little from time to time, but 23 participants on the Tri-Nations forest and forest industries study mission returned from the South American continent with many great memories and profound impressions.
The group, from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, led by Evan Shield and Jim Bowden, travelled no less than 1800 km in one of the most intensive and rewarding studies ever of the forest industries in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
And what a continent it is! Whether it’s the splendour of the Andes (rising majestically from the outer suburbs of Chile’s capital Santiago), the magnificent sweep of the Uruguayan-Argentinean pampas, the grandeur of the Iguacu Falls, the enormous richness of the rolling, up-state agricultural lands of Parana (Brazil), the beauty and solemnity of re-discovering 17th century Jesuit ruins in the appropriately named Argentine province of Misiones, or the superlative natural setting of Rio de Janeiro … this is a continent with outstanding natural features and a complex but intriguing history.
It is also one populated by some of the friendliest people on Earth and, we must acknowledge, some of the more dedicated forest sector professionals.
They made us welcome beyond reasonable expectations and, in the process, forged new foreign friendships which we trust will be enduring and mutually rewarding.
But less readers gain the impression that this study tour was all memorable sight-seeing and conviviality, let us assure them the participants worked hard, made early starts and late arrivals and were able to enjoy only four dayd of please-yourself leisure.
In 20 full days in South America, from September 15 to October 5, the group visited two research centres, a large furniture manufacturing facility, a plywood mill, a rotary veneer mill, a sliced veneer mill, a paper mill and a mill producing both MDF and OSB.
They saw the over-capitalised and the under-capitalised, the large and the small, the good and the bad, the primitive and the highly sophisticated.
Perhaps the greatest differentiation was that many of the facilities visited were more strongly committed to export markets, reflecting limited domestic demands and/or currency exchange rate advantages.
And we visited the plantation forests … often magnificent forests with a high order of professionalism. We regret we did not manage to view a stand with a three-figure MAI of commercial volume production. We had to settle for a phone of one. However, we did see a four-year-old clonal E. grandis plantation in Corrientes, Argentina, that was not far short of that mark.
High-quality sites, excellent growth rates and freedom from pests and disease were, perhaps, universal features of the forests visited. With lesser consistency, we also witnessed clearly successful tree-breeding programs and outstanding silvicultural management regimes.
In combination, these features provided little room for scepticism, that the owners/managers for clear-wood sawlog production in as short a time span as 15-16 years would not be realised. Truly, their advantages appear permanent and unassailable.
As yet, it is early days for most lumber and veneer products of the South American plantation forests. However, study tour participants – from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – would surely concur that the imminent maturity of the better-managed and more extensive ‘second generation’ plantations will deliver an enormous competitive advantage.
This advantage will derive not only from the quality and cost of the raw log materials becoming available, but also from the scale on which conversion and processing facilities can be constructed.
In the near future, the world’s largest hardwood sawmill, inevitably, will be built in South America and it will be cutting eucalyptus logs.
International markets should have little excuse for not making an over-due transition from unsustainable tropical rainforests products to those from plantation-grown, and typically FSC certified, South American substitutes.