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Conservation & Environmental Matters


Dear All
Some on the Geasphere mailing list will remember an article regarding
this issue which was circulated more than two years ago.
For more information and updates about the Sudwala Caves and Rainforest
drying out visit:
Philip Owen


Pine plantations suck Sudwala Caves dry
by: André Bakkes

NELSPRUIT - A work of art that’s been in the making for approximately 3
000 million years is being threatened by industrial timber plantations.

For countless centuries, man have been awed to silence by the magnitude
of the Sudwala Caves. One would hear nothing but the squeal of bats and
the drip... drip... drip of water. Now, the acidic water trickles
reluctantly down the ancient formations, slowly corroding what took
Mother Nature millennia to create. According to Mr Philip Owen, the
chairperson of Geasphere, the acidity is a problem, but the fact that
the amount of water that gets through to the cave is even bigger.

"A dry cave is a dead cave," says Owen before explaining that a cave is
considered alive while it grows. "We first noticed a few years ago that
some of the ponds above the caves were drying up. We knew it would have an impact on the caves and now we see the full effects."

The property above the caves now belong to Sappi and the pine trees that
were planted there has nearly reached maturity. The trees are about 15
to 20 years old and, besides the fact that they use a lot of water
themselves, the pine foliage plays a massive role in hindering the
natural process of water seeping through to the caves. It is also a
known fact that rotting pine needles are extremely acidic, which is one
of the reasons why so little grows on the ground around these trees.

Owen also explains what an impact canopy interception can have on the
caves when he mentions the massive hindrance the pine needles can have
on groundwater. "When it rains, the water is absorbed by the foliage and
evaporates before it can seep through. For the first time ever, measures
have now been implemented by cave management to control the dust by
hosing down sections of the cave."

It is very important to note that there are several reasons for the
drying up of the caves and it is not only due to the plantations above.
The Lowveld is currently experiencing one of its driest periods in
living memory, but according to Owen the plantations definitely play a
big role. "This, compounded by the evergreen industrial timber
plantation may just be too much for the system to tolerate," says Owen.
In countries like Canada, it is illegal to grow plantations above karts
ecosystems (landscapes formed through the solution of rock in which
caves are a common feature).

Owen has been in contact with Sappi, trying to get them to acquiesce,
but to date he has had no success. An area of roughly 50 hectares is
affecting the groundwater above the caves. Ms Elsabe Coetzee, spokesman for Sappi, responded by saying that Sappi was well aware of the problem at the Sudwala Caves. "The caves are important to the Lowveld and we will conduct an environment impact assessment over the next few months to determine what the impact of plantations are on the groundwater," she said.

Coetzee added that Sappi would consider either selling the plantation or
cease planting there should the tests prove that it has an adverse
effect on the caves.

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