Johannesburg used to be claimed as the world’s largest man-made forest. Taking account of the fact that our ‘world class city’ boasts some 10 million trees, the claim was eminently justified. Apparently, however, in China there is now a man-made forest covering 500 000 square kilometres.1 We’ll settle, then, for the largest urban forest.

The National Forests Act 1998 is more concerned with natural forests, however, as well as woodlands and plantations. Falling under the authority of the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Act aims to promote the sustainable management and development of these ‘forests’ for the benefit of all citizens. There are various provisions for restructuring state-owned forests, for the protection of certain forests and trees, the promotion of community forests, and so on.

Forests are not just there for fun, or to consume carbon dioxide and exude oxygen in their photosynthesis.2 Trees form an invaluable resource for products used in mining; construction; leather tanning; flooring; roofing; sports equipment; tools; furniture; fuel – and, of course, paper.

For all intents and purposes, the Act is administered on a day-to-day basis by the Director-General in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, who works in conjunction with the National Forests Advisory Council. In turn the Council has two permanent committees – for Sustainable Forest Management, and Forest Access.

A. Sustainable forest management

This Committee advises the Minister on, amongst other things, criteria and standards for assessing and enforcing sustainable forest management. The Minister will then promulgate these as seen appropriate.

  1. If the breach of a particular standard is declared to be an offence, a forest officer can inform the land owner in question of steps he must take to remedy the breach, and set time periods within which to do so. It is an offence to fail to take such steps, within the period set.3

B. Natural forests and protected areas

  1. It is a crime to cut, disturb, damage or destroy any indigenous tree in a natural forest except under a licence granted in terms of the Act.4 5

  2. In certain cases, the Minister can declare areas, such as nature reserves or wilderness areas, as ‘protected’. The Minister will,6 then, also set rules for the management of the declared area. It is an offence to cut, disturb, damage or destroy anything growing in that protected area, as well as objects of mineral, historical, anthropological or cultural value (so-called ‘forest produce’).7 Any person who contravenes any of the management rules set for a protected area commits an offence.8

  3. The Minister can, also, declare certain forest areas to be ‘controlled’. In doing so, he can prohibit rights of access, suspend any licences that may have been granted, prohibit the removal of forest produce, and so forth. He can also require the owner to submit management plans, and to take specific steps to prevent deforestation, or to rehabilitate the land. Any person who contravenes any such prohibition or direction commits a criminal offence.9

  4. It is a crime to cut, disturb, damage, destroy, remove, or receive, any forest produce except if you have a licence or authorisation in terms of the Act.10

  5. It is, by the way, a crime to kill anything in a protected area – animal, bird, insect or fish – unless you have a licence or authorisation in terms of the Act.11

  6. Any person who removes any forest produce without the permission of the registered owner of the area is guilty of an offence.12

C. Protected trees

The Minister can declare a particular tree, a group of trees, a particular woodland, and even trees belonging to a particular species to be ‘protected’ in terms of the Act. The Minister can even declare any tree or group of trees to be temporarily protected. The following prohibitions are subject to permission being granted under the Act.

  1. It is an offence to cut, disturb, damage or destroy any protected tree or group of trees.13

  2. It is an offence to possess, collect, remove, transport, export, purchase or sell:

    • any protected tree or group of trees;14or
    • any forest product derived from a protected tree or group of trees.

D. The use of forests

  1. It is an offence, without authority, to enter or be in an area of a forest which is not designated for access for recreation, education, culture or spiritual fulfilment.15

  2. It is a crime to damage, remove or interfere with any beacon, boundary, fence, notice board or other structure in a forest, without authorisation.16

  3. It is even a crime, without authority, to make a mark or sign on a rock, building, tree or other vegetation in a forest.17

  4. Dumping or scattering litter in a forest is also an offence.18

  5. The managers of state forests are obliged to prepare a map showing areas designated for access, the rules for access, restrictions, and so forth. It is a crime to contravene any of these rules.19

  6. Public access to privately owned forests is encouraged by the Act and the Minister. The owner of a private forest may, if he wants, lodge with the Minister a map showing areas designated for public access, with a set of rules recording the conditions on which he is prepared to allow access. Any person who contravenes any of these rules commits an offence.20

  7. If you are granted access to a forest other than a state forest, it is a crime to invade the privacy of the owner or to cause damage to his property.21

  8. The Minister can give permits (licences) for certain activities to be carried out in state forests. Any person who carries out an activity without a licence (where one is required), or who fails to comply with the conditions of any licence granted to him, is guilty of an offence.22

E. Forest officers

The Director-General can designate, and appoint, people as ‘forestry officers’. These officers have extensive powers of entry, search, seizure (of anything actually, if he thinks it might be evidence of the commission of an offence) and arrest.

  1. Any person who refuses or fails to produce the licence permitting his activities in question at the time is guilty if an offence.23

  2. If you prevent or hinder a forest officer in the exercise of any of his powers, you are guilty of an offence.24

  3. Any forest officer who:

    • solicits, or receives, or agrees to receive any payment or reward (a bribe, in other words) for doing anything in conflict with his duty;25 or
    • solicits or receives, or agrees to receive any payment or reward (other than his normal remuneration) for doing what is his duty;26 or
    • trades in forest produce,27 or acts as an agent for someone trading in forest produce,28

    is guilty of an offence.

List of protected tree species common names

  1. – ‘Is Johannesburg the world’s largest man-made forest? The claim is a myth.’ 

  2. Technically plants do not convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Basically, they convert carbon dioxide into sugars in a process called carbon fixation and which needs water – whose molecular structure, of course, contains oxygen. The oxygen is then released as a by-product in this process. See:;; and Wikipedia. 

  3. Section 4(8) read with section 61. 

  4. The Act also refers to exemptions to this prohibition, as promulgated by the Minister. Government Notice 773 of 4 August 2007 contains exemptions, but none apply to this prohibition. 

  5. Section 7(1)(a) read with section 57(1)(i) read with section 62(1). 

  6. Section 62(2)(a) read with section 10(1). 

  7. The exceptions to this are if so doing is in terms of the management rules, or where under a licence or exemption. 

  8. Section 62(2)(b) read with section 11(2)(b). 

  9. Section 62(3) read with section 17(3) and (4). 

  10. Section 63(2)(a) and (aA). 

  11. Section 63(2)(b). 

  12. Section 63(3). 

  13. Section 62(2)(c)(i) read with section 14(2) or section 15(1)(a). 

  14. Section 15(1)(b) read with section 62(2)(c)(ii). 

  15. Section 63(1)(a). 

  16. Section 63(1)(d). 

  17. Section 63(1)(e). 

  18. Section 63(1)(f). 

  19. Section 20(3) read with section 63(1)(b). 

  20. Section 21(2) read with section 63(1)(b). 

  21. Section 63(1)(c) read with section 21(5). 

  22. Section 63(4) and section 63(5). 

  23. Section 64(1)(a) read with section 24(8). 

  24. Section 64(1)(b) read with sections 67, 68 or 69. 

  25. Section 64(2)(a). 

  26. Section 64(2)(b). 

  27. This does not apply if it is grown or produced on his own land. 

  28. Section 64(2)(c).