Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Lindiwe Hendricks, says forests and trees play an important role in rural, economic development and in sustaining the livelihoods of the poor.
Speaking during Arbor Week celebrations in Qunu in the Eastern Cape on Tuesday, Ms Hendricks said Government needed to do more to create jobs and to help uplift people, especially those from rural areas, through trees and forestry.
Themed "Plant a Tree - Grow our Future" this year's Arbor Week highlights the value of trees in ensuring sustainable economic development and how trees and forests contribute towards creating a better life for all.
"In adopting this theme we are recognising that forests and trees are a very important part of the lives of people in rural areas, and that as the Government we need to do more," said the Minister.
She said expanding forests created employment and business opportunities, as well as actively contributed towards the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa.
"However, trees and forests take many years to grow so an investment today will yield rewards for our children - like we nurture our children, we need to nurture our trees and forests to protect them, particularly against damage from fires," she advised.
The Eastern Cape is a region that has been recognised as being of national importance in the future development of the forestry sector. In this regard, the minister called on leaders, government officials and communities to work together in making this potential a reality and a success.
Over the past few years work has been done to increase the economic impact of forestry in the Eastern Cape.
Last year, the former Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Buyelwa Sonjica announced the launch of the Strategic Environmental Assessment for Forestry in the Eastern Cape.
To this end, a study has been concluded as the first step in the department's programme for the development of the forestry sector in the Eastern Cape.
The study confirmed that the province had the potential to support at least 100 000 hectares (ha) of new plantation forestry. This is to be developed over a 10 to 20 year period and will require close collaboration among three spheres of government, traditional leaders, and communities.
According to Ms Hendricks, this development will create 5 000 new jobs on plantations in the province and will generate returns of more than R500 million per annum for participating communities.
"This province has a wealth of indigenous forest resources, high in biodiversity. My department is making a concerted effort to make the benefits of forests and trees accessible to all our people," she added.
Another initiative underway in the provincial sector is the Participatory Forest Management Programme. This initiative involves local people, including women and the youth in the management of their natural resources.
Regarding the protection of the resources, the minister urged all stakeholders and communities to make the control of fires a priority.
"While we are spending resources on developing new forests, the existing plantations are under threat from uncontrolled burning and arson," she said.
It is estimated that annually, veld and forest fires cost the economy R3 billion to R5 billion, resulting in job losses and withdrawal of investment from the province.
The department has established an active unit that will assist farmers, forestry companies and communities to set up Fire Protection Associations in an attempt to proactively address the problem.