Tiempo Climate Newswatch
Plantations Are Not Forests
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Monoculture tree plantations continue spreading throughout the tropics and sub-tropics. The ones we are chiefly concerned about are characterized by being large-scale (tens or hundreds of thousands and even millions of hectares), planted as monocultures and composed of fast-growing species, such as eucalyptus, acacias, gmelinas and pines, some of which are now being cloned for even faster growth.
Field trials are already under way in a number of countries with genetically-modified trees aimed at producing higher yields of a more uniform type of wood to serve the pulp and paper industry's economic interest.
Vast areas of land are already covered by fast-growing tree plantations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania and even in some European countries (Spain and Portugal) and the southern United States. The Mekong Region countries are no exception. Large-scale plantations were first developed in Thailand, but later spread to Vietnam and are now spreading in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Burma.
The obvious question is: what is the reason for so many plantations, composed of the same species, being implemented in so many countries?
The official and corporate answers to that question is usually to present them as a solution to counter deforestation. In all cases they are portrayed as "planted forests" or "forest plantations" that will increase "forest cover," thereby having, so they say, an environmentally positive impact. At the same time, official and corporate publicity stress plantations' capacity to generate employment and wealth at the local level.
None of the above answers are true. Plantations are not forests. On the contrary, they result in negative impacts on soils, water, plants and wildlife. Having none of the positive environmental effects that forests have, plantations can in no way be considered as part of any country's 'forest cover'. Even more, they should be considered as the final blow to the forests they substitute, because they eliminate the possibility of any natural forest regeneration.
Regarding people, large-scale tree plantations result in net employment losses at the local level. The few and low quality jobs they create in no way compensate for the employment and livelihood means they destroy. Large expanses of forest and agricultural land which provide for the subsistence needs of local communities are taken over by plantation companies, resulting in the impoverishment of local communities. The promised wealth never materializes - except in distant cities where company shareholders pocket the resulting profits.
The true reasons for the promotion of these plantations are directly linked to a set of Northern-based interests, ranging from the pulp and paper industry to the appropriation of the atmosphere by Northern polluters.
The powerful pulp and paper industry is at the forefront of the plantation invasion in the South. Its aim is to ensure supply of cheap raw material to allow it to expand its ever increasing paper sales. While using the argument that people need more paper, the industry hides the fact that most of the paper produced is disproportionate to real needs and its consumption is concentrated in the affluent North.
While the average per capita paper consumption in the United States is estimated at 330 kilograms per year, the figure drops to 40 kilograms in Brazil, 38 in South Africa (both large producers and exporters of pulp) and 30 in Thailand. It is clear that it is the industry's and not the peoples' need for pulpwood which is behind the promotion of vast plantations of fast-growing trees in the South.
Travelling in the same boat are a numerous set of other interests, such as machinery suppliers, consultancy firms, export-credit agencies, private and multilateral banks, as well as local elites, forestry departments, research institutions and others.
A new set of actors has more recently also become involved in the spread of plantations as a result of a decision by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that accepted tree plantations as 'carbon sinks'. This needs some explanation.
The North has for years been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through the emissions of its massive use of fossil fuels, creating global climate change. The only sensible solution is to drastically reduce these emissions by changing to non-fossil fuel energy sources such as solar or wind energies, but powerful economic interests, led by the oil and gas industry, oppose such a move. Instead, they put forward the idea of tree 'carbon sinks'.
Trees grow through photosynthesis, which implies that they take carbon dioxide from the air, release the oxygen and convert the carbon into wood. All of which is, of course, true. However, these corporate proponents go on to say that planting many trees will "compensate" carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, which will be "sunk" into the growing trees. This is, of course, untrue.
The reason for this being untrue is simple. Carbon from fossil fuels is not part of the functioning of the biosphere. It is safely stored under the surface of the Earth unless humans extract it, which is what has been happening since the Industrial Revolution. Conversely, trees are part of the functioning of the biosphere and the most they can do is to incorporate the carbon released to the atmosphere by deforestation. One tonne of carbon from fossil fuels is not equivalent to a tonne of carbon stored in trees.
As long as fossil fuels continue being extracted from the sub-soil, the more the carbon pool will increase above ground and climate change will accelerate even further.
However false the solution is, the fact is that it has been adopted and, if implemented on a large scale, will entail more problems to local people in the South.
The second question is: why are these pulp or carbon plantations being implemented in the South, while both the pulp/paper industry and the major polluters are based in the North?
The answer is that the South, particularly regions with tropical and sub-tropical environments, have a number of advantages. Firstly, Southern environments allow for much faster tree growth than in the North. In countries such as Thailand or Brazil, a tree can be harvested for pulp eight years after having been planted, while it can take decades in the North to reach the same size.
Secondly, land is much cheaper in the South and can be leased or bought for substantially less than it would have cost in the North. Thirdly, labour is also cheap and can be made even cheaper through working conditions that would be unthinkable and unacceptable in northern countries. Weak law enforcement regarding the environment and working conditions is also an asset to increased profitability. But an even greater advantage for profitability is through the direct and indirect subsidies which local governments are advised to put in place for the promotion of plantations. This advice of course invariably comes from Northern 'donors', consultants and multilateral institutions. Another added bonus is state repression to local peoples' opposition to plantations or pulp mills.
The end result is the establishment of extensive plantations throughout the South, to either serve as carbon dumps and/or to supply the pulp and paper industry with vast quantities of cheap and homogeneous raw material to feed its pulp mills (increasingly built in the environmentally and socially cheaper South) for the consumption of paper in the North.
In spite of having governments, corporations, 'expert' bodies and mainstream 'science' on their side, plantation promoters still face a major obstacle. That is, local peoples and their allies. This is where the main battle is being fought.
Experience has taught local communities that these types of plantations are a major threat to their livelihoods and that they need to oppose them. Alliances are being built at the local, national, regional and international levels and a global movement against plantations has emerged in both South and North. Its message is transparently simple - plantations are not forests! This simple message, though, carries within an implicit message which talks about people's rights, forest conservation, cultural and biological diversity, water, climate and livelihoods, all of which are readily understood by participants in this movement and, in particular, by the local people directly affected by plantations.
The balance is shifting. Opposition is on the rise and plantations are being challenged in an increasing number of countries, ranging from Brazil to South Africa, from Thailand to Chile, from India to Cambodia. Local people are standing up to defend their rights and are joining the global struggle against a plantation model which has already proved to be socially and environmentally negative. Large-scale monoculture tree plantations must, and can, be stopped.
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Tiempo Climate Newswatch