Can’t see the wood for the desert

Isaac Rojas looks at the spread of ‘green deserts’ swallowing up vast tracts of the global South

January 16, 2013
9 min read

Providers of ‘ecosystem services’, ‘carbon sinks’, sources of renewable energy, job creators, tax providers, solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises – these are just some of the positive images of industrial tree plantations (ITPs) being painted by the private and state interests pushing for their expansion. Growing and processing trees for profit is a major and expanding global industry, an industry with a highly destructive face.

ITPs have been the focus of widespread resistance across the global South for several decades. The reality is that they have a deeply destructive impact on communities, local economies and biodiversity. They are not a solution to climate change, nor to biodiversity loss. They cause numerous problems in many countries, including my own, Costa Rica.

A plantation, not a forest

A forest is a complex, biodiversity-rich, self-regenerating system, consisting of soil, water, a microclimate and a wide variety of plants and animals in mutual coexistence. Forests host more than 70 per cent of our planet’s terrestrial biodiversity. In contrast, an ITP is a uniform agricultural system geared to the production of a single raw material. ITPs are typically large-scale, intensively managed, even-age, monoculture plantations, mostly of fast-growing trees, including eucalyptus, pine, acacia, gmelina, oil palm and rubber.

The trees and their products are generally harvested mechanically for industrial processing to produce products such as pulpwood, paper, timber, wood energy, palm oil and biodiesel/ethanol. The plantations tend to cover very large areas, from thousands to hundreds of thousands of hectares, and are typically owned and promoted by corporate actors, often with significant state involvement and support. Calling a plantation a ‘planted forest’, a label that the plantation industry is keen to promote, is highly misleading and betrays the reality of the destruction caused by this intensive agro-industrial model.

Rise of the monoculture plantation

While ITPs are present in the global North, their recent expansion has been concentrated in the global South. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the area of ‘planted forest’ in the South increased by more than 50 per cent between 1990 and 2010, from 95 million to 153 million hectares. The FAO estimates that a further 40 to 90 million hectares will be planted by 2030, not including the predicted rapid expansion of oil palm plantations.

The expansion in the South is driven primarily by the consumption and economic actors of the North. According to Simone Lovera of the Global Forest Coalition, ‘Plantations form part of an industrial model for the production of abundant and cheap raw materials that serves as an input for the economic growth of industrialised countries.’ While China’s footprint is rapidly growing, the EU and US still consume most of the final products of ITPs. EU and US corporations, banks and investment funds are the key players and the main drivers and beneficiaries, attracted by the cheaper land and labour in the South, weaker environmental regulations and the higher wood productivity per hectare.

Although the expansion of monoculture tree plantations dates back to colonial times, the significant rise of ITPs is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Their development was accelerated by the structural adjustment programmes imposed on countries in the South by neoliberal international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In return for credit, governments were forced to liberalise their trade regimes and offer incentives and subsidies for export-oriented activities such as ITPs.

Bad for people, bad for the planet

The expansion of ITPs is wreaking havoc on the environment, biodiversity and existing communities. Globally around 1.6 billion people rely on forests for their livelihoods and wellbeing, including 60 million indigenous people who are entirely dependent upon them for their food, medicines and building materials. While local communities and indigenous peoples consume tiny quantities of the end products, they suffer considerably as a direct result of the plantations and their expansion.

Monoculture plantation expansion is a major driver of land grab, displacing entire communities and denying them their land and livelihoods. Compared with small-scale agro-forestry and community forest management, ITPs offer few employment opportunities. The use of cheap migrant labour and mechanised harvesting and processing results in a significant reduction in the overall number of livelihoods that can be sustained by a given area, while those lucky enough to find employment are vulnerable to precarity and labour rights violations.

The expansion of ITPs is therefore a key driver of a wider process of large-scale impoverishment, displacement and disenfranchisement, denying people their means of subsistence and independence, alienating them from their labour and those aspects of their cultures deeply related to and dependent on the forest, dismembering their communities, and forcing them into cities in search of highly precarious and poorly paid employment. The process of establishing and expanding plantations is also very commonly associated with violence, with community members suffering repression, torture and even death at the hands of state and private security forces serving the interests of the plantation owners.

Contrary to the claims of the corporations associated with plantation agriculture, ITPs are also highly environmentally destructive. Large-scale plantations often replace existing forests and are thus a direct cause of deforestation; there are comparatively few cases where they have been established on degraded land. The negative effects of these ‘green deserts’ on biodiversity are well documented. One study reported in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution in 2008 found that the conversion of primary rainforest to oil palm plantation resulted in the loss of more than 80 per cent of species.

Once established, thirsty fast-growth ITPs deplete water resources, change local and regional hydrological cycles, pollute rivers, streams and other water resources and degrade soil with their intensive use of pesticides and other agrochemicals. A recent report in Nature, moreover, showed that while old-growth forests store carbon for centuries, plantations and young forests are actually net emitters of carbon due to the disturbance of the soil and the degradation of the previous ecosystem.

Who benefits?

Government policies continue to promote the establishment of ITPs, and in bigger economies such as Brazil and China the state is often a part or total owner of companies involved in ITPs. However, the main drivers of ITP expansion are the private sector and neoliberal multilateral institutions such as the World Bank. Many of the corporate actors are from the global North, especially from countries with strong wood-based industries, including Finland, Sweden, Germany and the US. The Finnish company Jaakko Poyry, for example, is active in the plantation and pulp sector in 30 countries, with sales of £550 million in 2010.

Other key private sector players and beneficiaries include:

  • The world’s ‘big six’ pesticide manufacturing corporations – BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta – whose pesticides are heavily applied to large-scale monoculture tree plantations
  • Private banks specialising in agribusiness funding, including the European banks especially important for the pulp and paper and oil palm sectors
  • Investment funds from the global North, which are moving into a more dominant position in the land and forest market
  • Private financial institutions and players benefiting from the expansion of carbon and biodiversity trading and offsetting being promoted under the auspices of international processes such as the UN climate negotiations
  • Environmental consultancy firms profiting from the certification of carbon and ecosystem services necessitated by the expansion of trading and offsetting schemes
  • Fossil fuel companies trying to get a foothold in the expanding global market for so-called ‘biofuels’ and ‘bioenergy’
  • Big GMO industry players who are testing genetic alterations aimed at increasing the profitability of ITPs with very little monitoring and oversight from governments

    Multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, its private arm the International Finance Corporation, and regional development banks are helping to promote ITP expansion through direct loans and investment and helping to leverage further private sector finance. Meanwhile ITP corporates are using their significant financial power to lobby governments and international processes to guarantee increased profitability and new expansion opportunities. They have succeeded in getting the FAO and World Bank to define plantations as forests, as carbon sinks and as providers of ecosystem services, thereby both undermining and benefiting from global efforts to reduce carbon emissions to tackle climate change and to mitigate forest and biodiversity loss.

    Together, these interests have ensured that ITPs and their products form a central part of the destructive, corporate‑led ‘green economy’ agenda increasingly being promoted by governments and UN agencies. This agenda is just a greenwashed version of the same old unsustainable neoliberal economic model.

    No such thing as a better plantation

    The destruction wrought by monoculture ITPs will not be solved by monitoring and certification schemes. Such schemes serve only to legitimise the plantations and facilitate their further expansion.

    To stop the destruction we need multiple changes, including efforts to promote community management of forests; to halt the perverse support that our governments give to the ITP sector; to secure recognition and protection of the land rights and territories of indigenous and traditional peoples; to promote food sovereignty – the right to sufficient, nutritious, healthy, ecologically-produced and culturally adequate food; and to tackle the excessive and unsustainable consumption of forest products such as pulp and paper by the North.

    Affected communities across the global South are putting their lives at risk to claim their rights and protect and reclaim their forests from plantation expansion. They need solidarity from activists and social movements around the world, as well as our efforts to change the dysfunctional economic system and power relations at the heart of this and many other environmental problems.

    Isaac Rojas is coordinator of Friends of the Earth International’s forest and biodiversity programme, based in Costa Rica


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