World Rainforest Movement

Asia: Carbon plantations may prove to be problematic

Asia has been the most affected region by the substitution of forests by tree monocultures, which has resulted in negative consequences both at the local and global levels. Indigenous peoples and local communities have a history of resistance to this type of forestry development. In spite of that, carbon forestry appears to be on the rise in this continent.

In INDIA, government officials have stated that more than 60 million hectares of “non-forest wastelands and open scrub forest lands” can be considered available for undertaking tree plantation activities. Even though Indian plantation promoters consider plantation as “a benefactor and friend to villagers and tribals”, reality shows that monocultures –mainly based on eucalyptus– have provoked severe environmental and social impacts, resulting in opposition movements from local affected communities. India was in fact one of the first countries to witness radical struggles against monoculture tree plantations.

In spite of that, the Asian Development Bank considers that there is a potential of more than 24 million hectares in this country to be transformed into carbon sink plantations. According to the Bank, 83 tonnes of carbon per hectare would have been captured at the end of 40 years. And that is all that seems to matter; the Bank does not appear to be concerned about the fact that a renewed push to the expansion of eucalyptus monocultures in India, would repeat the well known history of impacts and ensuing local struggles.

Also CHINA has become a target for carbon sink plantations, and the Japanese industry –one of the most important contributors to global warming through its greenhouse gas emissions– is responsible for it. To skirt the responsibility of diminishing emissions at home, the powerful industrial lobby is trying to find a way out by planting trees in China.

In 1998 the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren), proposed the project to Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he visited Japan. Under the guise of restoring forest resources destroyed by an extensive flood, and counting on financial support from JICA, corporations like Oji Paper, Sumitomo Forestry, Nippon Steel, Tokyo Electric Power., and Mitsubishi would occupy 100,000 hectares of Chinese territory with tree monocultures. According to its promoters, the project would “absorb” an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to 6-7% of the total emissions of Japan’s paper industry in 1997. The companies hope this project will offset some of the 6% cut in emissions (from 1990 levels) Japan is required to achieve by 2010. And at the same time they aim at greening their low image in relation to the environment.

Officials from MALAYSIA have recently expressed that oil palm plantations could be considered better in “absorbing” carbon that other fast-growing species. This country is the most important palm-oil producer in the world and its palm plantations have generated large-scale impacts. As a result, oil palm has raised resistance from indigenous communities, whose lands have been invaded by this monoculture. What officials don’t say is that huge areas of forests have been cleared to make way to those plantations, thereby resulting in a negative carbon balance: more carbon released by deforestation than that sequestered by the planted palm trees. Additionally, those forests that were destroyed were not only carbon reservoirs but especially the home and source of livelihoods for many people who lived there, many of whom were probably forced to find new means of subsistence by opening up new forest areas, resulting in further carbon releases.

In turn INDONESIA is undertaking a project to identify alternative technologies using sinks in the forestry sector. The project is supported by the U.S. Country Studies Program, which “provides financial and technical assistance to developing and transition countries for climate change studies”. Given the past history of Indonesia, such elegant wording might mean that large-scale tree plantations –which have resulted in deforestation and dispossesion of indigenous peoples– could be further promoted as carbon sinks.

Asia is a perfect example of a region where carbon sink plantations make no sense at all … except for Northern countries willing to “sink” instead of cutting emissions. Only very narrow-minded climate technocrats are capable of not seeing that carbon sink plantations are at odds with other much more important issues such as food production, watershed and biodiversity conservation –to name but three– which should be at the core of any decision affecting the use of natural resources. What for carbon-accounting technocrats matters is only the measuring of tonnes of carbon sequestered, regardless of the human and environmental cost of such exercise. In Asia it might prove to be a very difficult task.