World Rainforest Movement

South America: The push for carbon sink plantations

In the last decades several South American countries have been the scenario of the expansion of tree monocultures –basically eucalyptus and pines– mostly devoted to pulp production. The newly created carbon market can mean a renewed push to further expand this activity, this time with a new or additional purpose. In fact, forestry companies and some governments are very enthusiastic about the idea of using part of the already existing plantations and installing new ones to serve as carbon sinks.

Embattled by their respective external debts, thus considering every foreign investment as a potential source of fresh monies and turning a deaf ear to the increasing criticism over this forestry model, several governments both in tropical and temperate regions of the continent –including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia– are playing a double role. On the one hand offering their support to private companies to implement carbon sequestration projects through plantations, and in line with this, trying to promote the inclusion of tree plantations in the CDM at the Convention on Climate Change process.

In ARGENTINA the government has been favouring investments in plantation projects since 1998. During the Convention’s Conference of the Parties (COP4) held in Buenos Aires, the former Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources María Julia Alsogaray expressed very clearly that her country was in favour of voluntary commitments by non-Annex I countries to counteract global warming. Since then, the government has been favouring tree plantations. Oil and forestry companies have quickly embraced the idea, which would allow them not only to earn money but also to appear as concerned with global warming –the same that they so much contribute to generate– to the eyes of public opinion. Formerly state-owned oil company YPF –now privatized and associated with Repsol of Spain– is implementing pine plantations in the south of the country, while Shell already owns more than 32,000 hectares in Buenos Aires and Corrientes provinces. Forestry companies are also active in this regard: Pecom Forestal owns pine plantations in several Argentinian provinces, which will be “reconverted” to carbon sinks, and is negotiating carbon emissions permits with the German companies that are involved in the controversial Chubut-Prima Klima agreement to sequester carbon in Chubut province. The local NGO coalition Foro del Buen Ayre, which was very active during the COP4 negotiations, has recently severely criticized the Argentinian government’s approach to global warming and its support to carbon sinks, due to the negative social and environmental consequences of this type of forestry.

Neighbouring URUGUAY is also seeing with good eyes the option of plantations as carbon sinks. Forestry officials and foresters –which in reality are one and the same– are trying to convince public opinion that the country’s cattle-related methane emissions are very high and that the country could “compensate” them by establishing carbon sink tree plantations. Additionally, they consider that with the present area of 500,000 hectares occupied by plantations of eucalyptus and pines the country could receive up to U$S 40 million a year from the carbon offset market. It is interesting to underscore that since 1989 the Uruguayan state is spending a yearly sum of about U$S 20 million as subsidies to plantation companies. National social and environmental NGOs are highly critical about their government’s position.

Surprising it may seem, Argentinian and Uruguayan authorities seem to have forgotten that grassland soils are rich in organic matter, which means that they constitute huge carbon reservoirs. The effect of plantations on these reservoirs is uncertain and presumably negative. Instead of dreaming of risky forestry megaprojects, a useful contribution of countries located in the temperate region to curbe global warming would be to conserve soils and grasslands –with the additional positive effect on biodiversity and water conservation.

The enthusiasm of CHILEAN officials regarding carbon sinks is really worrying. Not only because this country has provided the model for other South American states to promote the forestry sector, but also since powerful Chilean forestry companies are entering other Southern Cone countries. The Chilean model has proved at home to be completely unsustainable, both from an ecological (it provoked the destruction of vast areas of forests in the South) and the social point of view (plantations have invaded the Mapuche indigenous people traditional lands).

The idea of tree plantations as carbon sinks has had until now a cold reception in BRAZIL. Nevertheless, the project of “carbon-sequestering trees” promoted by Peugeot can be a good example of what can happen in the future in case the present trend prevails. Suddenly concerned with global warming, in 1998 Peugeot launched a project to convert 12,000 hectares of “degraded” lands into plantations in the State of Mato Grosso, which would remove 180,000 tonnes of carbon a year at the low cost of U$S 12 million. Local people and the environment had to pay for the really high cost of the project, since during land preparation for the plantation 5,000 litres of glyphosate were spread, which reached nearby water courses, producing an ecological disaster.

At present the most relevant case that shows how dangerous carbon sink projects in the forestry sector can be is that of the FACE project in ECUADOR. In a thesis work of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the social and environmental impacts of the pine plantations in the Andean Páramo carried out by the Dutch electricity consortium FACE were analyzed. The Páramo is a grasslands highland region in the Ecuadorian Andes, which are crucial for the maintenance of the hydrological cycle and for biodiversity conservation. It is inhabited by indigenous people communities, which live on agriculture and cattle breeding. The FACE project aims at establishing 75,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations there to “compensate” for the companies’ emissions of carbon dioxide in The Netherlands. The study proves that the carbon uptake by FACE’s pine plantations has proved to be far below the expected figure. Moreover, the plantations can produce the effect of promoting the oxidation of the soil organic matter, thus resulting in emissions of carbon to the atmosphere and a negative carbon balance. At the local level, the study shows the negative impacts of plantations on the economy of the indigenous communities that before the project could live there through a wise management of this fragile ecosystem. In this case, plantations are not only a false solution to global warming –resulting in a negative carbon balance– but they can also distort sustainable cultural and economic systems.

In sum, it is clear that for South American people and environment, the promotion of carbon sink plantations will only exacerbate problems at the local level. However, governments are being pushed into this scheme by a number of interested parties –local and international, private and public– who have much to gain in the carbon market game … but for whom the true issue at stake –global climate change– seems to be more an excuse to earn money than a problem that needs to be addressed.