World Rainforest Movement

The FAO insists: monoculture tree plantations are forests!

The FAO insists on the increasingly difficult mission of defining tree plantations as “planted forests.” Its latest contribution to this aim is a publication titled “Planted forests in sustainable forest management — A statement of principles”.

The document states that “FAO further adopts an important role in facilitating an informed public debate about the controversy of planted forests and in supporting major stakeholder groups, including the public, to better understand the role of planted forests in integrated ecosystem management and sustainable development.”

However, FAO does exactly the opposite: it does not facilitate an informed debate, it misinforms the public and the only major stakeholder it actually provides support to is the corporate sector involved in large-scale tree monocultures.

The starting point is to confuse the issue. The FAO knows very well that the real “controversy” about what it calls “planted forests” is not about the plantation of trees –native or exotic- but about the establishment of large-scale, fast-growth monoculture tree plantations. The FAO tries to hide that type of plantation within what it calls “a continuum of appearances from strictly protected conservation forests, to highly productive, short-rotation plantations.” It concludes that “In this continuum the boundary between planted and naturally regenerating forests is often indistinct.” Clearly not a very useful –or scientific- conclusion for facilitating an “informed debate”, though highly adequate for plantation companies: the boundary “is often indistinct.”

However, the FAO knows very well that the “boundary between planted and naturally regenerating forests” is extremely distinct, for instance, in the case of large-scale eucalyptus or pine tree plantations in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Uruguay, South Africa, Swaziland –to name but a few.

Those are the types of plantations that are at the centre of the debate that FAO is trying to confuse. Let’s compare those plantations with the benefits that FAO says derive from “planted forests”.

According to the FAO, “planted forests yield a diverse range of wood, fibre, fuel and non-wood forest products for corporate and smallholder investors pursuing commercial or subsistence purposes.”

The above is clearly not applicable to large-scale tree monocultures, which only yield one product –wood- for corporate investors pursuing commercial purposes. To illustrate this point, we recommend readers to see the impressive picture of the mechanized harvesting of a eucalyptus plantation on page 5 of FAO’s document.

The FAO goes on to say that “They can also provide a number of social and environmental services, ranging from rehabilitation of degraded lands, combating desertification, soil and water protection, sequestering and storing carbon, recreation and landscape amenity.”

Again, the above is not applicable to large-scale fast-growth tree monocultures, that are not established on degraded lands –because the trees do not grow fast enough- that deplete soil nutrients and water resources –thereby promoting desertification- that do not store carbon –because the trees are harvested in short rotations- and that convert the landscape’s amenity into a monotonous sea of identical and even-aged stands of trees.

The FAO even argues that “Planted forests conserve genetic resources”. How can Australian eucalyptus conserve genetic resources in Thailand or South Africa? How can Asian gmelinas fulfill that role in Costa Rica? How can US or Mexican pines conserve Chile’s or Swaziland’s genetic resources? The obvious answer is: of course they can’t!

The above few examples show that if FAO was truly interested in an “informed debate”, it should have distinguished between different types of plantations, some of which can undoubtedly be socially and environmentally beneficial while others can be extremely damaging in both ecological and social terms. Within such approach, it should have concentrated on the really controversial type of plantation, described by FAO within its “continuum of planted forests” as “highly productive, short-rotation plantations”, which most people prefer to more aptly define as “deserts of trees”.

But of course that’s simply not possible, because the FAO has taken on the role of defending precisely that type of plantations.

A close look at the 10 “Principles for responsible management of planted forests” included in this FAO document shows that they are mostly aimed at providing advice to the corporate sector as to where and how to plant tree monocultures without getting into too much trouble and at creating an “enabling environment for investment” in large-scale tree plantations.

As part of that “enabling environment”, the FAO goes as far as pushing for the inclusion of plantations within the REDD mechanism being discussed by governments at the Convention on Climate Change. Ignoring the fact that REDD has not yet been approved, the FAO states that “planted forests” “can also complement and supplement the REDD and REDD-plus initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.” Which can of course only happen if monoculture tree plantations continue to be defined as “planted forests”.

Fortunately, the scientific community is also joining the voices of those who have for years been challenging FAO’s unscientific definition of forests. Such is the case of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, whose recent resolution calling for “new forest definitions” “clearly distinguishing between native forests and those dominated by tree monocultures and non-native species” is included in this bulletin.

Will the FAO ever acknowledge what is so obvious for so many people: that plantations are not forests?

Comments on: FAO (2010).- Planted forests in sustainable forest management — A statement of principles