World Rainforest Movement

The myth about tree plantations helping to protect forests

“Tree plantations help alleviate pressures on natural forests, thereby contributing to halt deforestation.” The wording may slightly differ from forester to forester and from plantation company to plantation company, but the above is repeated over and over again to convince the public that tree plantations are good and should be further supported and promoted if we wish to save the world’s forests.

The above may be true in some cases, particularly where local communities have planted trees to serve their own needs, but it is totally untrue when it comes to large-scale fast-growing tree monocultures. As this latter type of plantations spread at an increasing rate all over the world, deforestation continues unabated or even increases. If we look into the most “successful” plantation countries (Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa), we may find that plantations either increase deforestation directly or -in the best of cases- that they don’t play any role at all regarding forest conservation.

Chilean environmentalists have recently published “La tragedia del bosque chileno” (The Tragedy of Chilean Forests), which documents the destruction of its native forests. Being Chile one of the leading countries regarding tree plantations (more than 2 million hectares of exotic tree monocultures planted), this should have -in accordance with foresters and plantation companies’ assertions- prevented the destruction of its native forests. Unfortunately, the opposite is true and it has been proven that in many cases native forests have been substituted by plantations, thus becoming a direct cause of deforestation. In other cases, extensive areas of forests have been cut, chipped and shipped to Japanese pulpmills, regardless of the abundant plantation wood available for that purpose.

The same can be said about Brazil and Indonesia, both with extensive forests and millions of hectares of tree plantations, where deforestation continues increasing. In those two countries, logging and forest fires in many cases serve the purpose of clearing forests for the establishment of industrial tree plantations. Even in South Africa, with its more than 2 million hectares of eucalyptus and pine trees planted in non-forest areas, the few remaining native forests continue to be degraded.

A very specific and current example is provided by Smurfit in Venezuela (see article in this bulletin). This company has planted thousands of hectares of eucalyptus, pines and gmelinas to feed its pulpmill. However, the company has been an important factor of deforestation in the region. Firstly, because some of its plantations where implemented at the expense of the existing native forest. Secondly, because although many of its plantations are ready to be harvested, Smurfit has been feeding its pulpmill with cheaper raw material from native forests. Only now, the company has decided to halt its use of tropical wood, but not as a result of its commitment to environmental protection, beautifully worded in its web page (www.smurfit.ie). In fact, such decision was the result of the successful struggle of local people to defend their forests, which culminated last January with the blockade of the highway leading to the pulpmill and the detention of at least a dozen of the company’s lorries loaded with tropical wood.

In sum, industrial tree plantations are in no way an answer for the survival of the world’s forests and in many cases constitute a direct cause of deforestation. It is already well known that to address deforestation and forest degradation there is a need to identify the direct and particularly the underlying causes of such processes. To a large extent many of these causes have been identified and solutions to address them put forward. But to begin with, governments should in all cases support -instead of repressing like in the case of Costa Rica and others detailed in this bulletin- local peoples’ struggles to protect the forests, thus giving a clear sign of commitment regarding forest conservation.