World Rainforest Movement

Tree Plantations in Africa: A co-ordinated onslaught to grab what remains of Africa’s natural capital?

In the past

For hundreds of years, it seems the African continent has been viewed as a kind of take-out convenience store by countries in the North – at first mainly for rare and exotic commodities like gemstones, precious metals, ivory, plants and slaves; and later for more basic items such as minerals, food, timber and oil. There is however a new rush to exploit Africa’s resources, this time aiming at the very basics – the fertile soil, relatively abundant water, and low-cost labour represented by poor people across the continent.

The main difference between convenience store shopping and what has happened to Africa though is that the first operates on the democratic principle of ‘willing buyer – willing seller’, and recognises the right of the business owner to make and to retain a fair profit. However in Africa’s case, it has been a mostly one-sided arrangement with choice usually dictated by which end of the barrel of a gun the business owners, in this case African nations, found themselves. Military supported shopping incursions by Britain and many of the major European countries saw Africa carved up into colonies that are still largely dominated by their former masters.

What about the profits? Doubtless much money has been made, but it appears that the countries that were plundered for their natural wealth have yet to see much of it, if any. Instead, it has been spirited away from Africa in various forms: as ‘commissions’, dividends, consultant fees, taxes, import duties, etc. or exported in the form of cash and private assets by corrupt leaders and disenchanted expatriates.

But the most likely reason for this situation is that the profits have actually been realised outside of Africa – often through the practice of under-invoicing or inflated management fees between related companies, but also through a range of other means including the manipulation of markets and currency exchange rates, and of course the all-time favourite, instigating and supporting regional wars that distort commodity prices, and keep the armaments industry in business.

In the name of ‘trade and commerce’, vast areas of the African landscape have already been transformed from pristine ecosystems into denuded and scarred wastelands. From the devastation of surface mining in Namaqualand, to the mounds of mining waste that surround the city of Johannesburg; from the eroded catchments of the hinterland, to the silted wetlands and estuaries; from the dustbowls of failed cropping in the dry zones to the poisoned soils of the sugar cane plantations in the moist coastal zone.

All of these ecological costs, as well as their social and demographic consequences have historically been regarded as the price of ‘progress’; an unavoidable contingency for which no one could be held responsible. Radioactive waste dumps from uranium mining and processing; asbestos contaminated towns and villages; rivers and oceans polluted with the offal generated by decades of primitive primary industrial processing of minerals, timber and agricultural crops like sugar cane, cacao and sisal. All absolutely free of charge: compliments of the ‘generous’ people of Africa!

The guilty parties gave independence to their colonies – and then walked away from the mess they had created, free of any responsibility for the restoration, decontamination or rehabilitation of the areas they had degraded or polluted! However they were careful not to close the door behind them, and with cleverly designed financial aid programmes (political regime support) have ensured that options to reclaim access to the resources of those countries would be kept open to them.

The current situation

In recent years global demand for consumer goods has grown dramatically, driven by increasingly wasteful consumption in wealthy countries, along with the spending power of growing urban populations in developing nations. Africa has largely escaped this destructive trend, although urbanisation and access to media has had the effect of influencing younger people especially to fall prey to the propaganda of multinational corporations that sell unnecessary and often-harmful products such as flavoured sugar-water, cigarettes, cell phones, alcoholic drinks and sweets.

Demand for basic raw materials has also burgeoned in countries like India, China and Brasil, and this has led to increased competition for available resources. Wealthy countries in the EU have chosen to sit on their own resources, promoting the expansion of timber plantations and agrofuel (biofuel) crops on their own land as a way of ensuring future self-sufficiency in timber and agrofuels. By subsidising food production on their own farming land, global prices have been artificially depressed, making food imports from the South conveniently inexpensive until very recently.

But this has started to change dramatically, mainly as a result of the unanticipated effect of the global scramble for land to produce agrofuels on, but the situation is far more complex than that. It is perhaps no coincidence that events over the past few decades have culminated in a situation where everything seems to favour meeting the greed of energy and commodity gluttons in the North, while Africans and other nations in the South are seeing their resources being siphoned off at an ever-increasing rate.

So what about tree plantations?

Although there are already considerable areas under tree plantations of different kinds in Africa – including cacao, rubber, oil palm, coconut, native and exotic hardwoods, and many different pulpwood species (mainly eucalyptus), a new wave of tree plantation establishment has been launched just recently. However this time it is different in that the objectives of the new projects are ostensibly to help address climate change, which was never a factor in the past.

Some of the new plantations are supposed to serve as carbon sinks, consuming and storing atmospheric carbon in order to offset industrial emissions in the North, and thereby earning tradable carbon credits for their owners. Unfortunately these same trees will be guilty of displacing other vegetation types and land uses that would probably have stored even more carbon than the new plantation could ever have hoped to – even if left to grow indefinitely, and not cut down to be converted into cheap packaging and paper!

Other new industrial pulp wood plantations will simply add to those that already exist to feed the voracious appetites of wealthy consumers in the north for other throw-away products – disposable baby napkins, sanitary pads and assorted paper towels to create extra methane emissions from garbage dumps; millions of tonnes of toilet tissue to be conveniently dumped into oceans and rivers; billions of items of junk mail to lie rotting in drains and gutters, as well as every other kind of paper trash conceivable.

African Oil Palm is being grown mainly in the tropical regions, and expansion of palm-oil plantations also leads to deforestation and degradation of the land. Although it has been identified as a potential source of oil for biodiesel production, high demand and better prices earned from the cosmetics and food industries have ensured that production for biodiesel has not yet been able to take off in Africa. It has been reported on the website that companies including Unilever are trying to establish new oil palm plantations in Cote de Ivoire.

The really extensive land areas being converted to alien tree monocultures are those being promoted by the Jatropha for biodiesel lobby. Already hundreds of thousands of hectares have been planted or earmarked for planting with this incredibly over-hyped tree species. Although it seems there is not a single industrial scale Jatropha biodiesel factory operating successfully anywhere on the planet, this method of producing biodiesel has caught the imaginations of governments, corporations and private investors to the extent that it has become the first choice for many biofuel production project investors. However this has happened as a consequence of a carefully orchestrated campaign based on half-truths and lies, mainly claiming that the trees can produce economic volumes of oil when planted on marginal land and will require no fertilisers and very little water! Another most audacious lie being told about Jatropha is that it will help to ‘re-forest’ and to sequester carbon, and should therefore also qualify for carbon credits! From most accounts it seems that fertile cropland is being taken for Jatropha plantations, forcing food farmers on to marginal land that was supposedly for Jatropha cultivation.

And then the prince of tree plantations for a future Africa! – fast growing genetically engineered trees that will supposedly produce biomass that can be converted directly into bio-ethanol to feed the soaring demands of the road transport industry in Europe. Even though the technology has not yet been fully developed and its costs unquantified; the GE trees not yet created in the laboratory; and the potential environmental impacts established, there are already signs that this could even out-do Jatropha in the hype-stakes! No doubt deals for more African land are being struck right now!

False definitions and messages

With all of these plans to blanket parts of Africa with tree plantations, come whole rafts of falsehoods that are put out by supposedly reputable organisations. Top of the list is the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) whose consistent efforts to define and to mis-represent plantations as forests have contributed enormously to the problem of increased deforestation to clear land for new tree plantations, and with this the displacement and impoverishment of affected local communities. The UNFF (United Nations Forum on Forests) has contributed to the same problem and actively encourages (misleads) African governments to increase tree plantations in their countries.

Another is the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), which has promoted the use of monoculture tree plantations as carbon sinks under the CDM (Clean development Mechanism) of the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC has also approved the use of genetically engineered trees in carbon sinks, showing total in-consideration for the negative impacts on biodiversity that these trees could have.

The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) has added to the problems created by monoculture tree plantations by certifying many of the worst of them as ‘responsibly managed forests’. Despite ample evidence of the problems around FSC certification of plantations, Greenpeace and WWF -among others- still support and endorse the FSC, and this has led to a situation where most of the new plantations being established are being justified on the basis that similar plantations have already been certified as ‘sustainable’ by FSC. This also has serious implications for the expansion of agrofuel plantations because so-called ‘sustainability criteria’ by which agrofuels can be certified are effectively driving land grabs in Africa.
And so the problem gets bigger, and the people of Africa more impoverished! Business corporations have taken over the role of colonial governments – with a new form of imperialism that has even less regard for the state of the environment and the rights of local communities. Long-term tree plantations are the most effective way of displacing and dis-empowering people. Saw timber hogs the land for a minimum of 25 years; three rotations of eucalyptus pulpwood will tie the land and water up for at least 25 years as well. Jatropha trees are claimed to have a productive life of up to 50 years!

So who cares about the food crisis?

By Wally Menne, Timberwatch Coalition, e-mail:,


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FSC Plantations Certification – Many Wrongs make a Right?

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