Ten responses to ten lies about Forest Plantations

Ten responses to ten lies about Forest Plantations

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Planting trees can be very good, but it can also be very bad. It depends on their objective, their scale, the place where they are installed and the benefits or damages they generate for local populations. Large-scale plantations with fast-growing species, such as eucalyptus and pine, are those that generate the greatest negative impacts, both socially and environmentally. Due to these impacts, this type of plantation has given rise to generalized struggles against them. The response of the planting companies and the promoters that promote this model has consisted in denying the occurrence of such impacts and in developing and disseminating misleading propaganda aimed at gaining support from uninformed sectors of the population. Among the many publicized falsehoods in favor of large-scale monoculture tree plantations are the following 10:

Lie # 1: Forest plantations are "planted forests"

Both technicians and companies insist on calling plantations “planted forests”. This confusion between a crop (of trees) and a forest is the starting point of propaganda in favor of plantations. In a world aware of the serious problem of deforestation, the activity of “planting forests” is generally perceived as something positive. However, a plantation is not a forest and the only thing they have in common is that both are dominated by trees. There their similarity ends. A forest contains:

- numerous species of trees and shrubs of all ages

- a large number of other plant species, both on the ground and on the trees and shrubs themselves (climbers, epiphytes, parasites, etc.)

- a huge variety of species of fauna, which find shelter, food and reproduction possibilities there

This diversity of flora and fauna interacts with other elements such as nutrients in the soil, water, solar energy and the climate, in such a way that they ensure their self-regeneration and the conservation of all the elements that compose it (flora, fauna, water, I usually).

Human communities are also part of forests, since many peoples inhabit them, interact with them and there they obtain a set of goods and services that ensure their survival.

Unlike the forest, a large-scale commercial plantation consists of:

- one or a few fast-growing tree species, planted in homogeneous blocks of the same age
- very few species of flora and fauna that manage to settle in the plantations

Commercial plantations require soil preparation, selection of fast growing plants with the technological characteristics required by the industry, fertilization, elimination of "weeds" with herbicides, planting at regular spacing, harvesting in short shifts.

On the other hand, human communities not only do not inhabit commercial plantations, but are usually not even allowed access, since they are seen as a danger to them. In the best of cases, they are perceived as providers of cheap labor for the plantation and for the harvest of the trees that will take place years later.

As its objective is also to produce and harvest large volumes of wood in the shortest possible time, it can be said that it has the same characteristics as any other agricultural crop. Therefore, it is not a “forest”, but a crop, as is frequently admitted by the planting companies themselves when asked about it.

In short, a plantation is not a “planted forest”, since in addition to all the above, it is evident that it is not possible to plant, nor the diversity of flora and fauna that characterizes a forest, nor the set of interactions with the elements living and inorganic that occur in a forest.

Lie # 2: Forest plantations improve the environment

Presented as "planted forests", plantations are said to serve to protect and improve soils, to regulate the hydrological cycle, and to conserve local flora and fauna. All this is true in the case of forests, but not in the case of plantations. Indeed, large-scale plantations not only do not improve the environment, but also have negative impacts on:

1) The floors. These types of plantations tend to degrade soils due to the conjunction of a series of factors:

- erosion, in particular because the soil is bare both during the first 2 years after planting and during the 2 years after harvest, which facilitates the erosive action of water and wind.

- loss of nutrients, both by erosion and by the high volumes of wood extracted from the site every few years.

- imbalances in the recycling of nutrients. Because they are exotic species, local decomposing organisms find it difficult to decompose organic matter that falls from trees (leaves, branches, fruits), so the nutrients that fall to the ground take a long time to be reused by the plants. trees. Both in the case of pines and eucalyptus, it is common to see how it accumulates without decomposing the litter on the ground.

- compaction, due to the use of heavy machinery, which hinders the penetration of rainwater and facilitates erosion.

- difficult conversion. From all these and other impacts, it turns out that in many cases it will be very difficult to reuse these soils for agriculture.

2) The water. This vital element is affected both in quantity and quality:

- At the basin level, the volume of available water tends to decrease after the installation of these plantations. In realities as diverse as southern Chile, the state of Espírito Santo in Brazil, South Africa or Thailand, it is found that the water regime undergoes significant negative changes as a result of the planting of large areas of fast-growing pine and eucalyptus trees. This is due to several factors, but the main one is the high water consumption of these species. To grow, vegetables carry nutrients from the soil to the leaves, where photosynthesis occurs. The vehicle to carry the nutrients to the leaf is water. To grow larger, they need more nutrients, which means more use of water to transport them to the leaves. Given that these are extensive plantations growing at a very accelerated rate, the impacts on the water become increasingly serious, leading to the disappearance of springs and water courses.

- to be confusing, plantation promoters argue that some tree species (particularly eucalyptus) produce more biomass per unit of water used and are therefore more “efficient” than native trees. However, they do not take into account that eucalyptus plantations are notoriously "inefficient" in producing food, fodder, medicine, plant fibers, fruits, mushrooms and other products that local people obtain from the forests. Furthermore, it is irrelevant to define the efficiency of a eucalyptus plantation to produce wood with a certain amount of water, if in any case it uses more water than the area can produce.

- the species most commonly used in plantations (eucalyptus and pine) make it difficult for water to infiltrate the soil, which, added to the enormous consumption of water, aggravates the impacts at the basin level.

- The quality of the water is also affected, both by erosion and by the widespread use of agrochemicals, which pollute it.

3) The flora. The impacts on the local flora are multiple and serious due to the large scale of these plantations, which affect a huge number of habitats:

- In many cases, plantations are a factor of deforestation, since their installation is preceded by the cutting down or burning of the pre-existing forest, as often happens in tropical areas and particularly in Indonesia. In these cases the impact is enormous.

- In the temperate zone, the flora of the prairie ecosystem diminishes its abundance and richness when plantations are installed on it.

- In the plantation area, a large part of the local flora is exterminated to prevent it from competing with the planted trees and only a few species manage to settle inside the plantations. But even those few species are eliminated every few years, when the plantation is cut down and replanted, turning to the application of herbicides to eliminate competition.

- Among the flora that disappears inside the plantation, it is important to particularly highlight the flora of the soil, which plays a fundamental role in maintaining soil fertility in the long term.

- the aforementioned impact on water also affects the local flora, even at a great distance from the plantation site.

4) The fauna. Impacts on fauna

- for most of the species of the local fauna, the plantations are food deserts, therefore they tend to disappear. The few species that manage to adapt are either exterminated (as they are considered "pests" for the plantation) or their new habitat disappears every time the plantation is cut down for the sale of wood.

- when the plantation is preceded by deforestation, the impact on the local fauna is maximum.

- As in the case of flora, both pre-planting deforestation and changes in water and soil negatively affect a wide range of species of fauna.

- The biological imbalances caused by these plantations frequently give rise to the appearance of pests that affect neighboring agricultural productions.

Lie # 3: Plantations serve to relieve pressure on forests

The argument is that with more wood available from plantations, this will translate into less extraction of wood from native forests. Although it may seem logical, the reality is that it has been found that plantations are, in general, one more factor in deforestation because:

- in many countries, plantations are established by previously removing the existing forest. In some cases, such removal is done through gigantic arson, while in others the felling of the forest and the sale of the wood serve to finance the plantation. It is also the case that the plantation justifies deforestation, since it is argued that the cutting of large areas does not constitute deforestation if it is followed by the planting of trees. In some cases, the simple announcement of the interest of planting companies to invest in a certain region results in a speculative movement that consists of acquiring and rapidly degrading forest areas to allow them to be later destined for the planting of trees by said companies. Business.

- In many cases, the aforementioned process determines the migration (voluntary or forced) of the region's inhabitants, who are forced to enter other wooded areas where they initiate a deforestation process in order to meet their basic needs. In other words, in those cases the deforestation generated by the plantation is double.

- Wood produced on plantations is in no way a substitute for the valuable species of the tropical forest, since both have different markets. While most plantation wood is used for the production of low-quality paper and wood products, most of the wood extracted from forests (particularly tropical) is processed into high-quality products.

- This argument also ignores the fact that wood consumption is not the only cause of deforestation. Numerous areas of forest are often cleared to use the soil for export crops or extensive livestock; others disappear under gigantic hydroelectric dams; Mangroves are eliminated to allocate the area to industrial shrimp production, oil and mining exploitation destroy large wooded areas, etc. None of these destructive processes bears any relation to the greater or lesser area devoted to forest monocultures, so it is clearly false that in this case they can “relieve the pressure” on the forests.

In short, despite the growing boom in forest plantations, the world's forested area continues to decline, which shows that the alleged relief of pressure on forests is nothing more than an exercise in self-serving publicity.

Lie # 4: Plantations make it possible to take advantage of and improve degraded lands

This argument, promoted by the large plantation companies, is absolutely false in their case, since large-scale commercial plantations are seldom installed on degraded land. The reason is very simple: in such types of soils trees do not grow well, so planting there is not profitable.

That said, it is necessary to clarify some aspects, since this whole subject tends to be very confusing. Indeed, it is necessary to clarify what is understood by “degraded lands”, as well as to emphasize that some types of non-commercial plantations actually take place on degraded lands and manage to improve them.

For the common people, the expression "degraded land" awakens a vision of a lunar type, with severely eroded soils and little or no vegetation. In these cases, any activity that aims to recover these soils, whether by planting trees or by other means, can be considered essentially positive. However, the term "degraded land" can simply imply an area of ​​forest that was cleared or a subsistence agricultural area, which retain their productive potential. "Underutilized land" is also often referred to as a synonym for degraded. In summary, the plantation companies are the ones who define that the land is degraded or underutilized and in such a way justify their plantations in front of the public opinion. However, local people generally do not agree that the land is degraded or underutilized, much less that it should be planted with eucalyptus, pine or other commercial species. This is what, in many cases, explains the resistance of local people to the advance planter, which tries to appropriate land that is productive and not "degraded" or "underutilized."

Second, it cannot be assumed that a large-scale commercial plantation of eucalyptus or pine trees has the same capacity to rehabilitate degraded lands as that of smaller-scale plantations of forage, food, and fuelwood species to supply the local population. or nitrogen fixers.

Lie # 5: Plantations serve to counteract the greenhouse effect

This is one of the arguments that have become more fashionable recently. It is said that as trees grow, they take up carbon in greater amounts than they emit, so that they have a positive net balance with respect to the amount of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. However, forest plantations have yet to prove that they are carbon sinks.

Generally speaking, any area covered by plantations, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should be considered a net source of carbon and not a sink. Firstly, because in many cases these plantations replace forests, which means that the volumes of carbon released by deforestation are higher than those that the growing plantation could capture, even in the long term. Even when they do not involve deforestation, they settle in other ecosystems that also store carbon (such as grasslands), which is released into the atmosphere as a result of planting. There is also a second crucial question: will these plantations be harvested or not? If the first hypothesis occurs, they would be, in the best of cases, only temporary sinks: carbon is stored until harvest and then released in a few years (in some cases even months) when the paper or other products from the plantations are destroyed. In the event that the trees were not harvested, the plantations would be occupying millions and millions of hectares that could be dedicated to much more profitable purposes, such as food production.

In other words, there are many uncertainties regarding the assumption that plantations are, everywhere, carbon sinks for longer than the early period of rapid growth, since they may not even be so in that period. This “common sense” assumption must be backed up with research before plantations are accepted out of hand as carbon sinks.

Finally, it is essential to see the issue in its full dimension and analyze the set of impacts that the promotion of large forest monocultures with fast-growing species can generate in other environmental and social areas. Knowing that these plantations have an impact on the environment (soils, water, flora and fauna) and on local communities, it is not acceptable to promote them with an “environmental” purpose such as counteracting the greenhouse effect. The solution has to come from the reduction of CO2 emissions (derived from the use of fossil fuels) and from the protection of forests and not from attempts to colonize huge areas of land without having fully analyzed the consequences.

Lie # 6: Plantations are necessary to supply a growing consumption of paper

The consumption of paper is generally perceived as something positive, linked to literacy, access to written information and a better quality of life. This perception by the public is used by planting companies to justify the supposed need to increase cellulose production from their extensive pine and eucalyptus plantations. Therefore, this topic requires several clarifications:

- A large part of the cellulose produced in the South is not destined to supply the population of those countries, but rather to the consumers of the North. While the United States and Japan have annual per capita paper consumption of more than 330 and 230 kilos respectively, pulp exporting countries such as Chile, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia show a per capita consumption of 42, 38, 28 and 10 kilos respectively.

- about 40% of the paper produced in the world is used for packaging and wrapping, while only 30% is used for writing and printing papers, so the argument for literacy is not as relevant as it is intended to show.

- In addition, a large part of the consumption of writing and printing papers is destined for advertising. In the United States, 60% of the space in magazines and newspapers is reserved for advertisements, while about 52 billion units of various types of advertising materials are produced annually, including 14 billion mail-order catalogs that are produced annually. they often go straight to the trash. This type of excessive consumption of paper is not exclusive to the United States, but is also characteristic of most of the countries of the North and it is even intended to export such a model to the countries of the South.
The issue is then that the current consumption of paper is environmentally unsustainable and that much of it is socially unnecessary. Therefore, neither forest use plans nor forest plantation expansion plans can claim to justify themselves by saying that “humanity” needs more paper.

Lie # 7: Plantations are much more productive than forests

This argument can appear compelling if you look at the rapid growth of trees in a pine or eucalyptus plantation. However, it depends on what is understood by "productive" and who benefits from that production.

A commercial plantation produces a large volume of industrial wood per hectare per year. But that's all it produces. The direct beneficiary of this production is the company that owns the plantation.

A forest not only produces (like the plantation) wood for the market, but its production includes other types of trees, vegetables, animals, fruits, mushrooms, honey, fodder, compost, firewood, wood for local uses, vegetable fibers, medicines and it also generates a series of services in terms of soil conservation, biodiversity, water resources, and microclimate.

When it is argued that plantations are much more productive than forests, only the volume of industrial wood that can be extracted from both is being compared and in this comparison the plantation appears as superior.

However, when the totality of goods and services provided by the plantation and the forest is compared, it is evident that the latter is much more productive than the plantation. Moreover, in many aspects the production of the plantation is zero (for example in the production of food, medicine or forage) and can even be negative, when it affects other resources such as water, biodiversity or soil.

This is particularly clear for those local populations that suffer the effects of the implementation of extensive monoculture forest plantations, since they suffer the loss of most of the resources that until then had ensured their survival. For them, the productivity of these plantations is zero or rather negative.

Lie # 8: Plantations generate employment

This is also a typical argument among those who promote plantations. However, in most cases this statement is totally false.

Large plantations generate direct jobs mainly in the plantation and harvest stages. After the plantation, employment drops substantially. At harvest time, the plantation again requires the hiring of labor, but the number of jobs tends to decrease notably due to the increasing mechanization of this operation.

The few jobs generated are generally of very low quality, being mostly temporary, with low salaries and in working conditions characterized by poor nutrition, inadequate accommodation and non-compliance with current labor legislation. Occupational accidents and illnesses are frequent. The predominant model in the South is that planting companies subcontract to informal companies to carry out planting and harvesting tasks. Given the low level of investment required, competition among these informal companies is fundamentally based on the drop in the cost of labor, which explains the poor salary and working conditions of forest workers. Only in cases where the harvest is based on modern and expensive forestry machinery, such tasks are left to the planting company, which is forced to offer better working conditions.

In many countries they simultaneously tend to deprive former land occupants of their former sources of work. It is common for these plantations to be installed on land destined for subsistence agriculture, so even the trend of net employment is in many cases negative. On the other hand, when its installation implies the previous destruction of the forest, the local inhabitants are deprived of a series of occupations and sources of income dependent on the resources provided by the forest. In almost all cases, the plantations result in the expulsion of the local population, in particular towards the slums of the cities.

In all parts of the world it is found that plantations generate much less employment than agriculture and even less than extensive cattle ranching. Regarding industrial employment, plantations do not always lead to the creation of local industries, since in many cases the production is aimed at the direct export of raw logs. Even when pulp and paper industries are established, their high degree of mechanization means that few jobs are created.

Of all the activities capable of generating employment at the local level, planting is probably the worst option. The objective of forest companies is not to create jobs, but to generate profits for their shareholders. However, they use this false argument to justify their entrepreneurship socially.

Lie # 9: The possible negative impacts of industrial forest monocultures can be avoided or mitigated with good management

Ultimately, the promoters of the plantations may accept that these are not forests and that they can have negative impacts, but add that these impacts are generated by poor management and not by the plantations themselves. The solution - they affirm - is then technical: apply good management methods.

However, it is not a technical issue, but an essentially political issue, of power, with beneficiaries and losers. Decisions are made from the centers of power that affect the lives and chances of survival of local populations and strongly condition the decisions of governments, with the aim of supplying a global market with the wood products that it requires. Local needs and aspirations don't count. From here derive the main problems that this type of plantation entails. It is obvious that this cannot be solved with any “good management”. Moreover, the good management of the planting companies consists firstly in convincing the government to allow them to invest in certain regions of the country, to grant them certain advantages (direct and indirect subsidies) and to intervene -if necessary- to evict or repress local people. In a significant number of cases, the different forms of pressure or repression constitute the main tool of “good management” to resolve the social conflicts generated by the plantations.

Regarding the environmental impacts that commercial plantations generate, it is also utopian to pretend that they can be resolved through good technical management. The very characteristics of the model make it basically unsustainable, no matter how much conservationist practices or monitoring are adopted, also largely aimed at improving the image of the company in the face of possible environmental opponents. Indeed, the model is characterized by:

- the large scale. The environmental impact that a eucalyptus or pine can generate is not the same as those generated by tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares concentrated in a certain region of a country. The modification of the geographical space is enormous. To disguise this fact, plantation promoters currently insist on using percentages, saying that "they only occupy 1 or 2% of the total area of ​​the country." However, you cannot cover the sun with your hand. The truth is that these are large concentrations of forest monocultures and the only "good management" possible is precisely to reduce the issue to percentages.

- monoculture of exotic species. While it is true that most agricultural species are exotic, in the case of species used in forest crops this has strong negative implications. The choice of these species originates in part from the lack of pests and diseases in the countries where they are introduced, which could affect them. Although this is absolutely logical for the planter, it is a problem for the local fauna, for which these plantations constitute a food desert. Coupled with the issue of large scale, the impact on wildlife in particular is therefore enormous. Biodiversity at ground level is seriously affected because the plant remains of pines and eucalyptus trees are toxic to a large part of the flora and fauna of the soil. The system also has a great intrinsic weakness, since, if a species capable of feeding on living trees appears, it will become a pest that could call into question all similar plantations in the region.

- the rapidity of growth. The business logic of these ventures makes speed of growth crucial to ensure return on investment. Such growth is based in part on species selection, but also on the use of fertilizers and herbicides (which affect soil and water), as well as enormous water consumption, which affects the region as a whole. As if that were not enough, forest biotechnology is also aiming in this direction, creating “super trees” with even greater growth and resistance to herbicides, so the impact would be double: greater contamination from the use of agrochemicals and greater water consumption.

- cuts it in short shifts. The same logic determines that the trees are cut down every few years, which implies a great exit of nutrients from the system and erosion processes, as well as the destruction of the habitat of those few local species that were adapting to the plantation

From all the above it is clear that there are few technical measures that can be adopted to avoid or mitigate most of the environmental impacts generated by plantations. Although some aspects can be improved (use less harmful agrochemicals, prepare the soil following contour lines, take care that erosion processes do not occur at the time of cutting, conserve wild areas as patches in the landscape, monitor soils, water, flora y fauna, etc.), lo cierto es que resulta imposible evitar los impactos porque el propio modelo no lo permite: no se puede (desde el punto de vista de la rentabilidad) hacer que los árboles crezcan más lento, que consuman menos agua, que no requieran fertilizantes, que no afecten a los suelos, que no reduzcan la biodiversidad local. En síntesis, el problema es el modelo y no la adopción de medidas apropiadas de manejo.

Mentira No.10: Las plantaciones no pueden ser juzgadas en forma aislada

Este es uno de los argumentos más recientes de los promotores de las plantaciones. Sostienen que hay un “sistema continuo” entre un bosque primario y un “bosque plantado” especializado en la producción de madera. Es decir, que habría un sistema, al que llaman “bosque”, que incluye bosques primarios protegidos, bosques de producción, bosques protectores, bosques secundarios y plantaciones de todo tipo. Por lo tanto, dicen que hay que analizar ese sistema “bosque” en su totalidad y no centrarse en uno sólo de sus componentes: el monocultivo forestal a gran escala. El argumento es inteligente, pero no menos falso que los anteriores.

En primer lugar, porque parte de la falsa premisa de que una plantación es un bosque. El tipo de plantaciones al que hacemos referencia constituye un cultivo especializado en la producción de grandes volúmenes de madera en plazos cortos, cuya única similitud con un bosque consiste en estar constituído por árboles, que ni siquiera son nativos. Por lo tanto, no puede hablarse de un “sistema continuo” entre elementos intrínsecamente diferentes. Sería como decir que la fauna nativa y la cría de vacas lecheras constituyen un sistema continuo entre lo natural y lo especializado en la producción de leche y que no es posible juzgar aisladamente los impactos de la ganadería lechera sin analizarlos en ese contexto.

En segundo lugar, porque en general las plantaciones comerciales no sólo no complementan a los bosques, sino que en muchos casos se constituyen en causas directas o indirectas de deforestación. Lo mismo se puede decir con respecto a como afectan la biodiversidad, el suelo, el agua y en particular a las poblaciones locales.

En definitiva, este razonamiento pretende justificar la destrucción de la naturaleza en determinada área argumentando que su conservación se asegura en otra área. Al incluir las plantaciones en ese supuesto sistema “bosque”, se esconde y justifica la destrucción social y ambiental generada a partir de los monocultivos forestales a gran escala. Frente a los impactos sobre la biodiversidad, la respuesta de los ideólogos de esta mentira consistirá en decir que ésta se asegura por la existencia de áreas protegidas… aunque estén separadas por cientos de kilómetros. Lo mismo dirán con respecto al régimen hidrológico … aunque las plantaciones y el bosque estén en cuencas diferentes. No hablarán del tema suelo … donde no tienen argumentos y apelarán al argumento de la generación de empleo (Mentira 8) para esconder los impactos sociales de las plantaciones, que también muestran la diferencia entre un bosque (donde vive gente) y una plantación (donde la gente es expulsada).

El tema de fondo es que este argumento pretende justificar una lógica que divorcia la producción de la conservación; es más, que utiliza la conservación como excusa para habilitar la destrucción. La existencia de áreas protegidas de bosques (que efectivamente protegen el suelo, la flora, la fauna y regulan el ciclo hidrológico) se constituye en el justificativo para implementar grandes monocultivos (en este caso, de árboles) que destruyen todos los recursos naturales y los derechos y medios de supervivencia de las poblaciones locales.

Dado que la única forma de asegurar la sustentabilidad social y ambiental consiste en incorporar la conservación a los procesos productivos (y no en separarlos en compartimientos estancos), estos monocultivos de árboles no pueden de ninguna manera ser considerados como integrando el sistema bosque y, por consiguiente, sus impactos deben ser analizados por separado, como se hace con cualquier otro cultivo agrí

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