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- Bangladesh: The Modhupur forest converted into banana, papaya and pineapple plantations

I was part of a filming crew of seven members who were on June 4 in the Modhupur forest in order to make a documentary film on the forest destruction with special attention to the effects of plantations —mostly commercial and industrial— on public forestland. The Modhupur forest is now thoroughly plundered.

We were in our third and final round of filming in Modhupur, and we focused our last shots on a suddenly discovered spot where green vegetation was being thoroughly cut. The spot is very near to Lohoria Beat between Rasulpur and Dokhola Ranges.

We stopped at a location which has a concrete wall meaninglessly cutting through the remnants of sal (Shorea robusta) forest. The wall formed part of the Forest Department plan to erect 60,000 feet concrete walls to protect some 3,000 acres of forest within the about 21,000 acre Modhupur National Park.

As our crew concentrated filming the wall and the remnants of the forests still with myriad medicinal plants, I followed a narrow path in the north from the brick street that cuts through the forest from Rasulpur Range to Dokhola Range. A huge area (maybe more than a hundred acres) has just been cut. Actually, at every corner of the area we saw people cutting the green vegetation.

We took many shots of the destruction. Thousands of stumps were shooting up. They are yet to be dug out. At one corner a fire had been set. That fire (with petrol as some said) was applied to quickly annihilate the forest was evident from the many charred stumps. In the horizon beyond fresh cut spots we could see columns of banana plantation.

We called two young men who were standing at calling distance. They slowly came to us. One had a dao (long knife similar to a machete) in his hand, which he was hiding. Upon confirmation we were unarmed, he brought the dao in the open. The two young men told us they were just laborers paid to cut the jungle. Like hundreds of other places this big area will be brought under banana plantation soon.

In clearing the jungle some Garos (tribal peoples) and Bangalee laborers are seen in the front line. Behind them there are some foremen who, soon after clearing the jungle convert the forestland to banana and papaya plantations. Sometimes a few trees are planted in banana, papaya and pineapple plantations to depict them as “social forestry”.

This is unbelievable! I have been regularly visiting the Modhupur forest for the last one and half decades. But the destruction that I have seen in the last two/three years has no match. This phenomenal destruction is caused by illegal encroachment for banana, papaya and pineapple plantation purposes, which bring benefits to the rich and influential people in the locality.

During filming we visited numerous spots in Amlitola, Tiler Tal, Gachhabari, Kamarchala, Sadhupara, Joynagachha, Beduria, Gaira, etc. Everywhere local people have shown us big banana, papaya and pineapple plots that are owned by the local Union Council Chairmen, members, politically influential people and a few Garos. All these plantations are illegal in the public forestland.

In remote (no more in the real term) Garo villages we have found that many Garos have given their land particularly to the banana cultivators for a seasonal rent, which they call Medi. Banana plantation is capital intensive. This gives the outsiders, who come with cash, a comfort. They are guests in the remote villages where they can easily exploit the hospitality of the Garos and return with high margins of profit in a short period of time.

What struck us since we had started filming last year was that patches after patches of sal coppices have been cleared and converted to banana, papaya and pineapple plantation. On June 4 we filmed a big (about 15 acre) banana field in Tiler Tal in the north edge of the Modhupur forest that was covered with sal coppices until a few months back. This plot is reportedly possessed by a local elected Union Parishad chairman. We also found half dozen laborers clearing the last bits of small coppices and bushes with spade in another spot close to this banana field. The hearsay is “This is social forestry and protection of sal coppices”. This has happened everywhere throughout the approximately 62,000- acre Modhupur sal forest (falling in Tangail and Mymensingh districts). Unless something changes, the demise of the once unique Modhupur sal forest is imminent.

Excerpted from “Modhupur Forest. Demise Is Imminent”, June 2004, Philip Gain, Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), E-mail: sehd@citechco.net , http://www.sehd.org, sent by the author


- China: Genetically modified madness

Two years ago, China's State Forestry Administration approved genetically modified (GM) poplar trees for commercial planting. Well over one million insect resistant GM poplars have now been planted in China.

Also two years ago, China launched the world's largest tree planting project. By 2012 the government aims to have covered an area of 44 million hectares with trees.

Decades of deforestation have left China facing serious environmental problems, including droughts and deadly floods. Sandstorms from the Gobi Desert frequently turn the air in Beijing yellowish brown reducing visibility to a few metres. The desert is creeping relentlessly towards China's capital city.

Although the government describes its tree planting as reforestation, most of the area planted will be monoculture tree plantations, including plantations of GM trees.

"The first step is to raise plantations using fast-growing species such as poplar and larch", wrote Wang Lida, Han Yifan and Hu Jianjun of the Chinese Academy of Forestry in a recently published book ("Molecular Genetics and Breeding of Forest Trees" edited by Sandeep Kumar and Matthias Fladung).

However, insect damage in plantations in China is a serious problem. Rather than suggesting planting a mixture of trees which might not be so susceptible to insect damage, the three Chinese forestry scientists suggest a GM tree technical fix. "Recent research on insect-resistant forest tree breeding shows considerable promise," they wrote.

Huoran Wang is a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing and is China's representative on the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources. Last year Wang told the FAO Panel that one million insect resistant GM Populus nigra trees had been planted in China. A further 400,000 insect resistant GM hybrid poplar trees have also been planted, Wang added.

Regulation of genetically modified organisms in China is covered by the Biosafety Act for GMOs in Agriculture, adopted by the State Council in May 2001. Before GM trees can be planted an expert panel organised by the State Forestry Administration carries out a technical assessment. The National Committee for Biosafety of GMOs in Agriculture bases its decision whether to approve the GM trees for release on the panel's report.

However, China has no regulations specifically covering GM trees. "Special regulations are in the pipeline," according to Huoran Wang.

Forestry scientists at the Chinese Academy of Forestry started research into GM poplar trees in the late 1980s. From 1990 to 1995, they were helped by an FAO-run project which provided capacity building, technology transfer and laboratory support. The $1.8 million project was funded by the United Nations Development Project.

For more than ten years, the Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products at Waldsieversdorf in Germany has maintained close contact with Chinese forestry scientists working on GM trees. Hu Jianjun of the Chinese Academy of Forestry is currently based at the Research Centre in Waldsieversdorf.

In May 2004, Dietrich Ewald, a forestry scientist based at Waldsieversdorf, travelled to China to take a look at some of the GM tree plantations. One of his visits was to Huairou, a town about 60 kilometres north of Beijing. Ewald's photographs of the 33 hectare GM poplar plantation at Huairou show row upon row of GM poplar trees.

Ewald labelled two of his photographs "No ground vegetation". He's right. There is absolutely nothing growing except trees. The soil looks hard, dry and barren. A more extreme example to illustrate the difference between plantations and forests is hard to imagine.

Another of Ewald's photographs shows a handful of seeds from the GM poplars. "There is no possibility of these seeds spreading because of the dryness, the grazing (sheep) as well as the adjacent agriculture," reads Ewald's comment on the photograph.

Huoran Wang appears to disagree. "Poplar trees are so widely planted in northern China that pollen and seed dispersal can not be prevented," Wang stated in his presentation at the FAO meeting last year. Attempts to prevent genetic pollution by maintaining "isolation distances" between GM and non-GM poplars is "almost impossible", Wang added.

China's forestry scientists, with international complicity, are setting up an uncontrolled, irreversible experiment. No one knows the exact area planted with GM trees in China. "It is very difficult to trace them," Wang commented. Poplar trees can be very easily propagated and GM trees are moved from one nursery to another. A GM poplar tree looks much the same as any other poplar tree.

There isn't even a system in place to monitor the GM plantations that have so far been planted. Wang suggests setting up a system "to monitor the situation of the GM plantations" and their impact on surrounding ecosystems. A better suggestion would be to stop this unscientific, dangerous experiment now.

By: Chris Lang, e-mail: http://chrislang.org

Sign the petition to ban GM trees: http://www.elonmerkki.net/dyn/appeal
Dietrich Ewald's photographs of GM trees in China are available at


- Indonesia: Palming the forest

Between 1990 and 2002 the global planted oil palm area increased by 43%. Most of this growth occurred in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, between 1990-2000, the total area planted with oil palm almost tripled from 1.1 to 3 Mha (million hectares). In 2002, overcoming the 1997-1999 financial crisis, the total mature oil palm plantation area reached 3.5 Mha. Assuming recent planting rates, the total area of oil palm plantations in Indonesia is set to increase to 11.2 Mha in 2020.

The total area set aside for oil palm is an expansion target rather than a ceiling to expansion (in the early 1990s, a similar target of 5.5 Mha was set, which was dropped and replaced by 9.13 Mha). It is highly likely that the Indonesian government, either at national or local level, will bow to the massive interest of the private sector to engage in the oil palm business as well as to the ambitions of local governments who, along with decentralisation policies, were empowered with great land use decision making powers in 2001.

The original habitat in most areas suitable for oil palm is lowland evergreen tropical rainforest. According to the latest revisions of permanent forestlands, not officially published, the area of convertible forestland has increased from 8 Mha in 2000 to 14 million in 2002. Indonesian Palm Oil Research Institute (IOPRI) estimates that 3% of all oil palm plantations are established in primary forests and 63% in secondary forest and bush. So, according to industry data, 66% of all currently productive oil palm plantations involved forest conversion.

However, actual planting rates in Indonesia lag well behind allocations by the government. Of the 7.2 Mha released during the 1990s, only 530,000 ha (7.5%) were actually planted in 2002. This is in part because of the monetary crisis of 1997-2002, during which time few companies could afford to obtain credit to commence their planting programs. Another factor is that many "oil palm" companies are interested in the timber stands rather than in implementing their plantation projects. Around 70-80% of the new oil palm projects are allocated in production forests with a high forest stocking which provides a pre-start up bonus in the form of sale proceeds from the timber stands. After taking the timber stand, many companies abandon the project altogether. In the province of Jambi around 800,000 hectares of forest cleared to set up oil plantations was abandoned. In Landak district, West Kalimantan some 300,000 hectares have been neglected.

Field observations indicate that many oil palm plantations in Indonesia are planted in areas that were clearly forested immediately prior to conversion to plantation.

In Sembuluh, Central Kalimantan, PT Kerry Sawit Indonesia (subsidiaries of the Sabah based plantation company Perlis Palm Oils Berhad) is about to start field operations to plant 17,200 hectares of land. Within the area, there is still some 7,500 hectares of forest and forest gardens that local community members desperately wish to see protected against conversion. The forest area is one of the last in the area of Lake Sembuluh that is completely surrounded by oil palm estates.

In Muara Wahau, East Kalimantan, a PT SMART (Sinar Mas) subsidiary converted some 2,500 hectares of primary forest into oil palm plantations. The lowland forest in the PT Matrasawit area used to provide habitat for the orangutan, an endangered and protected species in Indonesia.

In Riau, Sumatra, a subsidiary of the Indonesian Indofood Sukses Makmur group (PT Gunung Mas Raya) is in the process of clearing peat-swamp forest, part of which may be outside the concession boundaries. If this is the case, it will be in contravention of the risk policy of one of the group's main investors, ING from the Netherlands, which has a policy of not financing illegal forest conversion.

Satellite map analysis undertaken by the Indonesian NGOs Sawit Watch and Friends of the Earth Indonesia (Walhi) found that around Lake Sentarum National Park in West Kalimantan, the oil palm plantation area grew from 3,000 hectares in 1994 to 94,000 hectares in 2000. Meanwhile, according to newspaper reports, the total forest area decreased from 528,300 hectares to 323,000 hectares.

Around Mount Meratus in South Kalimantan, some 43,000 hectares of forest have been converted into plantations since 1994, enlarging the total area of plantation from 86,000 hectares to 129,000 hectares. The forest areas surrounding Mt. Meratus meanwhile shrunk from 1,337,000 to 987,000 hectares.

Map and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests oil palm plantations have been developed within a number of other national park buffer (low intensity use) zones as well including Tanjung Puting National Park, Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park and Gunung Leuser National Park.

Apart from rampant deforestation, oil palm plantations have resulted in the death of dozens of people that have been killed in land tenure and labour related conflicts, while hundreds of deaths can be attributed to the environmental impacts of oil palm expansion.

This expansion destroys ecosystems and wildlife in one the worlds' most biodiverse regions. It also destroys indigenous peoples' way of life, self-determination and culture.

Plantation labour is generally poorly paid, highly dependent on the employer in all aspects of life and regularly exposed to danger and unhealthy working practices. Inequities between various types of labour (day labour vs. permanent workers, men vs. women) are widely reported. Pesticide use poses a real health risk to (predominantly female) plantation workers all over the region. The plantation sector is the most conflict ridden economic sector in Indonesia. Most conflicts result from land tenure issues and the weak legal protection afforded to local communities.

In sum, oil palm plantations in Indonesia have extremely high social and ecological costs. These costs, which are often hard to express in hard currency terms, include tropical forest destruction, biodiversity losses, illegal practises, land rights conflicts and human rights violations, labour disputes, unfair treatment of smallholders, the collapse of indigenous cultural practises and exposure of vulnerable local economies to capricious global market forces.

Excerpted from: “Greasy Palms. The social and ecological impacts of large-scale oil palm plantation development in Southeast Asia”, March 2004, Eric Wakker, AIDEnvironment, in collaboration with Sawit Watch Indonesia and Joanna de Rozario for FOE, http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/greasy_palms_impacts.pdf

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