Industrial tree plantations have a long history of negative social and environmental impacts. It was therefore felt that there was a clear need to raise the issue in a specific workshop at the World Social Forum. Participants shared their experiences from a broad range of countries.
The meeting began with an overview of the plantation problem and the confusion generated by the use of false definitions such as that of “planted forests”. Participants agreed that monoculture tree plantations have nothing in common with forests, except for the fact that trees exist in both. Plantations do not play any of the roles that forests play regarding ecosystem functioning and, on the contrary, impact negatively on water, soils, flora, fauna and people.
One of the main impacts of plantations is the appropriation of large areas of land which until then provided to the survival needs of local people. In cases such as that of Sarawak (Malaysia), plantation companies are considered to be far worse than logging companies. The reason for this is that logging companies cut the best trees and degrade the forest, but they eventually leave, while plantation companies cut all the trees, plant their own, and stay. The appropriation of land is total and permanent, thus depriving people of all the resources they used to have.
In all cases, plantations are promoted with the promise that they will generate employment, but reality shows that the opposite is true. The case of Indonesia was brought up as proof of this: in all plantation areas the end result is net employment loss. As forests and agricultural lands are substituted by industrial tree plantations, people lose their sources of income and livelihoods, while the few temporary jobs provided by plantations are no solution to the employment problem they generate.
Impacts usually perceived as environmental are at the same time social. Such is the case of the impacts on water. In Thailand, much of the struggle against eucalyptus plantations was based on their depletion of water resources in areas where water is crucial for rice growing. In this country, local people call eucalyptus “the selfish tree”, precisely because of the way it depletes the water resources.
It was emphasized that eucalyptus was not the problem and that other major plantation species (pines, teak, gmelina, acacia, oil palm) were equally negative in both social and environmental terms. It was interesting to note that while the first documented struggles against eucalyptus plantations took place in India, a participant from this country raised the issue of the impacts of an old teak plantation in his region, which is until now depriving his community of the benefits that forests used to provide them with.
Certification also came up in the discussion and a number of examples were shown to prove that certification was weakening local struggles against plantations. While it was understood that plantations should never be certified as “forests” (because they are not forests), it was also put forward that FSC’s principle on plantations was so weak that it allowed for the certification of almost any plantation.
Participants reaffirmed their commitment to oppose the further spread of socially and environmentally destructive monoculture tree plantations in the South and to collaborate with each other to strengthen the struggle.