Back in 2003, we said that “using the term reforestation for the establishment of a monoculture tree plantation has historically conferred on this type of activity all of the positive characteristics that people rightly associate with a forest, although this is far from the actual reality” (Ambientico magazine, issue 123, December 2003,www.una.ac.cr/ambi/Ambien-Tico/123). We added that “in general, tree plantations are used to grow a single species or, at most, a small number of species of trees, always using specimens of the same age and never achieving the degree of biodiversity or the complex interrelations found in a forest.” For his part, Edwin Alpizar noted that “plantations, in comparison with forests, contribute very little to the environment,” and he further described the impacts of plantations in terms of loss of biodiversity and damage to natural water systems.
In spite of all this, and in spite of the fact that monoculture tree plantations have failed to become self-financing, the Costa Rican government has subsidized them and continues to provide them with subsidies, directly and indirectly, camouflaged under the euphemism of “payment for environmental services”. Between 2006 and 2007, the state subsidy for the establishment of monoculture tree plantations was raised from USD 500 per hectare to USD 810 per hectare.
The justification given at the time for this increase was that the total amount allocated would be disbursed over a longer period of time – which was in turn increased from five years to ten years – in order to ensure the long-term growth of the plantations.
Nevertheless, in 2008, with no explanation whatsoever, the period for the disbursement of these funds was reduced to five years once again. And this year, the logging industry, backed by one of its long-time leaders – current Environment Minister Jorge Rodriguez – gave itself another hefty raise. Under Executive Decree No. 35159-MINAET (Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications), passed in April 2009, the subsidy for monoculture tree plantations was increased yet again, with no explanation, from USD 810 to USD 960 per hectare – in other words, a 20% increase.
At the same time, this constitutes an indirect subsidy for big exporters of fresh fruit – pineapples and bananas – since over 80% of the wood harvested on tree plantations is currently used to make wooden pallets used to export fruit. The government finances wood production so that the companies that reap juicy profits from fruit exports can count on cheap wood for their pallets.
For their part, monoculture pineapple and banana plantations cause severe impacts of their own, which have been widely documented in the mainstream media over recent years: the sterilization and poisoning of hundreds of workers, contamination of rural waterways, erosion and deforestation.
There are currently over 26 pineapple-growing companies under investigation for environmental destruction, according to a report carried out in March 2009 in the community of Milano, in the province of Limón (1). The report also denounces the deforestation caused by the expansion of pineapple monocultures, leading to the disappearance of protected species like cedar, andiroba and sparrowhawks, as well as the selective cutting of tree species like bay laurel to prevent the “contamination” of pineapples for export, which would be prohibited in Europe for failing to meet health or plant health standards.
With regard to the clearing of forests, one of the community members interviewed gave the following testimony: “I was a security guard for the company and I saw everything they did to the forest. Before, everything was covered by a thick forest cover. The company started to cut down trees at night, trees that were made of very good wood, and they buried them because it was prohibited by the government to cut them down.” He added: “The company has left us with nothing. The birds and other animals went away too after the forests disappeared.”
What is particularly sad is that this whole plantation scheme is being promoted through the “Plant a Tree!” publicity campaign, which among other things, counts the trees planted by large corporations as “reforestation”, even though most of them are cut down after only eight years to make wooden pallets. Last year, around 80% of the trees reported by this campaign were alien species planted on large monoculture plantations subsidized by the government.
The country needs wood, of course, but it also needs forests to confront climate change. There are numerous proposals for producing wood through more socially just and environmentally sound methods, some of which can be seen by visitingwww.coecoceiba.org
By Javier Baltodano, COECOCEIBA-Friends of the Earth, Costa Rica, email:firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) “Informe de la misión de verificación sobre los impactos de los monocultivos de piña” (Report of the fact-finding mission on the impacts of pineapple monocultures), community of Milano, province of Limón, Costa Rica, 29 March 2009. The full report is available in Spanish at:http://www.wrm.org.uy/paises/CostaRica/Informe_monocultivo_pina.pdf.