Planting trees is generally considered to be a positive action. The act of planting a tree – either at a school or in a peasant community – in many societies symbolizes concern for nature and a contribution by the present generation to future ones.
In addition to this symbolic aspect, many tree plantations are indeed positive, in particular when they are made by decision of the communities themselves to cover their needs, for example in the case of fruit trees or woody species that serve to address other needs for firewood, fibres, seeds, flowers, medicines, shade, shelter, etc. Many of these plantations are in fact agro-forestry systems in themselves, often part of traditional local ecosystem management systems.
It goes without saying that WRM supports and has always supported this type of plantation, which has a socially beneficial and environmentally appropriate nature.
However, under the cover of this positive image of plantations, other types of plantations have been developed, generating wide opposition, firstly in the local context and later at international level. We refer to large-scale monoculture tree plantations, including those aimed at the production of timber or pulp and those aimed at the production of palm oil or rubber. More recently, monoculture tree plantations serving as “carbon sinks” and those aimed at the production of biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol have come to join this latter group.
This model is actively promoted by a set of actors including international organizations such as FAO and the World Bank, state agencies in industrialized countries (export credit, bilateral cooperation, technical support), in addition to companies benefitting from this investment (banks, the pulp and paper industry, manufacturers of machinery, consulting firms, etc.). The final result is the production of abundant and cheap raw material –timber, pulp, rubber, palm oil or others – that serves as an input to the economic growth of the industrialized countries themselves. At the level of producer countries, what remains is a degraded environment, an impoverished population - the “externality costs” – so that raw material is cheap.
It is this type of plantations that WRM has been opposing for over 20 years, due to their serious social and environmental impacts. In spite of the fact that they are defined as “planted forests,” it is certain that they have nothing in common with a forest. While forests serve to support local populations – both people and fauna – these plantations evict them; while the former regulate the water cycle, the latter deplete it and contaminate water sources; while forests protect and enrich the soil, plantations deplete and erode it, while forests contain an enormous diversity of life, plantations are green deserts.
All these impacts are an inevitable consequence of the model, based on single-species monocultures – generally alien – covering vast areas of land previously given over to satisfying the subsistence needs of local populations and the habitat of numerous species of plants and animals. To the social and environmental impacts arising from this land occupation, are added those caused by the use of large amounts of chemical fertilizers, weed-killers, insecticides and fungicides used to guarantee the profitability of the investment. These agrotoxics contaminate water, air and the soil with the consequent disappearance of species of fauna and flora and serious impacts on the health of workers and local inhabitants. In turn, the growth of trees planted as large-scale monocultures depletes water resources and soil nutrients. The scant jobs the model requires – temporary ones, with low wages and poor working conditions – decrease as mechanization of all the operations progresses.
To the above is now added the recent threat of the incorporation of transgenic trees, genetically modified to increase profitability of the plantations. Such research is being carried out in at least 19 countries (see details at www.wrm.org.uy). The use of such trees in commercial plantations not only implies a very serious threat to the world’s forests but would also worsen the impacts already observed in existing monoculture plantations.
All this has led to an increasing number of organizations and people opposing large-scale monoculture plantations, gathered under the premise that “plantations are not forests.”
As for WRM, our position is very clear: we support certain types of plantations and oppose others. We have nothing against eucalyptus or pine trees or oil palms or any particular species of tree. Our opposition is aimed at a specific model of use – and now genetic manipulation – of trees, benefitting large corporations and harming both the local communities and the environment where they are installed.