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You can’t replace a forest

Indigenous Peoples

Photo: Niels Mickers, reproduced under a CC license.

Have you ever been tempted to click on a ‘plant a tree’ button on some website? As someone who has been an environmentalist my whole life, I would strongly urge you to plant your own, rather than a tree on a distant plantation, which your payment would have funded.

In the fifty years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring – which inspired the environmental movement and led the US to ban the chemical DDT – public environmental awareness has come a long way. But I wonder why many people, including some environmentalists, still believe that large-scale tree plantations heavily sprayed with chemicals are desirable or even sustainable.

The reality is that timber plantations have a negative impact on communities, local economies and biodiversity. These plantations are not a solution to climate change or to biodiversity loss. They are simply a huge concern and cause numerous problems in many countries, including my own, Costa Rica.

Despite this, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts a massive increase in monoculture tree plantations: between 40 and 90 million hectares will be planted by the year 2030. This number does not even include the rapidly expanding areas of oil palm plantations.

Unfortunately the current definition of forests used by the UN is problematic. It includes plantations, branding them ‘planted forests’, and thereby promotes their expansion.

But branding a plantation a ‘forest’ is like branding a big swimming pool a ‘lake’. Tree plantations are not forests.

A forest is a complex, biodiversity-rich, self-regenerating system, consisting of soil, water, a microclimate, and a wide variety of plants and animals in mutual coexistence. Forests host more than 70 per cent of terrestrial biodiversity.

Some 1.6 billion people rely on forests, including 60 million indigenous people who are entirely dependent upon them for their livelihoods, food, medicines and building materials. They have rights that we need to respect, strengthen, and promote.

Monoculture plantations have no biodiversity and require ongoing human intervention – including  fertilisation, as ‘weeds’ must be removed using herbicides and pesticides.

Furthermore, plantations offer nothing to indigenous peoples and local communities who lose lands and resources when plantations are started. Tree plantations are becoming a new form of land grabbing. Many transnational corporations start plantations in foreign, often developing countries, gradually expanding their operations to cover vast areas of land. They capture access, control and management of forest land and resources with tree plantations, depriving communities of their means of subsistence. They usually negatively impact the cultural and biological diversity of the area.

Communities who do not join plantation projects often suffer intimidation. We have seen this phenomenon in land grabbing cases from Colombia to Indonesia.

Planting Problems

Large-scale tree plantations often replace forests and are thus a direct cause of deforestation. There are comparatively few cases where large-scale tree plantations have been established on degraded land.

Testimonies and case studies collected by Friends of the Earth groups also show that plantations have very serious impacts on local populations and the environment. They fail to fulfil the promises of job creation, sustainable development, climate change mitigation and biodiversity protection.

The world’s ‘Big 6’ pesticide manufacturing corporations - BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta- are obviously happy if we believe that large-scale tree plantations, heavily sprayed with their pesticides, are ‘sustainable’. And if their massive sales and profits keep increasing.

Shockingly, over 98 per cent of sprayed insecticides and 95 per cent of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, including non-target species, air, water, bottom sediments, and food.

The Big 6 are among many transnational corporations who are increasingly influencing national and international decision making, for instance with the green economy’ agenda. Under this banner, many governments and UN agencies, unduly influenced by corporate interests, promote false solutions that benefit corporations at the expense of people and the planet.

We call this undue influence the ‘corporate capture’ of the very institutions tasked with promoting peoples’ rights, including the right to a clean and safe environment.

In the report ‘Reclaim the UN from Corporate Capture’, launched at the Rio de Janeiro 2012 Earth Summit, we presented a number of cases exposing how UN policies and agencies are excessively influenced by corporations such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto.

The Big 6 certainly do not want us to implement the real solutions urgently needed to tackle the climate crisis and to preserve biodiversity, as these solutions do not include large-scale plantations nor their dangerous chemicals.

Real solutions

Instead of large-scale tree plantations and associated chemicals, our societies simply need to properly manage our remaining forests, and apply agroecology (i.e. applying ecological principles to the production of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals and the management of agroecosystems).

We know what is needed: community management, the right to healthy, ecologically-produced food, a cutback in consumerism and the demand for pulp and paper in particular.

That is what we are calling for on 21 September, the International Day Against Monoculture Tree Plantations. Friends of the Earth groups will be challenging the expansion of palm oil tree plantations destined for agrofuel production, fighting monoculture tree plantations grown for export, and exposing over-consumption and consumerism.

Isaac Rojas is Friends of the Earth International’s Forest and Biodiversity Program coordinator.

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