Pertinent Issues

Agrofuels

Biodiversity loss

Carbon sinks

Certification

Genetic engineering

Plantation expansion

Plantation fires

Pollution

Pulp and paper mills

Social impacts

Soil impacts

Water impacts

 

The issues listed above have emerged as the main areas of concern in relation to the expansion of large-scale industrial tree plantations. Until recently the threat of expanding tree plantations was driven mainly by a growing demand for pulp and paper products. However, there are now a number of new drivers that have comie into play.

Climate Change

Climate change has now become a pretext for promoting the expansion of tree plantations globally with the claim that they function as carbon sinks and offset industrial carbon emissions, as well as providing raw materials for the large-scale production of supposedly ‘green’ agrofuels (biofuels) generally derived from Oil Palm, Jatropha, and fast growing weedy trees such as Poplar, Pine and Eucalyptus that are used to produce cellulosic ethanol.

However, far from industrial tree plantations sequestering carbon, the intensive cultivation, cropping and industrial processing of trees actually increases greenhouse gas emissions, thereby contributing further to climate change. Carbon dioxide is generated as soon as  trees are felled and they begin emitting, instead of absorbing, carbon. This is compounded at every stage with the use of fossil fuels in logging; road transportation; shipping; and the manufacture of consumer goods, much of which is short term or single use so ends up decomposing in landfills and emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that, in the first two decades after its release, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Finally, there is the massive amount of waste generated by pulp and paper mills such as: ash; dregs; grits; lime mud; and pulp  mill sludge. 

An even more controversial process is the 'pelletising' of wood from forests and plantations as a substitute for oil and coal in the power stations of Europe and the UK. The growing global production of wood pellets as a supposedly clean and sustainable energy source is adding massively to climate change through the destruction of old growth forests. Although the industry claims it only uses tree branches and waste wood, there is strong evidence that vast swaths of valuable, untouched forest are being felled to feed this growing sector. Even if the source of the pellets is plantations, energy derived from this form of biomass relies on deceptive accounting, which instead of being carbon neutral, is discharging millions of tonnes of carbon thereby adding considerably to a climate crisis that is already out of control.

Plantations are not forests

In the face of rapidly increasing deforestation, the timber industry, governments and international organisations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN Forum on Forests, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regularly refer to ‘planted forests’, ‘forest plantations’, ‘forest cover’ and afforestation. Along with ‘sustainable forest management’, these are misleading terms designed to play down the true impact of plantations by implying that industrial-scale, monoculture, invasive alien tree plantations are comparable to biodiverse natural forests.

The expansion of timber plantations by mainly foreign timber companies has heightened conflict with local communities and indigenous people who not only depend on forests for their survival but also protect the forests in their territories. This conflict is escalating as new 'climate change mitigation' schemes that focus narrowly on carbon sequestration and storage – such as REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) – are very likely to displace forest peoples from their traditional territories, and promote the establishment of even more destructive plantations to "enhance forest carbon stocks" (REDD+) instead of encouraging genuine forest protection and restoration projects.

The importance of grasslands

The term ‘afforestation’ is often used in conjunction with ‘reforestation’ yet has nothing to do with restoring degraded forests. Instead, it is the planting of trees where trees did not previously exist and do not belong as in grasslands – the most endangered, most altered yet least protected biome on the planet. In South Africa, the primary habitat is grasslands, wetlands and scattered forest. Grasslands are most ideally suited to our semi-arid climate and are one of our best defences against climate change.

Grasslands both sequester carbon and retain water. When fires occur, they are light, fast-burning and an essential part of the natural cycle required for the maintenance of healthy grassland ecosystems. With climate change causing intensifying heat and dryness, planting water-depleting, invasive alien trees on a vast scale is not only exacerbating this but is introducing a heavy fuel load that drastically increases the potential for the highly destructive wildfires fires we have been experiencing in South Africa for the past number of years.

Generally, there is little or no understanding of the environmental value and social importance of grasslands. They are simply regarded as unutilised, unproductive land. The destruction of grasslands – as with the destruction and degradation of all natural areas – releases carbon dioxide, and once grasslands are destroyed there is little hope of rehabilitating them. Grasslands have been established by natural processes that have taken place over millions of years and which are so intricate and complex that they would be impossible to replicate.

Indigenous and rural communities

The livelihoods and survival of many indigenous communities depends on the natural resources provided by habitats such as grasslands and forests which provide: wild foods that can be gathered; subsistence fishing; water for domestic use and small-scale agriculture; grazing for livestock; medicinal plants; materials for use in building and the making of cultural artefacts; cultural and spiritual activities. The introduction of invasive alien tree plantations upsets the interactions within an ecosystem with disastrous effect and may eventually result in complete ecosystem collapse.

Water and air pollution

High water consumption by fast growing plantation trees impacts on the availability of water to both local and downstream communities, subsistence farmers and  ecosystems. This problem is made worse by the effects of polluting chemicals used in tree plantations, as well as the harmful effects of both air and water pollution caused by pulp and paper mills.

GE trees

Another potentially devastating development is the Genetic Engineering (GE) of plantation trees for quicker growth, resistance to drought and low temperatures. This threatens possible contamination of wild tree genes through cross-pollination between related species, thereby endangering the genetic integrity of wild trees in  forests. In theory, faster growing and therefore more thirsty, GE tree plantations could cause even more environmental and social damage than existing non-transgenic tree plantations.