Forest Plantations Do NOT Create the Natural Forest Ecosystems We Need

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Eucalyptus plantation in Brazil

We keep seeing on Twitter and Facebook how many nations are pledging to increase their forest cover by planting millions of trees. The Bonn Challenge, a global initiative launched in 2011, calls for national commitments to restore 580,000 square miles of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020. So far, 48 nations and 10 states and companies have made Bonn Challenge commitments to restore 363,000 square miles by 2020 and 294,000 square miles more by 2030. Yale Environment reports that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has called for the planting and protection of 1 trillion trees worldwide. The United Nations recently declared that the 2020s would be the “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.” As well as promises made in Bonn, reforestation is central to fulfilling many countries’ emissions pledges made at the Paris climate conference in 2015.

OldGrowth-SecondGrowthForest conservation—first discussed years ago at the Durban Climate Change Conference— focuses on the concept of “carbon farming” to maintain carbon stocks in existing forests and planted forests. This has become a two-pronged approach:

  • managing forests for non-timber products—such as water or tourism—or simply not logging the forests at all—known as “payment for ecosystem services;”
  • create new “carbon” plantations.

The second model—which is the preferred model of most, of course—includes timber removal and claims that carbon accounting would track the carbon stored in the trees and released through logging. This is utter nonsense with a high potential for abuse (e.g. creating plantations on other precious ecosystems—even old-growth forests such as what is occurring in the Amazon rainforest).

“When done well, plantations can increase ecosystem services (such as water and soil); done badly they can lead to desertification, soil degradation and social disruption,” said Dr. Tim Cadman of the University of South Queensland to The Conversation in a 2011 interview. “Mixed species plantations of local tree species (rather than moncultures of exotic trees), well-managed and with the agreement of local communities, have the potential to contribute to sustainable development.”

BUT, this isn’t happening…

Green Deserts

Research shows that much of this growth is in monoculture plantations and agroforests that will be cut down and do little to tackle climate change or preserve biodiversity. Eighty-two percent of Brazil’s promised restoration is monoculture plantations, not natural forest and intended for cutting. In China, plantation-style reforestation is 99 percent. These “restored forests” are poor replacements for natural habitat. Agroforestry and tree plantations can act more like green deserts than forests for animals dwelling there. 

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Two mono crops, Eucalyptus (left) and soybean (right), both requiring chemicals and lacking biodiversity and natural resilience

Rainforest Rescue writes that every year monoculture plantations are established on millions of hectares of land to appease our insatiable hunger for cheap raw materials to make paper and pulp and, more recently, for biomass to convert into electricity and heat. In many cases natural forests are cleared for this purpose. On the deforested areas, mainly cloned (i.e. genetically identical), coeval and exotic eucalyptus, pine and acacia trees are planted in orderly rows. These plantations have disastrous consequences for the environment, the climate and the people.

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The Great Green Wall Project in China–planting trees in the north China desert

In 1999, Beijing banned further deforestation on Chinese soil and launched its Conversion of Cropland to Forest Program, sometimes called “grain for green,” writes Yale Environment. Today, China claims the program has paid more than 100 million farmers across the country to plant trees and has restored more than 108,000 square miles of forest. The effectiveness of the program has often been questioned. An important part—the “great green wall project—that aims to halt spreading deserts across northern China by planting 100 billion trees by 2050, has been called a “fairy tale” by some Chinese ecologists. The ecologists observed that five out of six seedlings have died already. Geographer David Shankman, from University of Alabama told Yale Environment 360 that he was not confident of long-term success.

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Forest plantation, lacking diversity, ecosystem function and resilience

On Hainan Island, the reforestation program replaced traditionally biodiverse farming systems with monocultures of eucalyptus and rubber. Many farmers who took money to plant trees on their land said they would cut them down when the subsidies stopped.

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Nina Munteanu stands at the foot of giant Douglas-fir, part of old-growth forest in BC

The world’s forests support half of all terrestrial species. Their foliage recycles rainfall to keep the interiors of continents from turning into desert, and they balance climate and reduce global warming by capturing and storing CO2. Only functional forests do this; plantations are not functional forests. Plantations only capture a fifth as much carbon as a natural forest—when they capture anything at all.

Some Are Planting Native Trees But are the Trees Staying? 

In Niger, on the edge of the Sahara desert, farmers have overturned decades of poor advice from government agricultural advisors and have begun to nurture rather than remove trees on their land, reports Yale Environment. The grassroots movement began in the mid-1980s in a single village, says Chris Reji, then of the VU University in Amsterdam. Farmers in Dan Saga in the Maradi region of the country discovered that they got better grain yields if they let trees grow; the trees stabilized soils, helped retain nitrogen and dropped leaves that helped retain soil moisture. Word spread and today the practice extends across 12 million acres and 200 million trees.

After a major decline in forest cover due to ranching, Costa Rica paid land users to nurture new forests of native tree species. Cover increased by more than half (but see my caveat below). Nepal experienced remarkable development of community forests through many autonomous user groups with rights to manage their forests and control access. They nurtured a rise in national forest cover of mostly native species by twenty percent in the past three decades.

Restored, But For How Long?

In his article in GreenBiz, geographer Mathew Fagan (at the University of Maryland) tells us that “planting trees only works if the restored forests stand for more than 10 or 20 years.”

This would seem logical and obvious except that many of these restored forests are unlikely to remain protected for that long. Fagan writes:

“In a 2018 study we showed that forests that naturally regenerated in Costa Rica between 1947 and 2014 had only a 50 percent chance of enduring for 20 years. Most places where forests regrew were subsequently re-cleared for farming. Twenty years represents about a quarter of the time needed for forest carbon stocks to fully recover, and less than one-fifth of the time required for many forest-dwelling plants and animals to return.”

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Old-growth next to clearcut forest in British Columbia, Canada

Unfortunately, 20 years may be more than most new forests get. Studies in Brazil and Peru show that regenerating forests there are re-cleared even faster, often after just a few years, says Fagan.

Agroforests also suffer from a myopic view. Until recently, coffee and cocoa farmers in the tropics raised their crops in agroforests under a shady canopy of trees, which mimicked the way these plants grow in nature and maximized their health. Today, many of them grow their crops in the sun. This method can improve yield, but requires pesticides and fertilizer to compensate for added stress on the plants.

Forest carbon uptake

Solid Foundations for Recovery

Fagan tells us that: “If the Bonn Challenge is to achieve its goals, nations will have to find ways of converting short-term restoration pledges into long-term ecosystem recovery. This may require tightening the rules.”

“Some countries have pledged to protect unrealistically large areas,” says Fagan. “For example, Rwanda committed to restore 77 percent of its national territory, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua pledged to restore 20 percent of their territories apiece. Another flaw is that the Bonn Challenge does not prevent countries from deforesting some areas even as they are restoring others.”

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Slash and burn approach for palm oil plantations is common in Indonesia

“Countries such as Indonesia that may be considering a Bonn Challenge pledge should be encouraged to focus on long-term impacts. Instead of restoring 10,000 square miles of 1-year-old forest by 2020, why not restore 5,000 square miles of 100-year-old forest by 2120? Countries such as Costa Rica that already have pledged can lock in those gains by protecting regrown forests,” says Fagan.

The United Nations General Assembly recently designated 2021 to 2030 as the U.N. Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.

“Rather than entering into complicated accounting arrangements, it makes much more sense to protect natural forests from logging, than create more plantations (often established on cleared forest). Old growth forests and other natural ecosystems such as wetlands store far larger amounts of carbon than short-rotation crops of trees, which never reach maturity,” Dr. Cadman advises.

Massome Grove

Massome Grove old-growth forest, British Columbia

DEFINITION OF A FOREST: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines what forests are in the eyes of the United Nations: “Land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ. It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban land use.” While the FAO further states (in #9 of its Explanatory notes) that this definition: “Excludes tree stands in agricultural production systems, such as fruit tree plantations, oil palm plantations, olive orchards and agroforestry systems when crops are grown under tree cover” the definition includes monoculture plantations such as Christmas tree plantations and forest restoration projects that involve tree plantation and cutting within 20 years—identified by forest ecologists as dysfunctional ecosystems.

Palm oil plantation

Complex old-growth natural forest surrounded by overly-structured  monoculture plantation tree farm of palm oil trees

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

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