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The Great Lie: Monoculture Trees as Forests

20 Oct 2011

This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

2011 marks the “International Year of the Forest” and it calls for a shift in our understandings of forestry management. Top-down, market-oriented, approaches which have seen monoculture plantations flourish and the lives of forest peoples uprooted, often under the guise of initiatives such as REDD, are not sustainable. We need to recognize that “sustainable development” is not simply compatible with biodiverse plantations or the lives and traditions of forest peoples; it is deeply dependent on them.

Winnie Overbeek is the International Coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement, an NGO based in Montevideo, Uruguay. Raquel Núñez Mutter is managing editor of the World Rainforest Movement’s monthly electronic bulletin.

Trees, because of their high financial and economic value, have dominated the scientific study of forests, attending interests of the global timber, plantation and pulp industry. This explains to a great extent why the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) continues to define a forest as an area of land with “tree crown cover”, without specifying that the tree species be diverse or that the embedded flora and fauna constitute an integral part. National and international institutions, including the tree plantation companies who are the owners of “planted forests”, invoke this definition, which provides a convenient “green” profile to expand industrial plantations to satisfy market demand.

According to the FAO, both an industrial eucalyptus tree monoculture plantation and a rainforest with its hundreds of different tree species are classed as forest. But neighbours of such vegetation types would only recognize the rainforest as a forest, while a tree monoculture plantation would often be referred to as a “green desert”. The only similarity a neighbour may indeed observe is that both types of vegetation contain trees.

Moving the approach from a top-down, market-oriented one to a more multisectoral and participatory one reveals a radically different definition of “forest”. Social and environmental activists who founded the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) declared in 1989 that: “Forests, both temperate and tropical, are an integral part of the life support systems of the planet, performing numerous ecological and social functions that are essential for the continuation of life as we know it on Earth”, including the function of “providing a homeland and spiritual basis for millions of forest peoples”.

Monoculture plantations, which are often established in the name of “progress” and “development”, have been shown to cause many negative social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts. Even a potentially positive social impact such as job creation is often characterized by hazardous, low-paid and outsourced work.1 This contributes to maintaining and deepening rural poverty in regions where natural forests once offered several types of economic activities. These included sustainable extraction of raw materials for making goods and handicrafts, collection of plants and seeds for the preparation of medicines, and a diversified small-scale self-sustaining agriculture.

From wood to carbon: The new commodity

Tree plantation companies were “pioneers” in green economy when, in the early 1990s, they started to influence public opinion with claims about the “sustainable production cycle”, promoting the positive idea that they were planting carbon-absorbing “forests”. However, the negative impacts of large-scale monoculture plantations on local communities and increasing unsustainable paper consumption, especially in the North, were left unmentioned.

The forestry sector has found another effective greenwashing tool in the certification of tree plantations. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has already certified millions of hectares of industrial tree monocultures worldwide. For doing so it has been severely criticized by communities in affected areas and by civil society organizations. The Veracel Celulose partnership in Brazil, jointly owned by pulp and paper industry leaders Stora Enso and Fibria, has been denounced by civil society organizations for their failure to comply with FSC criteria and their disregard for the principles of the standard.

Monoculture oil palm, eucalyptus, rubber and jatropha plantations are also expanding, validated by their alleged “green” benefits such as agrofuel production and carbon sequestration. Locating such plantations in the South allows polluting projects in the North to continue business as usual, due to the idea of the carbon tradeoff.

The experience with REDD

Under the United Nations collaborative programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), carbon—not wood or pulp—has become the “product” that offers the best market value and profits from trees. Those who pollute most can continue to evade their responsibility to reduce carbon emission levels by opting for the often cheaper alternative of “compensating” their emissions by buying credits from carbon stored in forests. “REDD+” goes further, including conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

By commodifying forests, initiatives like REDD and REDD+ may weaken the struggles of forest peoples to guarantee rights to their historic lands and livelihoods. Carbon trading is likely to be distant from local communities’ needs and can impact severely on the lives and opportunities of local people.

In the case of the pilot REDD project in the natural reserves of Tayna and Kisimba-Ikobo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a case study by the World Rainforest Movement (forthcoming)2 showed that many local communities are actively organizing against the project, in part because they were not invited to be involved in its design. Moreover, the REDD project is being carried out in a natural reserve, which was itself only created in 2006 by Ministerial Decree. The decree declared the state the sole landowner while ignoring the customary land rights of the local communities and their sustainable use of the forests.

Supporters give the impression that this REDD project, carried out by Conservation International with funding of 7 million USD from the Walt Disney Company, has strong community participation and involvement by calling the two project areas “community reserves”. However, in practice the communities have been mainly objects of awareness campaigns about the importance to save carbon. “We were told that the trees produce carbon and that this is important for the air”, said a community member interviewed for the WRM study; “everybody will be OK and life will change”. Many expectations have been created. But the first carbon payments are expected only in 2012. At the same time, no substantial solutions for the land conflicts in Kisimba-Ikobo are being proposed; on the contrary, the physical demarcation of this natural reserve is planned to take place soon. Apparently, people are “obstacles” in this type of green economy project.

Tree plantations as false solutions to carbon emission reduction

In the Mufindi district of Iringa province in the United Republic of Tanzania, the Norwegian company Green Resources is seeking to register a monoculture tree plantation project for carbon sequestration under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.

The plantation will convert over 6,000 hectares of biodiverse grassland to industrial plantations of alien pine and eucalyptus trees. Field studies conducted in 2010 by researchers from Timberwatch and Envirocare reveal significant direct and indirect negative impacts on the livelihoods of communities in Idete, such as displacement, poor working conditions, the destruction of biodiversity on which communities rely for food, fuel and medicines, and reduced water availability.

Although tree plantations have been included in the Clean Development Mechanism, it has not been feasible to generate carbon credits through the establishment of plantations to date. The most obvious obstacle is that most tree plantations are timber crops, intended to be cut down for pulp or saw-wood within a relatively short time. They are prone to fire and their monocultural, even-aged, single species composition makes them vulnerable to high levels of damage through disease, wind and drought. Therefore, tree plantations cannot contribute in the long term to a meaningful reduction in the global carbon emissions that cause climate change, and only contribute, at best, to temporary reductions in carbon emissions.

A true green economy

As long as green economy does not imply restructuring present patterns of production, consumption, service provision and finance, it will allow an increase of industrial tree plantations resulting in less biodiversity and reduced livelihood opportunities for forest peoples. It will also enable forests to be traded as mere carbon sinks and reservoirs, alienated from their social, cultural, spiritual and nurturing roles. Such a green economy will maintain and even reinforce the polluting pattern that is at the root of the present crisis.

The FAO needs to review its definition of a “forest”, especially in 2011: the International Year of the Forest. A new definition that is based on diversity and excludes monoculture plantations can empower forest peoples, and contribute to forest conservation.

In the name of ecological justice, the rights of forest peoples, who remain insufficiently recognized worldwide, must be an integral part of green economy. Their role in forest conservation, often struggling against destructive corporate interests, must be recognized. Much can be learned from examples of local small-scale agriculture and agroforestry systems, and their importance for food security and sovereignty. Forest communities can also contribute significantly to the debate about how to include the social dimension in green economy, about how to change excessive and harmful consumption patterns and about how to achieve ecological equity.

Bringing back the social dimension and transforming society in a way that guarantees social and environmental justice for all requires that we listen carefully to people’s needs and demands as a basis for formulating local and regional policies. If not, we risk perpetuating a green(washing) economy, instead of creating a truly green economy with a strong social dimension.

1 De’Nadai, Alacir et al. 2005. “Promises of Jobs and Destruction of Work: The case of Aracruz Celulose in Brazil”, WRM (www.wrm.org.uy),

2 Case study: REDD pilot project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By Tchoumba, Belmond. World Rainforest Movement (WRM), 2011 (under publication)



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.