What’s wrong with plantations?


The BBC Today programme on March 6th gave a few short minutes to a discussion about biofuels and forests. John Hayes, the Minister for Energy and Climate Change was on to defend the Government’s plans to go ahead with subsidies for biofuels. These plans include the Green Bank funding big biomass and the conversion of big power stations to burn wood. Biofuels such as imported palm oil and wood chips mean destruction of old growth rainforest in Indonesia and elsewhere.  The former Governmental Chief Scientific Officer Sir David King said that there were no emissions benefits from biofuels compared to fossil fuels, with the added negative of destroying habitats for animals such as orangutangs. Hayes retorted that trashing rainforests for biofuels and growing biofuels instead of food is a “bourgeois” concern. The presenter John Humphreys asked King a provocative question, challenging his defence of forests: ‘If you chop down old forests but plant new ones, that’s alright isn’t it?’ Hayes commented that people have always burned trees for fuel so there’s no reason why we should stop and that ‘there are immense plantations that are entirely sustainable’.

I picked up on these comments and tweeted about them, implying an opinion that it’s not OK to destroy old growth then replant. Someone replied ‘That’s just farming trees, though isn’t it? No worse than farming cabbages.’ I couldn’t respond in one tweet, so this is it:

1) The myth of sustainability and the normality of agribusiness

Firstly, monocultural farming of any kind, whether cabbages or trees, is really not alright. It may be normal. It may be our main source of food. But it’s not entirely alright. It is absolutely more sustainable to harvest timber from new growth plantations, than it is to fell native mature biodiverse forests. However, adding biofuels to the demand for clear-felled wood increases the rate and scale of felling native forests. The sustainable credentials of new plantations are used to justify this process, but new plantations are not sustainable when they replace wilderness. If you Google about the sustainability of plantations, there are pages of links about the wonders of new growth wood. You can’t easily cut a swathe through these to find any suggestions that we reduce consumption of wood or that we might promote old-forest-friendly crops and practices (fungi, berries, coppicing etc).

2) Monocultures

Plantations are monocultural plantings of fast-growing trees for lumber or crops such as palm oil, coffee or cocoa that are large scale, even-aged (all planted at the same time) and entirely commercial in purpose. (The term plantation also applies to cotton, tobacco, bamboo and sugar cane.) Agrotoxic fertilisers and pesticides are heavily used for maximum productivity. Monocrops are much less resistant to pests because there is a lack of symbiosis, whereby different animals and plants feed each other and maintain soil quality.

This video, a walk through Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden is a great explanation of how biodiverse forests can be perfect environments to provide food for people and for wildlife in a mutual relationship.

3) Time and scale

By 2011, half the world’s original forests were destroyed, including half the rainforests. The remainder are being destroyed faster and faster in this new craze for biofuels to replace fossil fuels. Add to this the observation that mature trees are passing the tipping points for climate related stress and are dying off at frightening rates across the world, mainly with disease, drought and fire. The global climate desperately relies on the O2 generated by masses of mature trees, but this engine house for life is dying. Tropical deforestation is responsible for c.20% of greenhouse gas emissions. We should be making extraordinary efforts in the next few years to protect them from ravages of disease and drought, and planting in biodiverse ways that restore soil fertility.

4) Biodiversity habitats and the Sixth Mass Extinction

Around 80% of the world’s biodiversity lives in old forests, so we are losing around 50,000 species a year to deforestation. Monocultural plantation forests tend to be home to many fewer species, partly because they will have been eradicated by destroying their previous habitat, and partly because of the heavy use of chemicals and the lack of variety of food sources.

5) Landgrabbing and displacement of people

In the last decade, there have been at least 80 million hectares of land in poor countries ‘grabbed’, which means the farmers who have lived on that land for generations are displaced to homelessness and hunger. When small-scale farmers are confronted by industrial farms in their locality, they can’t compete. Bigger farms externalise their costs and use temporary labour. Much of this landgrabbing has been for biofuels plantations.

6) Fire risk

Many plantation tree crops are pine and eucalyptus. These species are very susceptible to fire because they have high levels of flammable resin. They are being planted in places such as Australia and southern US that are warming rapidly and seeing an increase in forest fires.

7) Genetic modification of trees

There are major plans and projects for GM forests for biofuels. This film by geneticist David Suzuki, Silent Forest, explores the related threats. Species (such as eucalyptus) are modified to grow in climates they are not suited to, but then have affects on the ecosystem that they are unsuited to, such as depleting groundwater supplies. (A single eucalyptus sucks up 50 litres of water a day.)

8) Poor carbon sinks

Forests need to stand for many decades to function as a carbon sink, a process called biosequestration, because they need to build up rich soil from deposited leaves, rotted wood, fallen fruit, fungi and animal poo. New plantations rarely have time to build up good soil, and instead fertiliser and irrigated water are used to promote growth.

This just focuses on the key points about plantations, particularly for biofuel. It doesn’t go into all the other negative aspects of biofuels, including health risks. For more information, have a look at Biofuel Watch.

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