Fast growing forests not all bad

Posted: 29 May 2003

A new report launched today at the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) corrects some major popular misconceptions about tree plantations, and warns that the rapid expansion of often heavily subsidized industrial fast wood plantations cannot be relied upon to stop deforestation or generate employment.

The report Fast Wood Forestry - Myths and Realities, jointly published by WWF, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), IUCN - The World Conservation Union, and Forest Trends, sorts out fact from fiction in the fast wood forestry.

It challenges the claim that fast wood plantations, by providing timber and pulpwood, take pressure off natural forests, and argues that the impacts of plantation products on markets do not protect natural forests.

Paper demand

Furthermore, the study reveals that the establishment of fast wood plantations to supply the world's increasing demand for paper and pulpwood products is often supported by significant incentives and subsidies which create economic distortions, such as making plantations viable in situations where other land use might make better economic and environmental sense.

However, it also shows that, even though in some countries fast wood plantations are being established at the expense of natural forests, they do not always destroy native forests and can contribute to biodiversity conservation, especially when they are established on already degraded land.

"Evidence collected for the report shows that most subsidies to the plantation industry are perverse - they are bad both for the economy and the environment," said Dr Chris Elliott, Head of WWF's Forests for Life programme. "We are calling on governments to phase out, or dramatically reduce, subsidies to commercial plantations as soon as possible."

According to the report, fast wood plantations often bring far fewer benefits in terms of employment than is generally claimed by companies within the industry. In many parts of the developing world, plantations have actually sparked off serious conflicts with local people, especially where they have deprived people of the land on which their livelihoods were based.

Consumption problem

The new study also gives the first credible estimate of the extent of the world's fast wood plantations - approximately 10 million hectares (an area 2.5 times the size of Switzerland) - and shows that this area continues to grow quickly. The report stresses that the world is expected to consume 80 per cent more paper in 2010 than it did in 1990, and underlines that unless such a consumption level is radically reduced, the area devoted to new fast wood plantations will continue to increase at a rate of 0.8 to 1.2 million hectares a year.

The key players are Brazil, Indonesia, China, India, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Venezuela and Swaziland, as far as tropical and subtropical species are concerned, and China, Chile, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa and Australia for the temperate species. "Over the next few decades, fast growing plantations are set to become the main source of the world's paper," said David Kaimowitz, Director of CIFOR. "Governments need to take steps now to make sure that these plantations provide social benefits and do not harm the environment."

CIFOR, Forest Trends, IUCN and WWF are all calling for a halt to clearing of natural forests for plantations, phasing out subsidies to industrial plantations and ensuring that if and when industrial plantations are established they are done so in an environmentally and socially sound way.

  • In a separate comment on the UNFF meeting, the World Rainforest Movement argues that "the increase in so-called 'forest cover' is due to the fact that monocultures of alien tree species are considered to be "forests", thus hiding the real deforestation rates. Incredibly enough, the UNFF...still insist in considering plantations to be "planted forests", thus alienating support to this process by the numerous communities affected by plantations." According to WRM, if the UNFF process aims at having a positive impact in forest conservation, it must focus on its mandate: "to develop coherent policies to promote the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests."

    Related link:

    Read the report: Fast Wood Forestry - Myths and Realities