Few forest-related issues generate more heated disagreement than commercial eucalypt, acacia, pine, and poplar plantations. Proponents argue that fast-growing tree plantations offer a sustainable source of wood to meet the growing global demand for paper and other products. They also claim plantations generate substantial employment, reduce global warming and protect watersheds, and take pressure off natural forests.
Opponents disagree with these claims. They say plantations will dry up water supplies, degrade the soil, and fall victim to pests and diseases. They deny that plantations will help protect natural forests or provide many jobs. In fact, the opponents maintain that companies often destroy natural forests to grow plantations and displace small farmers and local communities, and they strongly object to calling these plantations "forests".
The issue is key because fast-growing tree plantations and global demand for paper are both increasing rapidly. There are some ten million hectares of commercial fast-growing tree plantations and the area is increasing by about one million hectares each year. FAO predicts that global paper consumption will be 80% higher in 2010 than it was in 1990.
To sort out fact from fiction about the plantation controversial, CIFOR, WWF, IUCN, and Forest Trends have just published "Fast-Wood Forestry, Myths and Realities" by Christian Cossalter and Charlie Pye Smith. It concludes that fast-growing plantations:
– often but not always replace natural forest;
– only take pressure off natural forest in special circumstances;
– sometimes improve biodiversity in degraded areas;
– use more water than lower vegetation, but that is only a problem in dry areas;
– are not as susceptible to pests and diseases as sometimes argued;
– generally degrade the soil less than commercial agricultural crops;
– can do relatively little to reduce global warming;
– provide fewer jobs than claimed by proponents;
– have frequently been associated with conflicts; and
– should generally not be subsidized with public funds.
The authors are convinced that fast-growing commercial tree plantations are here to stay. The real issue is how to manage them better. No, eucalypts and acacias are unlikely to eat your children or turn your region into a desert. But there is still a lot that could be done to improve plantations.
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