Review of large-scale tree plantations suggests need to consider socioeconomic impacts

Forests News has updated the first paragraph and headline from 'Socioeconomic impacts of tree plantations overwhelmingly negative for local people' to better reflect the research findings and article content - Forests News apologises for any misinterpretations of the research. Science and evidence based news is the foundation of this blog. From the managing editor, Jeremy van Loon.
Photo credit; Arttu Malkamäki

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A systematic review of the available literature has found that large-scale tree plantations require more consideration of the socioeconomic impacts on local people.

Intensively managed, large-scale tree monocultures now make up roughly 1 percent of global forests. From this relatively small area, they supply around one-third of the world’s industrial round wood.

Researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the University of Helsinki and Yale University analyzed 92 papers featuring case studies from around the world, mostly from Southeast Asia, South America, Africa and Australasia.

“It was very rare that the impacts were entirely positive,” said lead author Arttu Malkamäki, from the University of Helsinki. “Based on the evidence we reviewed, it’s very hard to sustain the argument that plantations have brought positive wellbeing impacts at the local level.”

Those impacts were worst when the establishment of a plantation meant that communities lost access to land they relied on for their livelihoods and culture.

“That tends to lead to very drastic impacts at the local level. The trade-off is unbearable for many communities, based on what we read. No matter what follows, it might not be able to compensate for the losses.”

Local systems of land rights and governance also affect the severity of the impact. In many parts of Southeast Asia and Africa, land belongs to the state, and governments have the power to allocate concessions to companies – regardless of who might be living or using that area. “From the capital city, looking at a map, it might look like a ‘wasteland’ – but it rarely is,” Malkamäki said.

“Where people have clear land tenure and rights, they tend to get better deals, in terms of compensation and their bargaining power,” added co-author Nicholas Hogarth. “If they have no land tenure or rights, they tend to be bulldozed out of the way, sometimes literally.”



Malkamäki’s interest in the social aspects of tree plantations was ignited when he did fieldwork in Uruguay (where he became “an instant fan of mate” – the popular caffeinated, tea-like beverage enjoyed in the country)

Malkamäki studied beekeepers in the west of the country. The replacement of biodiverse grasslands with eucalyptus monocultures had a widespread impact on beekeeping families, he said, although in this case it was not wholly negative. The impact was moderated by the planters’ choice of eucalypt species, which flowers in abundance for a short season, enabling beekeepers to use this new source of nectar to make honey.

Photo credit: Arttu Malkamäki

However, that made them deeply dependent on the forestry companies, Malkamäki said, with little resilience should plantation managers decide to plant other, less bee-friendly species. Companies should consider community wellbeing in their decision-making, he said. “Would a moderate gain in tree productivity be worth the loss of an important livelihood for the hundreds of bee-keeping families?”



That paper was one of 92 such studies included in the review paper. Systematic reviews are basically a stock-take of the evidence on a particular topic, Hogarth says, using a specific protocol to avoid bias in choosing the studies.

The researchers sorted through 20,000 possible papers, but only those 92 met their strict, pre-determined criteria for inclusion. Studies had to be relevant to the research question and meet certain quality indicators.

The technique comes from medicine, where one randomized, controlled, double-blind trial can be easily compared to another. It is not so easy in socio-environmental research, Hogarth said.

That is because of a lack of coordination and consistency with methods and definitions, he said. “Even something as basic as ‘what is a tree plantation, or a forest?’ isn’t clear. You can go to 100 papers and you’ll get dozens of different definitions, what’s included and what isn’t.”

Perhaps the most important finding of the review, and a major caveat, is that there is still so much we don’t know: “strong evidence on the longer-term socio-economic impacts of large-scale tree plantations remains limited,” the authors write.

“In many ways it’s a road-map to knowledge gap-filling, and improving the way research is done,” Hogarth said. “The methods are generally weakly described, we need better ways of measuring impact, and ways of removing selection bias.”

Many of the studies came from parts of the world where there are conflicts between plantation companies and local people, while areas with less conflict – where impacts could well be positive – seem to be underrepresented.

In addition, most studies took place shortly after the land was converted, Hogarth said, with few longitudinal case studies.

“As tree plantations mature, local people might start to see more benefits, like employment in local processing, or being able to harvest mushrooms, firewood, or other forest products. The point is we need longer-term studies to really see if there are benefits at the local level over time.”



Scientists do not often get a chance to talk about their research face to face with the people they hope will hear about it – so when Hogarth was invited to the Dialogue on Tree Plantations in the Landscape in November 2018, he made the effort to travel halfway round the world, from Finland to Rotorua, in New Zealand.

The talks, organized by the The Forests Dialogue, New Generation Plantations and Scion, brought together a global mix of stakeholders, from plantation companies to policy makers, indigenous representatives, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“It was the dream audience for the paper,” Hogarth says. “This was exactly who we wanted it to reach.” In the sessions, at lunch, on the bus and touring pine plantations managed by local indigenous Māori groups, Hogarth was able to talk to people one-on-one about the findings. The response was positive, he said.

“I was expecting some backlash from the industry people – but those who read it realized that we’d tried to be as neutral as possible.”

Through the Dialogue, there’s now a conduit from researchers to stakeholders.

“Future research will go straight to policy makers, straight to industry, straight to civil society, and those willing to make or facilitate more sustainable investments in plantations,” Hogarth says. “We want to use what we’ve learned from this review to do independent, rigorous science, and get that straight to stakeholders.”

Ignoring the problems is not an option.

Predictions indicate that the growing global population and increased consumption could more than triple the demand for timber and forest products by 2050, and over the same time period, the area of large-scale tree plantations is expected to double.

“This isn’t going away. As plantations and competition for land increase, there’s going to be more potential for conflict, and more need to get this right,” Hogarth said.

“There’s huge demand for forest products. So how can we produce more stuff in less area without destroying communities? This is a really important area for research.”

For industry, Malkamäki said, a first step would be to consult with local people in advance of any development, offer fair compensation for any land lost, and set up forums where grievances can be immediately addressed.

“I hope that companies now are being more cognizant of their impacts, and that they plan their strategies in advance. They need to consider how their plantations will impact different groups at the local level and the environment on which their wellbeing depends – before the trees go into the ground.”

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