Plantations Pros and Cons, Pt 1, The Cons

Plantations of almost all types are considered one of the “green” wood products out there. People are planting them for carbon credits and manufacturers use them so their products qualify for rapidly renewable credits in green building programs. On one end of the spectrum, they’re being used simply as fiber in biofuel and pulp production, and on the other as a desired species in flooring, decking and mouldings.

Plantations emphasize the renewable nature of the wood industry—in some cases, you might have useable timber within a few years. Last year I saw Pine plantations in southern Brazil where the trees topped three meters in 3 years and could be harvested for full timber production between 7 and 15, depending on how you wanted to use the logs. They told me that region produced the fastest growing Pine in the world and I believed them.

Plantations can be great, but this week, I’m going to look at a few of the negatives that are associated with them. Next week, we’ll do the pros and then we’ll look at some hot woods to watch for.

One of the basic facts about a plantation is that to start them off you need dirt, right? And on that dirt, in most cases, other trees used to grow.

Because a lot of the world has decided plantations are ‘green’ (greener), people are boycotting tropical timber and choosing plantation wood. As a result, many developing nations are burning their native forests to plant imported plantation species.

As an example, Rubberwood timber was once a waste product—the trees were grown only for their latex and when, after about thirty years, they no longer actively producing it, the trees were burnt and new forests were planted. However the wood industry developed a market for rubberwood furniture and other products, and now there is actually a shortage of rubberwood lumber. The trees are now generally more valuable as a resource for the wood industry then for the rubber industry. It’s wonderful that the trees are productive and useful to us throughout their growth and then as lumber later, but the demand for ‘green’ plantation material has outpaced the natural cycle of this particular wood. The industry needs more ‘dirt’ to meet Rubberwood demands.

Plantations are not with risk and other costs. Many plantations, being made of single species and well trimmed, often do not hold a variety of wildlife. They are generally more susceptible to disease and insect attack, and often to fires as well. And many plantations are NOT sustainable years without extensive chemical support.

Now of course everyone’s worried about carbon emissions and their carbon footprint. Tree farms are being advertised as a great way to earn carbon credits, to offset pollution. And they do have value—I will never discourage more trees on the earth. However, buying forests to offset pollution doesn’t change the fact that they are polluting.

Furthermore, old growth forests store up to more than three times more carbon if they are left in the ground than tree farms. One reason tree farms actually don’t retain much carbon is because the market encourages rapid growth and cutting cycles. Some plantations are logged and burnt every ten years or so, releasing CO2 from the logging slash and the soil.

According to a report commissioned by Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, the use of forest plantations to store carbon pollution from the atmosphere and combat climate change could actually accelerate the destruction of old-growth native forest around the world. The report, entitled “The Clearcut Case: How the Kyoto Protocol Could Become a Driver for Deforestation”, concludes “the economics of the developing carbon sequestration market is becoming an additional driver for clearing native forests” and suggests that the Protocol is wrong in allowing countries to claim carbon credit for planting trees, but not to incur a carbon debit for deforestation.

We need to strike a balance between having a forest ‘crops’ and having forests. Next week, let’s look at all the good aspects of plantations.

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