Originally published by Global Forest Coalition


Is the timber, pulp, packaging, paper and wood pellet industry genuinely attempting to reform itself, as is often claimed, or is it just continuing to green-wash its image, and misrepresenting the horrific realities of its social and environmental impacts as certified ‘best practice’?

Just over twenty years ago, in 1996, everything changed when the late Ricardo Carrere of the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) and the Corner House’s Larry Lohmann published ‘Pulping the South’ [1], providing a shocking overview of how rapidly the Northern-based pulp and paper industry was expanding into the South. The book helped to trigger increased concern among civil society groups, and in June 1998, WRM convened a meeting of 21 representatives of NGOs from 14 countries around the world, in Montevideo, Uruguay, from which emerged a joint statement, the Montevideo Declaration [2], and the launching of the International Campaign against Monoculture Tree Plantations.

The meeting was an eye-opener for all present, many of whom had not realised that the problems with tree plantations they had encountered in their own countries were in fact widespread, including in South America, Africa and Asia. Then, in August 1999, WRM published a crucial briefing note written by Ricardo Carrere, titled ‘Ten replies to ten lies’, which succinctly described how tree plantations were being misrepresented to the world. [3]

Since then, members of the international plantations campaign have continued to oppose and to criticise governments and corporations that promote the industrial tree plantation model. However, this opposition has had an uncertain effect on the global expansion of tree plantations, largely due to the aggressive manner in which powerful governments, together with major players in the United Nations system – such as the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – have re-introduced land imperialism disguised in a new form.

This has been done through the imposition of vast plantations of ecologically destructive and socially harmful trees in countries in the South, as part of an invasive resource-grabbing industrial model that provides a low-cost alternative to organising prohibitively expensive military invasions that would normally cause long-term conflict and reputational harm to the perpetrator. Ricardo Carrere, who had travelled all over the world to study tree plantations, and was himself a forester by profession, likened the long rows of trees in monoculture plantations to invading soldiers, in this video. [4]

By establishing more tree plantations in “developing countries” – green-washed by the FAO as “planted forests”, and promoted by the UNFCCC as being a cheap, effective solution to climate change, foreign governments and investors can easily obtain long-term control over, and the virtual ownership of, poor nations’ land, water and other natural resources, through very low land prices or ridiculously long (100-year) and inexpensive land leases.

In this way, they can also obtain effective control over the local people who, having been deprived of the right of access to their land and other natural resources, then have little option other than to sell their labour cheaply to the plantation owners in order to survive. This dependency makes them victims of ‘economic slavery’, and keeps them in a state of perpetual poverty. The savings thus achieved by the plantation company owners are in effect an externalised cost, which can also be viewed as an indirect subsidy by which company profits are increased.

It is hardly surprising that opposition to plantations is mounting rapidly. In addition to the efforts mentioned above there has also been an immense amount of work done by many other international, national and local NGOs, as well as activist groups working with local affected communities, to increase public awareness of the irreversible ecological damage and consequent negative social effects, of large-scale tree plantations.

Forests and other biodiverse natural habitats are being rapidly converted into sources of cheap industrial timber, mainly to satisfy excessive or wasteful consumption of goods and energy in the global North. Brazil is the best-known example, with vast alien eucalyptus plantations grown to produce toilet paper [5] steadily eliminating the country’s rainforests and cerrado, whilst simultaneously displacing affected forest-dependent local communities and Indigenous Peoples. However, instead of heeding the concerns of local groups and global civil society, the forces controlling the international trade in timber products have rallied, building a massive pro plantation-expansion propaganda campaign. But this attempt to drown out opposition from activist groups, including from members of Global Forest Coalition (GFC) and Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), has merely served to provoke greater resistance.

Part of the pro-plantation campaign’s strategy has been the deliberate muddling of tree plantations with real forests, by using inaccurate terms such as ‘planted forests’, ‘forest plantations’, ‘afforestation’, ‘reforestation’, ‘forestry’, and most recently, ‘forest landscape restoration’ when describing destructive large-scale tree monocultures. This has been spearheaded by FAO, and followed by other UN agencies and structures, including the UNFCCC, the UNFF (UN Forum on Forests), the World Bank, and even UNEP (the UN Environment Programme) and the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity), along with most governments of timber producing or processing countries.

FAO’s simplistic ‘forest’ definition is another case in point. It supports the false notion that any group of trees covering a minimum given area and with a minimum crown cover and height is a ‘forest’. This infers that any group of trees, especially dense plantations of alien and often invasive species, are more likely to be classified as forests, than natural tree-dominated vegetation that covers less than a half-hectare, grows to less than 5 metres tall, or has a canopy cover of less than 15%, which assumption is ludicrous at best!

FAO’s distorting ‘forest’ definition is exactly what countries that have already converted, or are still in the process of converting their forests into tree plantations, or are establishing new tree plantations, desperately want. Some examples are the USA, Canada, Sweden, Norway, India, Chile and Indonesia. Sweden has gone to great lengths to promote its so-called ‘Swedish Forestry Model’, which is held out to the world as being an ecologically sustainable forest management system, but many scientists and environmental groups in Sweden, consider it anything but. [6, 7] Some other Northern countries, e.g. Canada, whose financial statuses also depend on the over-exploitation of their forest resources, spend a lot of money and effort to promote tree plantations as genuine forests, as in this video. [8]

This ‘fake forest model’ is being promoted in other ways too. Top of the list are ‘forest certification’ schemes, dominated by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Certification (PEFC), which certify wood-derived products from even the most environmentally destructive tree plantations as being from ‘responsibly managed forests’. There are numerous examples of this worldwide, but two that stand out are the non-indigenous Sitka Spruce plantations in Ireland (PEFC certified), and the extensive plantations of alien invasive eucalyptus and pine trees of the Norwegian company Green Resources, in eastern Africa (FSC certified).

Then there is a ‘miraculous’ invention called ‘forest landscape restoration’ (FLR) by which polluting Northern nations plan to smother vast areas of supposedly degraded, non-utilised and unoccupied land in the South with massive tree-planting projects. Starting with the ‘Bonn Challenge’, [10] which aims to plant up 350 million hectares with trees by 2030, allegedly for the purpose of “regaining ecological functionality and enhancing human well-being”. [11] During the UNFCCC COP 21 held in Paris in 2015, another ambitious scheme to ‘restore’ 100 million hectares of ‘deforested and degraded’ land in Africa by 2030 was also hatched. [12] But there is little likelihood that these efforts will achieve much more than sparse scrappy plantations of weedy alien trees, given the operational difficulties involved, and the high establishment and maintenance costs of carrying out proper forest restoration on genuinely degraded or marginal land, using the correct locally indigenous species.

Is it possible that in reality, these schemes might have a hidden agenda aligned with the ambitious plans of Northern nations, to substitute fossil fuels with biomass fuels obtained from forests and tree plantations? If indeed so, high on this agenda would be finding the places around the world where tree plantations could be cheaply grown on other peoples’ land. Secondly, the plantations would need to grow really fast, so the claimed ‘degraded’ lands to be used would be those with good soils and water, most likely taken from rural people without title to their land, in countries like Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania.

The remarkable similarity between ‘forest landscape restoration’ and grand plans for large scale biomass fuel production projects cannot just be coincidence, so what is the truth? It could very well be that these are both tree plantation-friendly scams, just like the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) and REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) before them, and they should therefore not go any further. ‘Restoring forest landscapes’ with tree plantations will be no less than a crude attempt to colonise or to ‘re-occupy’ land in the South, by planting millions of invasive alien trees across other peoples’ forests, grasslands and fields, which will definitely not be good for the planet.

And that brings us back to Ricardo’s ‘ten replies to ten lies’:
Lie No. 1: Tree Plantations are ‘planted forests’
Lie No. 2: Tree plantations improve the environment
Lie No. 3: Plantations relieve pressure on native forests
Lie No. 4: Plantations enable degraded lands to be improved and made better use of
Lie No. 5: Plantations serve to counteract the greenhouse effect
Lie No. 6: Plantations are necessary to supply the growing need for paper
Lie No. 7: Plantations are much more productive than native forests
Lie No. 8: Plantations generate employment
Lie No. 9: Eventual negative impacts of industrial monoculture plantations can be avoided or mitigated through good management
Lie No 10: Plantations cannot be judged in isolation


[1] https://wrm.org.uy/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Pulping_the_South.pdf

[2] https://wrm.org.uy/meetings-and-events/the-montevideo-declaration-a-call-for-action-to-defend-forests-and-people-against-large-scale-tree-monocrops/

[3] https://wrm.org.uy/oldsite/plantations/material/lies.html

[4] https://wrm.org.uy/oldsite/plantations/video.html

[5] https://www.worldwatch.org/node/6403

[6] See: The Swedish Experience: Shrinking forests – Expanding tree plantations, at https://plantationdefinitiondiscussion.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-swedish-experience-shrinking-forests-expanding-tree-plantations/

[7] Watch: Sustainable Forestry – Swedish model: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0uAIOT66Wo

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxHX3_s48v8

[9] https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/report/16496

[10] https://www.bonnchallenge.org/content/challenge

[11] https://www.iucn.org/theme/forests/our-work/forest-landscape-restoration

[12] https://www.wri.org/our-work/project/AFR100/about-afr100

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