THE NEED TO REFOREST THE EARTH
THE NEED TO REFOREST THE EARTH
Julio Cesar Centeno
There is a growing need to reforest the Earth. In Europe the sweep of
deforestation reached its peak over 100 years ago. Today, forests
about 23 percent of the European Union. But what could be considered
native, old-growth forests, have been reduced to less than two
[2%] of the territory.
Finland and Sweden are among the largest exporters of wood based
products in the world. Forests cover over 60 percent of their
old-growth forests have been reduced to one percent [1%] of the
territory, fragmented into small patches, and still subject to
Most forests in European countries have little similarity with what
originally there. Only relics of their unique and rich original
resources remain. Most forests there are closer to plantations of
monocultures, where biodiversity has been severely depleted, and
biological processes have been drastically simplified, in favor of
term economic returns.
In North America the depletion of old-growth forests has become a
issue. In the USA forests cover 30% of the land. But, excluding
old-growth native forests have been reduced to less than 5% of the
national surface. And they are under dramatic pressures, which have
polarized extensive sectors of the society.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil, among other tropical countries, are
branded as the "environmental villains" of the world, mainly due to
reported levels of destruction of natural forests. But despite the
deforestation registered in these countries, they are still covered
percent [60%] of their territory by natural, tropical forests, among
most precious of all forests left on Earth.
The natural forest cover of the United Kingdom, on the other hand,
extends over only one percent [1%] of the national surface, and
fragmented to such an extent that only small remnants of old-growth
forests remain. The total forest surface of the United Kingdom is
percent of the country, mostly plantations of monocultures. A similar
situation is registered in The Netherlands and many other European
Most industrial nations have attempted to reverse the loss of their
forest cover through the establishment of plantations. Large areas
been reforested to protect watersheds, to bring degraded lands back
production, to expand recreational areas, or for the production of
industrial timber. Industrial forestry has become a dominant feature
economies of some countries, such as Finland, Sweden and Canada.
And Japan, with over 65% of its surface covered mainly by
has been able to recreate forests almost anywhere they could be
Nevertheless, new threats to forests have emerged, and new reason to
plant trees have been found. Pollution and acid rain have become
threats to large extensions of forests in Europe and North America.
much as a third of all forests in Europe has been reported either
dying, due mainly to the combined effect of air pollution, acid rain
ozone contamination. Acid rain is also causing extensive damage to
forests in the United States. This can hardly be considered
forest management, or more acceptable than deforestation in the
In the tropics the need to plant trees is particularly acute. During
decade of the 80s, deforestation reached a rate of 30 hectares a
16 million hectares a year, bringing significant social,
economic damage, and an irreversible depletion of the most valuable
genetic resources on Earth. Nevertheless, despite the enormous
magnitude of these figures, only about eight percent [8%] of all
tropical forests were lost during the decade.
It may take between 10 and 20 years to bring tropical deforestation
manageable levels. Were it to be phased out in 15 years, there would
a need to reforest some 1.5 million square kilometers simply to
the loss of forest surface, an area six times the size of the United
Degraded lands in the tropics extend over more than 5 million square
kilometers, an area twice the size of the European Community. They
continue to expand, leaving bare landscapes, and seriously affecting
security of millions of people. To reclaim only one half of that land
imply planting an area almost seven times the size of Japan.
The expected consumption of fuelwood in the tropics may reach 1.5
billion cubic meters by the year 2000, or twice the present
of industrial timber by all the developed economies combined.
accounts for 20 percent of total energy consumption in the tropics
A significant proportion could be supplied by plantations, meeting
needs of local people, while alleviating pressure on natural forests.
Imports of wood products reaching the tropics, mainly in the form of
and paper made from long-fiber woods, already exceed 10 billion
a year, and may reach 15 billion a year by the end of this decade.
of this imported material could be locally produced from plantation
wood, allowing for the retention of badly needed financial resources
tropical countries. This could take place on relatively poor soils
degraded land, creating forests where there were none before.
In the tropics, many species of interest to the pulp and paper
can grow at rates several times greater than in temperate regions.
in Europe an 80-year rotation period may be necessary, in Latin
it could be 15 years or less. Land is more plentiful, labor costs are
and there is a far more urgent need to generate employment, exports
THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT
Concerns with the greenhouse effect generate additional pressure to
reforest new areas all over the world. All plantations, whether for
industrial uses, the production of firewood, the protection of
areas, or as part of agro-forestry initiatives, contribute to counter
greenhouse effect, either by serving as carbon sinks, or by
pressure on native forests, helping to preserve them as carbon
However, plantations should not be conceived with the primary purpose
of countering the emission of carbon to the atmosphere. Particularly
plantations located in the tropics, to counter the emissions of
industrial nations. This is equivalent to the dumping of toxic waste.
Proposals of this nature have frequently ignored the needs and
expectations of communities in the tropics, and are largely
Neither should plantations be conceived as a justification to
pumping heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere. Their carbon sink
potential is limited, and can only be conceived as part of a
mechanism to move towards worldwide energy consumption models
based on renewable resources, while contributing to the establishment
of sustainable development models in the tropics.
PROBLEMS AND CONCERNS
Most of the problems registered by plantations in the tropics have
related to social or environmental issues. Social conflicts have been
mainly due to land claims by local communities, or to the lack of
sensitivity to the needs and preferences of surrounding populations.
Environmental conflicts have been mainly related to poor matching of
species to the conditions of the soils, to the depletion of the water
or to the susceptibility of monocultures to fire, pests and diseases.
Most of these conflicts can be avoided. They have often been due to
inadequate planning or defective management. Tree plantations are in
many ways like agricultural crops, except with larger cycles, and
intensive management systems.
The development of plantations in the tropics has become a subject of
controversy, mainly due to the perception that plantations
mean large extensions of industrial monocultures, the displacement of
local populations, the destruction of natural forests, or the use of
agricultural land best suited for the production of food. Although
development of industrial plantations is a necessary part of
models of development for the forestry sector and the timber
they are a relatively minor component of the total surface which
to be reforested to protect water supplies, to reclaim degraded
expand agro-forestry practices, or to produce energy. In most of
cases, plantations should rely on the use of a mixture of native
on marginal or abandoned lands. They must also be based on the most
appropriate species for the environmental and social conditions of
area to be affected, and for the objectives pursued.
For plantations to be an appropriate form of land use, they must be
harmony with the environmental and social priorities of the affected
areas. Plantations cannot substitute for the full spectrum of goods
services derived from natural tropical forests, particularly with
biological diversity. Nevertheless, they can provide goods and
to complement those of natural forests.
Conditions seem thus right for a major international effort to green
Earth. To avoid unwanted effects, clear principles and guidelines are
necessary, making the best possible use of available knowledge
Tropical countries are among the poorest countries on Earth. They
also manage the most complex, delicate and valuable forests remaining
in the planet. The economic and technological resources available to
them are particularly limited. They must also endure a dramatic
and economic situation, plus deeply adverse terms of trade and
relationships with industrial countries. Under such conditions, the
possibility of reaching sustainable models of developments becomes a
distant reality. There is a clear need for industrial countries to
and effectively assist the tropics in its quest for sustainable
management and development.
Plantations are expected to play an increasingly important role in
maintaining a protective and productive forest cover over the Earth.
Unless a large scale tree plantation program is developed in the near
future, particularly in the tropics, pressure will continue to build
forest, our genetic heritage will continue to disappear, degraded
will continue to expand, water resources will continue to diminish,
the ranks of environmental refugees will continue to grow. This can
lead toward social and ecological upheavals we can still prevent.
Mirida, Venezuela June 1996
Julio Cesar Centeno is a forestry specialist from Venezuela. He was
of the key negotiators of the International Tropical Timber
UNCTAD, Geneva, serving as spokesman for tropical countries. Has
served as forestry advisor to the Secretariat of the United Nations
Conference for Environment and Development [UNCED 92], as Director
of the Latinamerican Forestry Institute between 1980 and 1990, as
professor of the Graduate School of Forestry at the University of the
Andes, Venezuela, and as member of the Board of Directors of the
Forest Stewardship Council. Was invested by Prince Bernhard of The
Netherlands with the Golden Ark Award for his work in the forestry
sector. Serves as a member of the Governing Board of SGS-Forestry in
Oxford, United Kingdom, and as acting vice-chairman of the
TROPENBOS Foundation in The Netherlands.
JULIO CESAR CENTENO
PO BOX 750
MERIDA - VENEZUELA
FAX INT +58 - 74 - 714576