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 cover about 23 percent of the European Union. But what could be considered native, old-growth forests, have been reduced to less than two percent [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 surface. But old-growth forests have been reduced to one percent [1%] of the territory, fragmented into small patches, and still subject to further degradation.

Most forests in European countries have little similarity with what was originally there. Only relics of their unique and rich original forest resources remain. Most forests there are closer to plantations of monocultures, where biodiversity has been severely depleted, and where biological processes have been drastically simplified, in favor of short term economic returns.

In North America the depletion of old-growth forests has become a major issue. In the USA forests cover 30% of the land. But, excluding Alaska, 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 often branded as the "environmental villains" of the world, mainly due to their reported levels of destruction of natural forests. But despite the levels of deforestation registered in these countries, they are still covered over 60 percent [60%] of their territory by natural, tropical forests, among the 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 only 10 percent of the country, mostly plantations of monocultures. A similar situation is registered in The Netherlands and many other European countries.

Most industrial nations have attempted to reverse the loss of their original forest cover through the establishment of plantations. Large areas have been reforested to protect watersheds, to bring degraded lands back into production, to expand recreational areas, or for the production of industrial timber. Industrial forestry has become a dominant feature in the economies of some countries, such as Finland, Sweden and Canada. And Japan, with over 65% of its surface covered mainly by plantations, has been able to recreate forests almost anywhere they could be sustained.

Nevertheless, new threats to forests have emerged, and new reason to plant trees have been found. Pollution and acid rain have become major threats to large extensions of forests in Europe and North America. As much as a third of all forests in Europe has been reported either dead or dying, due mainly to the combined effect of air pollution, acid rain and ozone contamination. Acid rain is also causing extensive damage to forests in the United States. This can hardly be considered appropriate forest management, or more acceptable than deforestation in the tropics.


In the tropics the need to plant trees is particularly acute. During the decade of the 80s, deforestation reached a rate of 30 hectares a minute, 16 million hectares a year, bringing significant social, environmental and 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 natural tropical forests were lost during the decade.

It may take between 10 and 20 years to bring tropical deforestation to manageable levels. Were it to be phased out in 15 years, there would be a need to reforest some 1.5 million square kilometers simply to balance the loss of forest surface, an area six times the size of the United Kingdom.

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 the security of millions of people. To reclaim only one half of that land would 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 consumption of industrial timber by all the developed economies combined. Firewood accounts for 20 percent of total energy consumption in the tropics today. A significant proportion could be supplied by plantations, meeting the needs of local people, while alleviating pressure on natural forests.

Imports of wood products reaching the tropics, mainly in the form of pulp and paper made from long-fiber woods, already exceed 10 billion dollars a year, and may reach 15 billion a year by the end of this decade. Much of this imported material could be locally produced from plantation grown wood, allowing for the retention of badly needed financial resources in tropical countries. This could take place on relatively poor soils and degraded land, creating forests where there were none before.

In the tropics, many species of interest to the pulp and paper industry can grow at rates several times greater than in temperate regions. While in Europe an 80-year rotation period may be necessary, in Latin America it could be 15 years or less. Land is more plentiful, labor costs are lower, and there is a far more urgent need to generate employment, exports and wealth.


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 selected areas, or as part of agro-forestry initiatives, contribute to counter the greenhouse effect, either by serving as carbon sinks, or by alleviating pressure on native forests, helping to preserve them as carbon deposits.

However, plantations should not be conceived with the primary purpose of countering the emission of carbon to the atmosphere. Particularly not plantations located in the tropics, to counter the emissions of carbon in 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 politically motivated.

Neither should plantations be conceived as a justification to continue pumping heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere. Their carbon sink potential is limited, and can only be conceived as part of a transient mechanism to move towards worldwide energy consumption models based on renewable resources, while contributing to the establishment of sustainable development models in the tropics.


Most of the problems registered by plantations in the tropics have been 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 table, 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 less intensive management systems.

The development of plantations in the tropics has become a subject of controversy, mainly due to the perception that plantations necessarily 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 the development of industrial plantations is a necessary part of sustainable models of development for the forestry sector and the timber industry, they are a relatively minor component of the total surface which needs to be reforested to protect water supplies, to reclaim degraded lands, to expand agro-forestry practices, or to produce energy. In most of these cases, plantations should rely on the use of a mixture of native species, on marginal or abandoned lands. They must also be based on the most appropriate species for the environmental and social conditions of the area to be affected, and for the objectives pursued.

For plantations to be an appropriate form of land use, they must be in harmony with the environmental and social priorities of the affected areas. Plantations cannot substitute for the full spectrum of goods and services derived from natural tropical forests, particularly with respect to biological diversity. Nevertheless, they can provide goods and services to complement those of natural forests.


Conditions seem thus right for a major international effort to green the Earth. To avoid unwanted effects, clear principles and guidelines are necessary, making the best possible use of available knowledge expertise.

Tropical countries are among the poorest countries on Earth. They must 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 social and economic situation, plus deeply adverse terms of trade and financial 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 sincerely and effectively assist the tropics in its quest for sustainable forest 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 on natural forest, our genetic heritage will continue to disappear, degraded lands will continue to expand, water resources will continue to diminish, and the ranks of environmental refugees will continue to grow. This can only 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 one of the key negotiators of the International Tropical Timber Agreement, 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.


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