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Plantation forests are cultivated through the processes of afforestation (or reforestation). Afforestation refers to tree planting in areas not previously forested, while reforestation refers to tree planting on previously forested spaces. Asia has the highest proportion of plantation forests, comprising 45 percent of the global total. Five countries-China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan-account for 65 percent of the plantation forests.
Plantations produce wood products such as lumber for construction material, furniture, or pulp for paper production. Most plantation forests use nonnative tree species. The most common species is pine (pinus), followed by eucalyptus. These species have biological and ecological characteristics, such as fast growth, that make them the world’s most successful timber trees.
The plantation ecosystems are managed through “silviculture” practices. Most plantations are monocultures, with the trees planted in evenly spaced rows. Due to the heavy management of plantation forests, most researchers do not consider them natural forests; instead, they are viewed as an agricultural product similar to maize or wheat.
Plantation forests are primarily planted to meet the demand for wood worldwide. In addition, plantation forests sequester carbon, and many policy makers are encouraging their expansion to help mitigate our increasing use of fossil fuels. Both business and government organizations advocate tree planting as an activity that could offset many current environmental problems. Many researchers, however, disagree.
Studies on the ecological impacts of plantation forestry focus on the loss of flora and fauna species due to the monoculture nature of plantations. Most of the studies conclude that both flora and fauna biodiversity decrease in plantation forests. Furthermore, other studies show that recovery of the land after trees have been cut can take several years, and even longer if the land is to be restored to its previous grassland state. Pine and eucalyptus plantations acidify the soil, which is toxic to some plants. In many countries where plantations are common, another environmental threat caused by plantations is the spread of species to nonplantation areas. Eucalyptus, for example, is considered an invasive species in many parts of Africa.
Many international organizations, such as the World Bank and the United Nations (UN), have clear policies for their funding programs that support plantation forests. The UN Report on the Environment and Development from the 1992 Earth Summit acknowledges that both natural and planted forests “should be sustainably [sic] managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural, and spiritual needs of present and future generations.” The World Bank also has a forest policy, revised in 2002, which specifically mentions plantation forests: “The Bank does not finance plantations that involve any conversion or degradation of critical natural habitats, including adjacent or downstream natural habitats.” While these organizations recognize the need for plantation forests, they also recognize the possible adverse ecology impacts of monoculture plantations.
- P. Marchak, Logging the Globe (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995);
- M. Richardson, “Forestry Trees as Invasive Aliens,” Conservation Biology (v.12, 1998);
- W. Turnbull, “Eucalypt Plantations,” New Forests (v.17, 1999);
- United Nations Non-legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation, and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests (United Nations, 1992).