By Romain Pirard, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News
Large-scale tree plantations are expanding worldwide, and so are the controversies they trigger.
Tree plantations in the tropics are frequently denounced for their devastating social and environmental impacts, while at the same time praised for their capacity to boost local development and provide environmental services such as carbon sequestration — an important advantage in an era hungry to find ways to mitigate climate change.
A new study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry aims to cut through the controversies and report on the impacts on local populations of large-scale tree plantations, as locally perceived. Venturing into this controversial realm, special attention was paid to gathering data from sites that do not lean too much on either the positive or negative side, for instance avoiding areas with model villages or reported conflicts.
For the study, CIFOR scientists conducted hundreds of interviews in a variety of tree plantations across the Indonesian archipelago. Results show that local perceptions vary depending on a number of factors, including tree species, rotation periods, level of economic development in the area, or plantation lifespans.
Fast-growing and land-hungry pulpwood estates, using species like acacia and eucalyptus, are among the most negatively received. These pulpwood plantations have spread to cover millions of hectares of land across the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan in recent decades. In interviews, local populations complained of limited access to land for cultivation, few positive contributions to local livelihoods and several negative impacts on biodiversity and environmental services as a result of the plantations. Yet there was some level of acknowledgment for the capacity of estates to open up areas with limited infrastructure.
In contrast, teak and pine plantations, such as those long established on the island of Java, are much more positively received. These estates are praised for providing jobs, revenue and improved environmental services, including clean water and local climate regulation. Specifically, pine plantations offer beneficial distribution of rights to tap resin, while teak plantations are seen to increase access to land, goods and services.
From the same author: Could timber plantations boost forest conservation?
In one site in East Kalimantan, the Q method was applied to contrast different local viewpoints on the impacts of an acacia pulpwood plantation. Using this method, three different groups were found among respondents: one generally dissatisfied with the plantation in their area, one that complained more specifically about the obstacles to local development caused by large-scale industrial land use, and one with a positive outlook on the plantation. Further statistical analysis found this latter group to be in the minority.
Some useful lessons can be drawn from these two complementary studies. The main finding was that large-scale tree plantations are a heterogeneous group, and their impact depends very much on the species of trees planted and associated forest management. This suggests caution in choosing species for new plantations.
Rotation periods were found to be an influencing factor for local perceptions. Pine and teak plantations with a long history of development and relatively long rotations appear to be well integrated in the social landscape of Java. Meanwhile, newly established acacia pulpwood plantations with short rotations are shown to trigger more antagonistic views and have a harder time earning local recognition of any positive impacts.
Does this mean that pulpwood plantations are fated to cause conflicts and pain because of their adverse impacts on local populations? The answer is no, for several reasons.
First, local populations do acknowledge to some extent the capacity of pulpwood plantations to open up remote areas to infrastructure and market dynamics, even if these changes have not yet sufficiently materialized. For example, about half of the populations surveyed in related sites had experienced working with these types of plantations. Beyond blaming plantation companies, this suggests a perceived absence of the state to fulfill the above functions.
Second, the experience of longer-standing pine and teak plantations in Java can in fact offer lessons for improving the management of newly established pulpwood estates. Indeed, intermediary institutions already seem to be doing a useful job out there, by organizing the labor force and fostering communication with local populations.
Third, substantial improvements can be achieved via changes to management: rotations for pine plantations are occasionally extended to maintain lucrative resin-tapping for longer periods, and reversely rotations for teak are occasionally shortened to increase opportunities for inter-cropping during the early years of a new plantation. Pulpwood plantations can learn from these innovations to incorporate benefits for local populations.
Finally, local involvement in designing management plans for plantations, such as organization of the labor force and workers’ contracts, could help accommodate local demands for land-sharing and other benefits from the outset, ensuring a positive impact down the track.