Brazil Tree Biotechnology Conference Post #1

by Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project

After seemingly endless hours in airports and on airplanes, I finally arrived at the Porto Seguro airport in Bahia Brazil, and from there, ferried across to Arraial D’ Ajuda in the state of Bahia, Brazil, where  the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO—pronounced Yew-Fro) is hosting a conference called “Tree Biotechnology 2011” along with co-hosts Embrapa and Veracel.  Veracel is one of the largest timber companies in Brazil—created from a merger of StoraEnso, a very controversial Swedish-Finnish timber company and Fibria, a Brazilian timber firm.

Last night (Sunday) was the official opening of the conference and the keynote speech by Ron Sederoff, a veteran forest geneticist from North Carolina State University.  But before Ron’s speech, the CEO of Veracel presented some background for why the conference was being held in Brazil—the first time the conference had been held in South America.

He started off by impressing the audience with the economic importance of the timber industry in Brazil. He explained it generates US$7.5 billion in exports while still being a “low-carbon activity that generates green jobs.”

Brazil is currently the fourth largest producer of pulp in the world, producing 8% of the global total. China is second at 12% and Canada third at 10%. But the global runaway leader is the United States, at 27% of the global total.

This notorious accomplishment has come at a high price in the US.  One in five acres of the forests of the Southeast have been converted to pine plantations—over 40 million acres.  Nearly 6 million acres in the region are clearcut every year just for paper.  New demands for wood-based bioenergy are expected to result in another 40 million acres of biodiverse forest lost to plantations. Timber plantations also mean toxic chemicals.  Between 1990 and 2000, more chemicals were used on the plantations of the US South than the rest of the world combined, contaminating water and causing illness.

Not to be outdone by the U.S., the Veracel executive explained that he expects production of pulp in Brazil to triple in the next 10 years.

In 2000, he explained, Brazil’s output was 7,200,000 tons, and by 2010 it was almost 9,800,000 tons.  Bahia, the state where Veracel is based and where this conference is being held, produces 2,247,000 of those tons.

Our conference agenda includes a day long field trip to see the wonders of Veracel’s glowingly “green” operations on Wednesday.  That should be interesting indeed.  Their pulp mill is located, according to the CEO “in the middle of the forest,” which, he said, was exactly the idea—to be near the resource base, a “mosaic” of “planted” and “natural” forests.  Of their over 200,000 hectares of forest holdings, he said, 100,000 is “preserved” forest.  I am a bit unclear on how one “preserves” forests in the midst of plantations.  Perhaps in mason jars…

However it is done, Veracel will undoubtedly apply for REDD credits for it (that is credits [i.e. money] for storing carbon under the auspices of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme of the World Bank and UN).  A win-win!  Money for cutting down forests and money for not cutting down forests.  In the words of Tina Vahanen, of the UN REDD Secretariat “REDD will be extremely beneficial for forestry.”

But back to the topic at hand.  What all of these dizzying statistics ultimately mean, is that the area of land covered by tree plantations in Brazil is rapidly expanding.  Where will this expansion take place?  That is a good question.  It will require vast acreages of land. Land will need to be converted from its current form (as forests, agricultural lands, ranch lands) into industrial-scale timber plantations.  In the cases where land that is not forested is used, it will likely result in what is called “indirect land use change,” where the former uses of the land move into and hence destroy biodiverse forests.

But let me make one thing crystal clear.  There is no such thing as a “planted” forest.  There are forests, and there are timber plantations and one bears no resemblance to the other; not ecologically; not in terms of carbon storage capacity (forests are rich in carbon, plantations are not), not for biodiversity, and not for the ability to provide for the needs of forest dependent communities.  Saying a plantation is a forest is like saying a corn field is a prairie.

This intentional confusion causes many problems.  It allows expansion of industrial timber plantations to be called “reforestation” “afforestation” or even “sustainable forest management,” and clouds the ability to determine exactly how much forest is being lost every year.  With the global focus on reducing deforestation as a means to curb climate change, one would think that accurate calculations of forest loss would be important.  Maybe so, but not to the UN or the World Bank—the biggest promoters of REDD.  To add insult to injury, there have even been proposals to “reforest” the Amazon with non-native eucalyptus plantations.

And looming on the horizon, somewhere off in the distance, is the spectre of plantations of genetically engineered trees; trees genetically transformed to make them more easily (and cheaply) manufactured into the product of choice: paper, electricity, liquid fuel, chemicals, plastics, textiles, lumber.  You name it, they’ve got somebody working on GE trees for that exact purpose.

And all of this is sold as “green.”  After all, trees are a “renewable” alternative to fossil fuels!  In fact, in his presentation on what’s coming up in the next few years, our Veracel Executive listed “climate change, the Green Economy” and Rio+20” in the same bullet point.

This is what many environmental, human rights and climate justice organizations have been warning about—that the upcoming conference in Rio de Janiero (in June 2012)—the 20 year follow up to the original “Rio Earth Summit”—will use the ever-worsening climate crisis as the excuse through which to push the so-called “green economy.”  The green economy is merely the same old failed economic system in a pretty new green wrapping and essentially means the commodification of all life on earth in the service of maintaining business as usual for as long as possible beyond all natural limits.

And it was on this note that the conference “Tree Biotechnology 2011” kicked off, here in the state of Bahia, Brazil.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more fun and games.

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Filed under Climate Change, Energy, GE Trees, Greenwashing, Latin America-Caribbean, Posts from Anne Petermann

0 Responses to Brazil Tree Biotechnology Conference Post #1

  1. Lisa

    Make me furious and sad, Genetically engineering trees will only kill more animals, more birds, more insects and more people. IF they are altered to accept toxic herbicides/pesticides they will eventually fail and succumb to disease like the soy and corn crops in USA. IF they are engineered to contain weak lignin, this could ultimately spell disaster for the entire oxygen utilizing life forms of this planet. Making weak trees is ridiculous. The most asanine thing I have ever heard of in my life. Lignin is the strength of the tree, Lignin plays a significant role in the carbon cycle, lignin makes it possible for the plant’s vascular tissue to conduct water efficiently