Blog post by Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project & North American Focal Point of Global Forest Coalition. Everyday this week she will be posting an update from the World Forestry Congress on this blog.
Buenos Aires, Argentina-I knew, before I came to the World Forestry Congress, that it was largely going to be a trade show for the timber industry and its allies, but knowing that and being in the midst of it have proven to be quite different things.
Tuesday’s exercise in absurdity was a symposium organized by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO-acronym pronounced You-Frew), focused on Emerging Issues in Forest Science. Unfortunately, the speaker who was to address emerging genetic engineering technologies cancelled at the last minute. I was very much hoping to hear the future direction of transgenic tree technology from the perspective of You-Frew.
Never-the-less, the other speakers did not disappoint. The over-arching theme was the conflation of forests and plantations. Each started his/her presentation (there were six white men and one white woman) by talking about the need to protect forests and the services they provide: clean water, food, energy, shelter, fodder, biodiversity and livelihoods. They would then shift gears to discuss tree plantations and the emerging challenges they are confronting with regard to various aspects of plantation forestry. What they neglected to mentioned was that tree plantations and forests are, in fact, completely and totally different. Not only do tree plantations NOT provide clean water, food, shelter or biodiversity, tree plantations actually destroy biodiversity, deplete water and displace communities because the once diverse forest was eliminated to make room for the plantation.
The most schizophrenic presentation, however, was by David Crown, head of IUFRO’s Division 5, which specializes in Forest Products.
He launched into his presentation by pointing out that the IUFRO estimates that the world is losing forests at the rate of 13 million hectares per year, and that population increase and climate change are further increasing pressures on the world’s forests and providing a huge challenge. (They LOVED to talk about challenges!) He pointed out that soil, water and carbon need to be protected through conservation measures while maintaining traditional uses of the forests and new uses such as bio-energy.
He then moved on to assert that a major goal for the forest products industry is insuring that wood is THE preferred material for construction and manufacture.
So, in other words, we need to conserve forests while simultaneously increasing the demand for wood…
Of course, this is indicative of the fundamental psychosis of industrial forestry proponents: that we must continually expand fast growing timber plantations in order to get more wood from less land and thereby protect native forests. On its surface, there may appear to be a logic behind the notion that we can protect forests by concentrating the harvesting of wood products on high-productivity plantations. However, the reality does not match the rhetoric. The massively growing demand for wood–predicted by the IUFRO to be an increase of 50% within the century–cannot be met sustainably. The rising rate of illegal and legal logging in forests, the loss of agricultural lands to expanding tree plantations, and the conversion of biodiverse native grasslands and forests to timber plantations, are just a few of the impacts in which this rising demand for wood will result.
There was not one–Not ONE–mention in any of the presentations about demand reduction for forest protection.
Michael Wingfield, who Coordinates the Forest Health Division at IUFRO (Division 7) was the only one of the IUFRO speakers who made any distinction between tree plantations and forests. He pointed out that plantations were having a negative impact on forests due to the fact that plantations were highly susceptible to disease and insect infestations, though this seemed to mystify him when he stated, “we don’t really know what’s going on.” It was this tendency of plantations to succumb to ever worsening disease and insect infestations that led him to conclude that all plantations in the future would be comprised of GM trees.
Of course, first year ecology students know that monocultures–that is, large expanses of a single species of plant–are, by their very nature, ideal targets for insects, disease, fungal infestations, etc. Ironically, the industrial forestry response to this reality, and the spreading epidemics in monoculture timber plantations, is not to restore biodiverse native forests that are naturally resilient, nor to suggest that maybe shipping forest products and their exotic pests around the planet should be discouraged, but rather to further the reductionist approach and create vast monocultures of many thousands of clones derived from a single individual tree that has been engineered for a particular profitable trait.
Toward the end of the session, I was called on to ask a question. I asked Mr. Wingfield what he was doing to respond to the threats that GE tree plantations pose to native forests. I gave the example of the Bt insect resistant poplar plantations in China that have been documented as contaminating native poplars with the Bt trait. I further suggested this would have a very negative impact on the forest ecosystem, especially species of songbirds that depend on the insect targeted by the Bt as a critical source of food.
Unfortunately, the moderator intervened saying the session had run out of time and it suddenly ended before my question was answered.
Undeterred, I approached Mr. Wingfield following the end of the session. He answered me by saying, “well. I’m pro-GMO.” He made some vague reference to the “successes” of GMO food as the reason for his Franken-tree ferver. (He apparently missed the studies that have come out recently debunking the industry hype about the increased yield of GE crops.) He did agree, however, that native species of GE trees that could pollinate should not be used. His opinion was that only non-native GE trees should be used or trees that could not pollinate. I chose not to argue ecology with him, or to point out that even tree engineers overwhelmingly have concerns about “contamination of non-target organisms” by GE trees, and will not give 100% guarantees that their trees will maintain their sterility permanently. Or to point out that non-native plantations of eucalyptus, for example, have been a total ecological disaster because they cannot support biodiversity or social needs.
No, I could not bring myself to argue with someone so entrenched in his delusion that GMO tree plantations were the way of the future in the face of all evidence to the contrary. And that has been the take-away lesson of the World Forestry Congress so far: that timber industry proponents have an amazing ability to rationalize and justify their socially and ecologically destructive paradigm that promotes incessantly growing demand for wood products met through the industrialization of trees–and all under the auspices of protecting forests.