Report: Tree Plantations in the South to Generate Energy in the North

Report: Tree Plantations in the South to Generate Energy in the North

-by Rachel Smolker

It is always helpful to hear the perspective of people in the “global south,” especially when it is their land in the tropics that is so often targeted as a source of biomass energy for the “north.” World Rainforest Movement (WRM) has been at the forefront of opposition to industrial tree plantations for decades, so they know full well what the consequences of vast new demands for biomass will be.

Their new report, Tree Plantations in the South to Generate Energy in the North, points out that over two billion people, mostly in the south, depend on wood as an energy source for basic cooking and heating, yet “policies being pursued in Europe, North America and at the international level, for example, through the Sustainable Energy For All Initiative, seek to reduce the use of traditional bioenergy and to replace it, including with fossil fuels, while boosting large scale industrial bioenergy including wood based electricity and agrofuels.”

Indeed northern analysts have been busily mapping global biomass availability as if the world’s lands were free for the taking, while a wave of land grabs—often with violent evictions and displacements—has swept around the globe. These land grabs are fueled by investors’ hopes of profiting from bioenergy crops. With wood bioenergy on the rise, the pressure to expand industrial tree plantations is rapidly mounting. Europe, in particular, is driving the export/import markets, and for now most pellets and chips currently going to Europe are derived from the southeastern US and Canada.

But make no mistake: energy companies (RWE, DRAX and E.On among them) are eyeing Central and South America, Africa and parts of Asia for the future. And other countries (notably Korea, Japan and China) have their own escalating bioenergy plans. The sheer speed with which trees grow in the tropics is key. Eucalyptus plantations in South America can produce wood at rates of 20-44m3/hectare/year, (one hectare equals about 2.5 acres) compared to a mere 4-6m3 in northern climates.

The WRM report provides useful background on some of the newly emerging biomass-dedicated projects. They include for example, Korean and Japanese companies investing in bioenergy tree plantations in Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia. The pulp giant Suzano Papel e Celulose, operating in Brazil, has started a new division dedicated to bioenergy (Suzano Renewable Energy) which is on track to construct 5 pellet mills to produce 5 million tons per year on an estimated 150,000 hectares (371,000 acres) of land. With an incredibly short 2 year rotation of densely planted eucalyptus planned, these biomass plantations will be more akin to fields of very tall grass. They already have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with UK energy companies.

In Africa, Norwegian-owned Green Resources is a big player, with plantations in Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan. Biomass projects are underway as well in Liberia and Ghana. Growing demand for bioenergy is squarely in the global forest products industry line of vision. WRM states that “today in the global South there are approximately 6 million hectares of land occupied by industrial tree plantations… There is not a single country in the South where industrial tree plantations have been established and that have not sparked land conflicts.”

The report concludes that “the promotion of bioenergy based on large scale monocultures and the attempt to legitimize this activity through certification schemes not only confuses the public but also comes at an extremely high cost: it even further delays the adoption of the structural measures needed to truly confront the social, energy and climate crises.”

Climate analysts have long warned of the threats of civil unrest presented by large numbers of people displaced from their homelands by the impacts of warming. The fact is that the impacts of misguided and downright idiotic “renewable energy” policies are likewise displacing people from their homelands.