Guest Post by Jan Carl Matysiac – GeaSphere Europe
How can industrial monoculture tree plantations like this be called forests?
Earlier this year(and this month too), Portugal has been in the news for huge, destructive wildfires. Nearly 100 people have died due the catastrophe that took place there. The media calls them forest fires, but in fact, eucalyptus and pine plantations played a major role in this case. Eucalyptus trees from Australia are alien to most countries where they are planted today, but they are the star performer of the pulp and paper industry.
So, can Portugal’s plantations be a role model for ‘afforestation’ (tree plantation) projects around the world? This is extremely doubtful. Nonetheless, the Mozambican branch of the Portuguese company known as the Portucel Soporcel Group (The Navigator Company) has planted tens of thousands of hectares of eucalyptus trees there. In fact, these alien trees have been planted all over southern Africa, but why are their negative impacts so huge, and how do they affect the existing natural ecosystems? To understand this, we need to take a look at how the climax grasslands in South Africa are being destroyed by the planting of highly flammable alien invasive tree species including not only eucalyptus, but pine and wattle (also known as ‘mimosa’) too!
Grasslands are extremely vulnerable to damage through disturbance or conversion, yet are a vegetation-type that provides abundant ecosystem goods and services to society. Intact grasslands protect the soil and prevent erosion, store water, nutrients and carbon, and contain many different species including important food, medicinal and culturally important plants. Over thousands of years, geoxylic woody plant species have adapted to grassland fires by developing large underground stem structures. However, the current state of knowledge in respect of grassland rehabilitation shows that it is not possible to restore these highly specialised grassland species. In fact, most grasses and herbs that grow mainly above-ground can easily be re-established, but these geoxylic trees and shrubs, which can reach a considerable age, are not likely to come back soon.
To survive the scorching heat of regular fires on the African Savannah, some trees have developed underground storage organs that allow them to regenerate quickly once the flames have passed. They include ‘underground trees’ with massive branches below ground-level, that sprout short stems and leaves after a fire. Source: Ancient Grasslands at Risk – Sciencemag.org (See link below)
Their ability to disperse seeds is limited, but after seasonal fires resulting from natural causes such as lightning, grasses normally recover quickly to help plants such as the Plough-breaker (Erythrina zeyheri – See: http://pza.sanbi.org/erythrina-zeyheri) to survive. Instead, where grasslands have been destroyed through conversion to tree plantations or other industrial crops, only a secondary grassland will eventually emerge, but lacking the plants with the underground organs needed to store water, carbon and nutrients. Some experts estimate that it could take more than 100 years for typical old-growth grasslands in South Africa to re-establish themselves, and then only if a viable seed-source is situated nearby. This knowledge must lead true conservationists to wonder whether the original undisturbed state of an ‘old-growth’ grassland cannot be considered quite similar in many ways to “old-growth forests”.
This brings us back to Europe. Besides the huge plantation wildfires which recently spread through the south-western region of Europe (Portugal, Spain and France), there is another catastrophe taking place in the north east of Europe. Bialowieza is the very last old-growth forest remaining in Europe, located in the very east of Poland on the border with Belarus. Surprisingly this forest has much more in common with biodiverse South African grassland than with the so-called forests that burned down in Portugal. Up till now, Bialowieza has been more or less unaffected by industrial logging, which has allowed its unique ecosystem to survive. Around 25% of the tree biomass is dead wood, and one can find trees which are 100 years and older all over the region. Only these old trees possess the features needed by several wildlife species. Holes in the tree trunks provide housing for bats, woodpeckers and bees. Such old trees remaining in the forest, even if partially dying, or often completely dead, also provide habitat for thousands of insects and fungi. Like the geoxylic trees in the grassland, these trees are important features that cannot be easily replaced or restored once gone, because it usually takes over a century for them to reach this stage.
Old or dead trees are the foundation of life for fungi and insects, which feed birds like woodpeckers. Removal of such natural structures and the processes from the forest can be irreversible. As with grasslands, it could take centuries to re-establish these complex communities. Photo: Jan Carl
Unlike the industrial tree plantations that consist of only introduced tree species that are often alien invasives, old growth grasslands and forests are characterised by complex structures formed over long periods of time. These wonders of Nature can’t simply be recreated by tree plantation managers. There are numerous different natural processes taking place there that regulate our natural environment, creating healthy living conditions and providing important ecosystem services. Besides this, these old landscapes are part of our culture. In contrast, man-made tree plantations fulfill only one main purpose, wood production, and furthermore they are extremely vulnerable to disastrous wildfire events, as the example of Portugal shows. However, there is one more thing that Bialowieza Forest and South African grasslands have in common. Both of them are under threat due to the timber industry’s hunger for quick profits at the expense of Nature.
These days you can find piles of cut logs all over the Bialowieza forest. The Polish government has allowed the approved logging level to be exceeded by 300%, and the forest destruction goes on. Photo: Jan Carl
Therefore, we should demonstrate our love for threatened natural landscapes, and not for the tree monocultures established by the tree plantation industry. Due to the recent logging authorized by the polish government, Polish activists are committing themselves to protecting their precious forest in various ways. Bialowieza is a National park as well as UNESCO World Heritage site. The European court of justice has ruled that logging in the Bialowieza forest is illegal and that chainsaws and other mechanical logging equipment should not be used there. Nonetheless, the Polish government insists that the forest must be cut, using the excuse that it needs protection from a bark beetle outbreak.
Forest protestors chain themselves to the machines to stop the illegal destruction of the forest. Only the activists try to stop the crime directly where it takes place. Photo: M. Klemens
Environmental protection groups took a decision to protest the logging by attempting to block the clearcutting, because it was clearly being done for profit. The volunteer forest protectors chained themselves to industrial logging vehicles to block them from being used. Whilst doing this, these brave people are under the threat of violent attack from private security forces. The only ways they can protect themselves are through creating public awareness; livestreaming video and publishing photographs of their actions.