Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 8. Protecting Forest Products & Services: The Role of Plantations

As of 2000, the world had 113 million hectares in forest plantations, less than 3 percent of the total 3.9 billion hectares in forest. By comparison, this area is roughly one sixth of the 700 million hectares planted in grain each year worldwide.36 

These plantations produce mostly wood either for pulp mills to make paper or for mills to reconstitute wood. Increasingly, reconstituted wood is substituting for natural wood in the world lumber market as industry adapts to a shrinking supply of large logs from natural forests.37 

Production of wood on plantations is estimated at 331 million cubic meters, or 10 percent of world wood production. Stated otherwise, nine tenths of the world timber harvest came from natural forest stands, while one tenth came from plantations.38 

Five countries account for two thirds of the 113 million hectares of plantations. (See Table 8-5.) China, which has little original forest remaining, is the largest, and Russia and the United States follow. U.S. plantations are concentrated in the southeastern part of the country. India and Japan are fourth and fifth. Brazil is further back, but expanding fast.39 

The average productivity of existing plantations worldwide is estimated at 6.6 cubic meters per hectare a year. This figure could easily go to 10 cubic meters with more sophisticated management and the use of fast-growing tree species. New Zealand, for example, harvests 18 or more cubic meters per hectare a year. Brazil was averaging 14 cubic meters per hectare in 1990 and could go to 33 cubic meters with advanced management, according to FAO.40 

As the industry expands, it is also undergoing a geographic shift, with more and more of the new plantations located in the moist tropical or subtropical regions. In contrast to grain yields, which tend to rise with distance from the equator and the longer growing days of summer, tree plantation yields rise with proximity to the equator and the year-round growing conditions. For example, in the southeastern United States, it takes 15 years for fast-growing pines to reach harvestable size. Brazilian plantation managers can have eucalyptus trees ready for harvest in 7 yearsless than half the time.41

In eastern Canada, the average hectare of forest plantation produces 4 cubic meters per year. In the southeastern United States, it is 10 cubic meters. But in Indonesia, it is 25 cubic meters, and in Brazil, newer plantations may be close to 30 cubic meters. While corn yields in the United States average almost 9 tons per hectare, Brazil's are less than 3 tons. So while the ratio of corn yields between the United States and Brazil is nearly 3 to 1, timber yields favor Brazil by nearly 3 to 1. To satisfy a given demand for wood, Brazil requires only one third as much land as the United States. This tree-growing advantage of tropical countries helps explain why growth in pulp capacity from 1995 to 2000 was estimated at 1.5 percent for the United States, 3.5 percent for Canada, 166 percent for Thailand, and 123 percent for Indonesia.42 

In addition to warm, year-round temperatures and abundant moisture in the tropics, land and labor are cheaper in developing countries. As a result, for example, Chile's exports of forest products, largely from plantations, increased from $334 million in 1985 to $2 billion in 1995, expanding employment and boosting export earnings.43 

Many northern firms are investing in countries in the South. Japanese firms are investing in the Western Pacific, and U.S. firms are investing in the western hemisphere, especially Brazil. Some U.S. firms are buying into forest plantations in Brazil to supply wood chips for their pulp mills in the southern United States. Brazil, now with 5 million hectares of forest plantations, gets 60 percent of its industrial wood from plantations.44 

Projections of future growth show that plantations are constrained by land scarcity. An increase in land in plantations can come on deforested land, but it is more likely to come at the expense of existing natural stands of forests. There is also competition with agriculture, since land that is suitable for growing trees is often suitable for crop production too. Water scarcity is yet another constraint. Fast-growing plantations require an abundance of moisture. 

Nonetheless, FAO projects that the current 113 million hectares of plantations could easily increase to 145 million hectares in 2030. Meanwhile, as yields rise, the harvest could more than double, climbing from 331 million cubic meters to 766 million. This assumes that this growth will be concentrated in the tropics and subtropics, where the yields are high.45 

It is entirely conceivable that plantations could one day satisfy most of the world's demand for industrial wood. While part of the modest projected growth in plantation area will undoubtedly come at the expense of existing forests, the area of forests that would be protected is several times greater.


Table 8-5. Forest Plantations in Key Countries, 2000
(million hectares)
United States
All other
World Total
Source: See endnote 39.


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