Although many people may have the impression of wandering through the woods, they in fact may be inside of a forest cultivation. Both concepts should not be mixed up. In this article we want to explain the many differences that exist between a forest or woods, and a forest plantation or cultivation. They differ not only in structure and composition, but also in their effects on the environment and in the surrounding human communities.
The woods is a natural ecosystem where vegetal, animal and microorganism species coexist. A forest cultivation is a set plantation of vegetal species of a certain commercial interest, aligned and of the same age, where many of the shrub and herbaceous species are missing. Hence, a cultivation is a very simplified version of the original ecosystem.
In general, the species used in forest cultivations are not in their natural habitat. Either because they are alien to their territories, such as eucalyptus in Spain, or because even if they are typical of a particular region, in the zone of cultivation they have artificially spread occupying territories that belong to other species, such as the case of wild pine plantations in Guadarrama Mountains where pines plantations occupy lower altitudes displacing oak groves, instead of occupying the higher part of the mountain naturally.
What are forest cultivations?
Forest cultivations are plantations of tree species that pursue a goal: to obtain a product such as cellulose, wood, rubber, oil, etc. In some cases, wood production is offered to individuals as a long-term mode of investment. One person subsidizes a part of the plantation so the investor gets a percentage of the profits from the sale of the wood.
Paper pulp production has great economic importance. Spain is the sixth largest producer of paper and pulp in the European Union, exporting 45% of its production (ASPAPEL, 2018). One of the main trees in paper production is the eucalyptus. In the Iberian Peninsula, there are plantations of white eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) in the coastal zone and mainly in Galicia and central Portugal. For other purposes, such as wood floors, red eucalyptus (Eucalyptus calmadulensis) is used, present in plantations in the south and south-west zone of the peninsula. Eucalyptus nitens is also being introduced in inland zones in the north and northwest (Soto Caba, M. A., 2011). In Europe, the most commonly used species in plantation forestry are pine, larch, spruce, birch and poplar (FAO, 2020).
There is a trick that socially justifies this type of cultivation – and that is sustainability. Trees are carbon sinks, as they capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it in organic form in their trunk. But this alone does not imply that planting trees, simply, is beneficial for the environment, as plantations can have a serious impact on the ecosystem.
Why are they green barrens?
Forest cultivations can cause severe consequences on the environment. They are usually located in former woods (forests), causing a drastic reduction of their area. Woods are normally placed in a piece of land whose slopes are not suitable for agriculture but rather for logging. Besides, soils in which there used to be woods are deeper and richer in nutrients, which contributes to a good productivity of the plantation.
Substituting woods for forest cultivations implies a loss of biodiversity due to the disappearance of tree, bush, herb, fern, moss, lichen and fungus species (Bremer, 2010). Their capacity to build habitat, refuge and a source of resources for the fauna is much lower and so the ecological processes, such as the nutrient cycle, get rather disturbed. The animals, having no place to live, their populations get extinguished or become displaced.
Furthermore, bad practices of forest management have their negative consequences. Example of such practices are soil preparation that destroys soil structure, slope plowing, terracing, plantation frames, intensive labors that involve an extraction of all logging remains, tree stumps, and the organic horizon as well as the frequent cuts that continuously maintain a young tree population (Soto Caba, M. A., 2011).
The tillage techniques used result in reductions in organic matter and nutrients, and higher rates of water erosion. In addition, the fact of intensively extracting wood from the plantation without leaving the pruning remains does not allow the replenishment of soil nutrients. In the medium term, there is a loss of soil and a decrease in its fertility. Soil is a resource that is renewed very slowly and only as long as there is adequate vegetation and processes for its recovery.
On top of that, forest cultivations cause a degradation and/or disappearance of local water resources as a result of the excessive water consumption by monocultures, the modification of soil properties by introduced cultivation, the drainage processes and the soil erosion. Another aspect that seriously affects water, soil and biodiversity is the use of fertilisers and herbicides to eliminate undergrowth and pesticides. In addition to all of these problems, some of the species used are invasive, such as eucalyptus.
Apart from the impacts on the environment, there are negative consequences for the neighboring population, such as the reduced availability of land for food production. The resources offered by the woods also disappear, such as wild fruits, fibers, wood, medicines, meat, honey, mushrooms, etc. (Giménez Delgado, 2016). In less developed countries, peasants and indigenous people may be expelled from their territories. The introduced trees are only useful for the companies that planted them, not the local populations, leaving the community dependent on the economic and political power of these stakeholders.
Forests are natural ecosystems and their biodiversity is far superior to that of forest crops. They exist due to natural processes of ecological succession and are integrated into the environment. In addition to allowing ecosystem functions and protecting the soil, they offer shelter to the living beings that inhabit them and provide certain services to human communities.
Forest crops, on the other hand, are created artificially, often in areas that correspond to forests. Its structure, biodiversity and capacity to offer shelter to other living beings is greatly reduced. Depending on the techniques used in forest exploitation, they can also cause various types of impact on the environment, such as soil loss or alteration, reduction of water resources and contamination by pesticides. Replacing a forest by a forest plantation also has a negative impact on the human communities that inhabit the region because of cutting down on the resources they usually get from the forest.
It would therefore be desirable to keep the forests intact or to use them through good management instead of replacing them altogether with artificial plantations of other species. Both the management and the practices used must be respectful of biodiversity, soil and water resources and not interfere with the use of the forest by neighboring human settlements.
– An aritcle by Sara García Gómez
If you found this article interesting, check out the scientific resources Sara used to write on this topic in the bibliography below (Spanish and English). Also, feel free to reach out to our writer on Linkedin if you have any questions!
- Informe Anual del Sector Papelero (ASPAPEL, 2018)
- FAO. 2020. Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Main report. Rome.
- Bremer, L. L., & Farley, K. A. (2010). Does plantation forestry restore biodiversity or create green deserts? A synthesis of the effects of land-use transitions on plant species richness. Biodivers Conserv, 19(14), 3893-3915. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-010-9936-4
- Giménez Delgado, I. M. (2016). Efectos de la industria forestal en las prácticas de agro-recolección de mujeres campesinas y mapuche en la Baja Frontera de Nahuelbuta. In P. Moreno Feliu & N. H. Carrasco (Eds.): Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (España). Facultad de Filosofía. Departamento de Antropología Social y Cultural.
- Soto Caba, M. Á. (2011). La conflictividad de las plantaciones de eucalipto en España (y Portugal).