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Plantations, Indigenous Rights, & Genetically Engineered Trees

In November 2005 we traveled to an international meeting in Vitoria, Brazil. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss plantations, genetically engineered trees and their impact on local and indigenous communities. The meeting was organized by the World Rainforest Movement of Uruguay and was co-hosted by our organization, the Global Justice Ecology Project, along with the local Brazilian group FASE (Federation of Social and Educational Assistance). Present were 35 participants from around the globe where plantations are a major problem and genetically-altered (GE) trees a looming threat-including Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, and South Africa, as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations in Europe and North America.

Issues, strategies, and common experiences were discussed over the four-day meeting. Our role was to share information about genetically engineered (GE) trees-the newest devastating technology that industry hopes to foist onto rural poor communities and native ecosystems. We showed a GE trees video, A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees, narrated by geneticist David Suzuki. It helped us sound the alarm to the participants about the grave threats posed by the commercialization of GE trees.

At the Vitoria meetings, we found people's perceptions of industrial monoculture tree plantations remarkably similar. In Brazil plantations are referred to as "green deserts," due to their reputation for destroying biological diversity. In South Africa they are known as "green cancer" because of the tendency of the eucalyptus in the plantations to spread wildly into other areas. In Chile plantations are called "green soldiers" because they are destructive, stand in straight lines, and steadily advance forward.

One of the more interesting common themes that emerged was the fact that, in many cases, takeovers of land for timber plantations occurred under authoritarian regimes-in Chile under Pinochet, in Brazil under the dictatorship, in South Africa under apartheid. Another common theme was corporate strategies to continue plantation expansion under the neoliberal economies that have flourished in the post-authoritarian years. Corporations have begun cutting "deals" with local communities and poor landowners to enable plantation expansion without having to purchase land. Given the tendency for fast-growing plantations to rapidly desertify soil and deplete ground water, this strategy enables companies to easily abandon the land after it is no longer productive. In Ecuador this strategy has allowed timber and pulp companies to establish plantations on hilltops that were previously inaccessible. Corporations promise communities that, in exchange for tending the plantations, they will be given a portion of the proceeds when the trees are sold. The price the communities receive, however, does not even cover the arduous labor that went into caring for the remote plantations. Some communities have begun to rebel, breaking contracts and burning plantations.

Another trend is the establishment of plantations on former agricultural land. In Chile plantations are concentrated on former farmland in the traditional territory of the Mapuche people in the Lumaco region. Since 1988, plantations in Lumaco have increased from 14 percent of the land to over 52 percent in 2002. Ninety-eight percent of Chile's forestry products are exported to the North and to Asia. Throughout the country over two million hectares of eucalyptus and pine plantations are controlled by only two companies.

As a result of this farmland conversion, Mapuche communities are being forced onto poor quality lands where they are surrounded by plantations. The communities lose access to water from the end of spring until the beginning of autumn and must rely on water trucks. The contamination of ground and surface water from toxic pesticides and herbicides used on the plantations are resulting in rising levels of sickness. In addition, the heavy pollination from the pine plantations contaminates water and causes allergies and skin problems. Poverty rates among Mapuche communities have risen dramatically. In Lumaco, one of the poorest regions of Chile, 60 percent of the population lives under the poverty level, with 33 percent in extreme poverty.

At the Vitoria meeting, Lucio Cuenca B., National Coordinator for the Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales in Santiago, Chile, explained the impact of the plantations on Mapuche communities, "The loss of territorial space, exacerbated by the strong impacts and environmental degradation caused by the expansion of the plantations, have opened up a conflict between the Mapuche community, the forestry companies and the government.

"Response by the state has been to provide propitious legal and social conditions to enable the forestry companies to fulfil their production goals and continue their expansion. On the one hand, repression and criminalization [of Mapuche resistance to plantations], on the other rerouting subsidies formerly aimed at the large forestry companies towards small farmers and indigenous land owners [that] oblige former farmers to convert to forestry activities. Thus the strategy for expansion becomes more complex, operating through political and economic blackmail that leaves no alternatives. The obligation of thinking about its survival and future in the framework of the plantations is imposed on the population." While the Chilean forestry model got its start under the Pinochet dictatorship, it has continued to advance rapidly under "democracy" and neoliberalism. As Mapuche people have risen up against the plantations, they have been subjected to mounting state repression, including the use of anti-terrorism laws left over from the Pinochet regime.

Also at the Vitoria meeting, along with the emphasis on plantations, there were strategic discussions about stopping the spread of genetically engineered trees. Some of the projected social and environmental impacts from the release of GE trees commercially include the accelerated conversion of native forests to plantations; the increased use of toxic herbicides and pesticides; and the loss of wildlife and water sources. Additionally, the contamination of native forests with pollen from trees engineered for such traits as reduced lignin, insect resistance, or faster growth is predicted to have devastating impacts on forest ecosystems, such as the increased susceptibility of native forests to disease, insects, and environmental stresses like wind and cold; disruption of the food chain which depends on insects; damage to soils, the exacerbation of global warming due to increased forest mortality; and the loss of forest-based foods, medicines, fuel, and traditional cultures.

Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina have created pollen models that show tree pollen traveling from a forest in North Carolina for over 1,000 kilometers northward into eastern Canada. A study published in the New Physiologist found pine pollen 600 kilometers from the nearest pines. Scientists researching sterility in trees have admitted that 100 percent guaranteed sterility in GE trees is impossible. This evidence implies that if GE trees are released into the environment, widespread and irreversible contamination of native forests cannot be prevented.

In Chile research is being carried out on radiata pine to engineer it for insect resistance by inserting the gene for Bt toxin production. Pine plantations currently comprise 80 percent of Chile's plantations. Monsanto Corporation predicted that Chile would be the first country to commercialize GE trees, although China has won that race.

In Brazil Aracruz Cellulose, Suzano, and International Paper are all involved in research into genetically engineered trees. Suzano, which manages over 3,000 square kilometers of timberland in Brazil, is partnered with Israel-based CBD Technologies on a project to increase the growth rate of eucalyptus trees. "Regular eucalyptus trees are usually cut down after seven years, during which they grow to a height of 20 meters. Trees treated with CBD can reach that height in 3 years or less," stated Dr. Seymour Hirsch, CEO of CBD Technologies. CBD also insists its fast-growing trees will help stop global warming. In a bizarre statement, Hirsch said, "A one hectare forest consumes 10 tons of carbon annually from the CO2 that the trees breathe. Clearly a forest that grows twice as fast consumes twice as much and contributes to the shrinking of the hole in the ozone."

International Paper, which has 200,000 hectares of land in Brazil, is also involved in GE tree experimentation there. In addition, IP is a partner in Arborgen, the world's leading GE tree corporation. The other two partners are Rubicon, based in New Zealand, and U.S.-based MeadWestvaco. Arborgen, headquartered in Summerville, North Carolina, is focusing much of its attention on eucalyptus in Brazil, which Arborgen considers to be its "most important geography." Arborgen has established a Brazilian office and previously projected that they would have full field-testing in place in Brazil by 2005 on customer land.

Arborgen is working to develop "improved pulping" [i.e., low-lignin] eucalyptus as well as cold-tolerant eucalyptus. Development of cold-tolerant eucalyptus is of interest for plantations in both Chile and the Southeast U.S. Recently, Arborgen announced that it was shifting its focus from research and development to the marketplace and plans to hire engineers and production workers who will design and run machinery capable of producing larger quantities of the engineered seedlings they have developed. Rubicon CEO Luke Moriarity in his July 2005 address to shareholders emphasized the critical role Brazil plays in Arborgen's commercialization of GE trees and the economic potential of establishing GE low-lignin eucalyptus plantations there.

Discussions at the Vitoria meeting focused on potential strategies for identifying GE tree test plots and educating communities around Brazil about this emerging threat with an eye to the upcoming United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity scheduled for March 2006 in Curitiba, Brazil where a ban on GE trees would be pursued.

Brazilians Reclaim Land Following the meetings in Vitoria we traveled with the other participants north of the city into the rural reaches of Espirito Santo. The first stop was an indigenous Guarani community that has begun the process of reclaiming 11,000 hectares of land stolen from them under the Brazilian dictatorship and given to Aracruz Cellulose for tree plantations. In open defiance, the community has cleared several hectares of the plantation and is building a village there, using eucalyptus for the poles in their traditional frond huts. They and their Tupikinim neighbors joined forces in the fall of 2005 to take over the nearby Aracruz Cellulose pulp mill for several days to demand the return of their land. Their story has inspired movements against plantations all over the world and spurred the Vitoria Statement, which emerged from the meetings there.

Our group next traveled to an MST encampment. This landless workers' movement has achieved great notoriety for their successful campaigns to take back land from large landowners and redistribute it to landless peasants. They, too, had recently taken over a portion of a plantation owned by Aracruz Cellulose and removed the trees and built their camp, complete with a well, a community space, and a very elaborate system of non-hierarchical decision-making.  

Chile: Mapuche Struggle For Justice The next day we traveled to Chile where we were to meet with our partner group Konapewman about their campaign to reclaim Mapuche traditional lands from the pine and eucalyptus plantations and toxic pulp mills that have taken over. Our destination was the town of Nuevo Tolten, a Mapuche community near the ocean. Viaje (Old) Tolten had been wiped out by a tsunami following the earthquake of 1960. In Nuevo Tolten we gathered in the community room of the Hotel Tourista. Alfredo, a leader in the Mapuche struggle, and several community leaders sat at the long table at the front of the room. At one end sat a representative of CONADI, the government office of Indigenous and Mapuche affairs.

The Mapuche communities located along the Pacific coast were fighting contamination from a sewage treatment facility that had been included in the U.S.-Chile bilateral trade deal as an environmental side agreement. The Chilean government had decided to do the project in the cheapest way possible, and was going to cause more pollution problems for the communities in the vicinity around the treatment plant. Matías and Alfredo were there to counter the misinformation from the CONADI official whose job was to "sell" the project to the communities. Our role was to witness the meeting as representatives from an international NGO from the U.S. and give the local people some additional leverage against the project. It was, in essence, the same story we'd heard from people fighting similar "development" and colonization in Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, and Ecuador during the Vitoria meetings the previous week.

Following the meeting, we drove out toward Old Tolten to view the coastline that would be contaminated by both the sewage treatment project and by a separate proposal for CELCO, a Chilean pulp and paper corporation, to dump their pulp mill effluent straight into the Pacific. The placement of this discharge pipe would contaminate over 100 miles of coastline with dioxins and other toxic organochlorines that result from the paper bleaching process.

Opportunities for Action In a report issued last summer by the United National Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), researchers working on GE trees were surveyed for their opinions about the risks of the technology. They raised two concerns most often: the environmental threat of escape of GE pollen or plants into native ecosystems and forests and negative public perceptions of GE trees. This concern about public relations provides an important strategic opening for the campaign to stop GE trees. In the U.S. and Canada, 13 national, regional, and local organizations have come together as the STOP GE Trees Campaign. The group builds economic disincentives, social pressures, and legal barriers to stop GE trees.

The Global Justice Ecology Project reaches out to groups around the globe in order to help prevent the introduction of GE trees into plantations. GJEP and other GE tree and forest protection activists have also spoken at United Nations meetings around the world about the GE trees threat, including the UN Forum on Forests and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. (At their 2003 convention, UNFCCC delegates agreed that GE trees could be used in plantations developed to offset carbon emissions.) With no indication of help from either of these UN bodies, the international campaign is turning to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to pursue an international ban on the technology. Even the UN FAO seems to be in favor of such international regulations. Their report on GM trees concludes, "New biotechnologies, in particular genetic modification, raise concerns. Admittedly, many questions remain unanswered for both agricultural crops and trees, and in particular those related to the impact of GM crops on the environment. Given that genetic modification in trees is already entering the commercial phase with GM populus in China, it is very important that environmental risk assessment studies are conducted with protocols and methodologies agreed upon at a national level and an international level. It is also important that the results of such studies are made widely available."

Orin Langelle and Anne Petermann are co-directors of the Global Justice Ecology Project.

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Orin Langelle
Co-Director/Global Justice Ecology Project
Coordinator/STOP GE Trees Campaign
P.O. Box  412
Hinesburg, VT  05461 
+1.802.482.2689 ph/fax
+1.802.578.6980 mobile
skype:  olangelle