The hidden dangers of environmental mitigation programs
The article ”Green desert’ monoculture forests spreading in Africa and South America’ in The Guardian highlights the potential social and environmental negative consequences of the large mono-culture tree plantations which are being financed by organisations which aim to offset, and mitigate, their environmentally damaging/consuming behaviour through afforestation and reforestation programs.
Environmental mitigation, as a concept, is a positive thing. It is a way of using our current systems of trade and finance to develop environmental projects that can have an overall positive effect, by compensating for the negative impacts of other environmentally damaging activities. We are all aware of organisations who, through their marketing and advertising, inform us that they undertake/finance environmentally positive projects to ‘offset’ their activities. They may be primary producers of a product that consumes or damages the environment (e.g. paper manufacturers or oil extraction companies), or service sector organisations who rely upon these primary and secondary sector products. In either case, they may either directly, or indirectly, run or finance programs which, in theory, will have a positive environmental or social effect- and help to counter their consuming activities.
Of these, tree planting projects are probably the most obvious- and one of the most popular. By planting replacement trees, primary and secondary industries (e.g. furniture makers, packaging manufacturers) may offset their initial consumption of this form of natural resource, and service industries (e.g. offices in which paper, and other timber derived products, are used) compensate for their utilisation of products that come from trees. Additionally, trees are a vital ‘carbon sink’ for the planet, removing carbon from the atmosphere, and are a way of organisations offsetting their carbon output.
This scenario, has led to a significant growth in developing large tree plantations for afforestation or reforestation projects around the world, in which large multinationals have invested capital to offset their consumption of the natural resource. As the lead article points out, while there may be an increase/replacement in overall tree numbers generated through such programs, the large mono-cultures of non-native trees that they generally consist of can cause significant problems for biodiversity, native ecosystems, and soil systems- as well as displacing local communities and indigenous people- in areas of South America and Africa in which there are increasingly focused. (On a side note- this issue directly links to a previous blog post on the potential benefits of urban green space for pollination, compared to rural areas in the UK).
I believe that offsetting and environmental mitigation using such techniques as investing in afforestation and social development programs is, in essence, a good thing- and is a way of using our current systems and methods of globalised finance and trade (which, whether we fundamentally agree with, or not, cannot be ignored) to have an overall positive effect on the environment. However, as this article highlights, there are very specific dangers when such programs are undertaken without fully understanding their impact- and it is crucial that such programs are developed so that their wider, and longer term, environmental and social consequences are taken into account.