The word plantation comes with all kinds of connotations. Not many of them are positive. But in my time at FSC, the stories I’ve heard and the locations I’ve visited have convinced me that when talking about forest plantations, this perception needs to change.

Across the world, there are examples of good forest plantations that are not only highly efficient in producing wood, but also help to preserve natural forest and provide benefits to people and the environment. This is why I feel we must learn to understand the role that these areas can play for the future of forests, and why FSC will support their responsible development.

A forest plantation is a grouping of a single species of tree, all of the same age, planted by humans. Typically, these areas are poor for biodiversity as you don’t get much variation and growing space for the likes of mushrooms, berries and flowers, and little nesting space for birds. For sure, they do not have the qualities of a natural forest, and FSC is actively discouraging the conversion of natural forests to forest plantations.

But plantations do not have to come at the expense of natural forests. In Brazil, for example, there are vast areas of degraded, disused land that can be used for forest plantations. And many existing plantations, established long ago, can be improved tremendously. By applying FSC standards to forest plantations, we can ensure that the right trees are chosen for the right locations, and that the remaining natural values in the areas are protected or restored. In this way, these areas can help to store carbon, restore biodiversity and provide real benefits for people.

So I’ve told you about how we’re working to create good forest plantations. But I’m sure you are still asking, why does FSC support any forest plantation? Wouldn’t it be better to just have natural forests?

Well, in some ways yes, but it would leave us with some even bigger problems. We cannot produce all of the wood and fibre products that the world needs just from responsibly managed natural forest.

Today, while only 7 per cent of the world’s forests are plantations, a third (33 per cent) of the world’s forest products come from them. This ensures consumer demands for housing, paper and furniture can be met. In short, they are vital to the survival of the natural forest, which would otherwise be in even greater danger of over-use.

It’s not enough for forest plantations around the world to help us meet product demand. They also need to support social and environmental responsibility. And I have seen them do just that.

I remember travelling through miles of denuded grasslands in Brazil which are just used for some miserable, scrawny cattle – nothing else grew there. But then I came to an area of ‘artificial’ forest and found life flourishing, partly in the eucalyptus plantation itself, but even more in the natural forest areas that were preserved and restored inside the plantation area. In this way, the whole area can accommodate a more balanced ecosystem with room for plants and animals that have absolutely no chance in the surrounding grasslands. For instance, the puma population is thriving here.

By enforcing FSC values, our certificate holders can ensure room within forest plantations for indigenous trees, wetlands and natural structures. They can ensure working conditions are good for the people that live in these areas. Jobs in areas like these are essential, and it is our duty to support such developments wherever it is possible.

I fully understand that you may still regard forest plantations with deep skepticism. So do I, and there are many examples of poorly designed plantations with the wrong trees in the wrong places and providing no conservation or social value. Such plantations can be very damaging to ground water levels and soil quality.

But if we do not acknowledge good forest plantations, we provide no model that can stand as an alternative to the continued growth of poor quality plantations. And we provide no defense against over-use of existing natural forests to provide cheap wood in large quantities.

The FSC system does not allow the conversion of natural forest into plantation. But we do believe that with our help, there is a place for these ‘artificial’ forests in the wider ecosystem.

While plantations will not replace the richness, stability and beauty of natural forests or the variety of the services they provide, applying FSC standards to them ensures that they can become tree-dominated areas that support our environmental, economic and social prosperity.

And that is the kind of plantation I think we can all support.

You can read more about FSC’s engagement with forest plantations here.