Two main species of tree are farmed with an eye to producing pulpwood for paper production: eucaliptus globulus and pinus radiata, originally from Australia and California, respectively. These trees grow very quickly. Since the inception of tree farms, they have been introduced in many places in the world.
The plantations occupy a moderate amount of the forested area of countries of the northern Mediterranean rim (15% in Spain, 10% in France, 7% in Italy) but this is shooting out of control in some of the countries of the southern Mediterranean rim, such as in Tunisia (69%) or in Egypt (100%).1
From an environmental perspective, the main advantage of tree farms is that they are carbon sinks. The disadvantages are the same as with any other type of intensive cash crop: local plants and animals are intoxicated, water and soil are contaminated by herbicides and pesticides, biodiversity is lost, they are vulnerable to pests, they deplete the soil... GM trees are being introduced, just as in many other arenas of agriculture. In many cases the species which are planted are exotic to most places, and they can “escape” from plantations and wipe out neighboring ecosystems, because of their rapid growth and resistance to adverse environmental conditions. In Galicia, a region in Spain, eucalyptus trees have gone from occupying some 7% of the Fragas de Eume natural park, in the 1950's, to occupy 20% of it today.
Tree plantations “soak up” a lot of water. This is not a problem in high rainfall areas or sparsely populated areas, but if there is water scarcity or the water is being used by others, it generates conflicts. A study in an area of South Africa shows that streams were dry 8 years after planting eucalyptus and 12 years after planting pines, and that the streams didn't start to flow again for 5 years after they had been cut. From one Colombian region, a farming people where neighboring lands have been turned into plantations, tell us: We are [surrounded by] a crop of pines, and in the midst of these roots it's impossible to plant even a single stalk of corn, because it won't survive. Farmers [..] practically wind up giving [their lands] to the plantation company. Even if they try to sell, what they are offered for it is next to nothing, they have nowhere else to go, not even in the countryside can you live with so little. And so people give up and leave, and these companies, without even using force, have a very smart way to evict farmers from their homes. [..] We are giving up water, with all of the life and richness it offers, for paper pulp.2
Big multinational loggers and paper mills are expanding their plantations in the Global South; some of the more powerful include Botnia, UPM-Kymmene, Stora Enso, Asia Pulp and Paper, or the Spanish Ence. In many of these plantations there are a bunch of social problems typical of the administration of natural resource exploitation by large corporations. These are characterized by abuses of power and a lack of respect for the local population: inappropriate expropriation of lands, not allowing local populations to participate in decision-making, imposing abusive conditions in the workplace (although plantations offer few jobs, typically only when getting established), preventing local peoples from having access to the natural resources in an area...
All of this contributes to affected local people's recognizing plantations as a force degrading and competing with the traditional economic and social fabric. Chile's Mapuche Indians call the plantations “planted soldiers” because they are green, stand in rows, and invade. In Brasil they call it the “green desert”, and in South Africa, the “green cancer”. Surely these peoples will not be using many of the kleenex that will be pulped from the plantations robbing them of their resources.