New research shows that planted forests bring numerous benefits to human and natural ecology

Planted forests, or plantations, are often labelled as “green deserts”, that they are “not forests” because they are perceived to provide few benefits to conservation of plant or animal species.

However new research led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has shown that plantations of the right species in the right places can provide multiple benefits, not just timber. It depends on where they are in the landscape, what they replace, and how they are managed.

Himlal Baral, the lead author of the paper, says that planted forests have the potential to provide greater benefits than food crops and other land uses to human and environmental well-being in the long term, including by restoring degraded forest landscapes.

While timber plantations often have a bad reputation, he adds, their effects are more limited than agriculture or infrastructure development as drivers of natural forest loss in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

Baral’s findings further how that plantations can contribute ecosystem services, and that it is possible to assess these benefits using a simple approach. This will enable a better understanding of the capacity of different types of planted forests to provide services such as timber, water quality, carbon sequestration or habitat benefits, and their contribution to forest landscape restoration goals.

In theory, the paper finds that planted forests can be better than agriculture and pasture for almost all ecosystem services measured. In comparison to natural forests, planted forests are generally higher for timber production and carbon sequestration.

The framework also takes into account the public and private aspects of planted forests, and what this means for access to ecosystem services. For example, timber and other ‘excludable’ forest products may not be as readily accessible to local populations from a planted forest as from a natural forest, while ‘non-excludable’ services such as clean air and water are accessible to all.

Baral hopes that the research will support improved understanding and management of planted forests to the benefit of people and the environment.

“By increasing the area of plantations for timber production on degraded lands, we can reduce the pressure to clear natural forests,” Baral says.

“The human population is increasing and people are becoming wealthier. Demand for forest products is increasing – you need somewhere to satisfy those demands,” he says. “And if you don’t have plantations, you need to harvest natural forests more extensively.”