September 21 is the International Day of Struggle against Monoculture Tree Plantations, a day for civil society and community movements around the world to honour the resistance against the expansion of monoculture tree plantations that have destroyed ecosystems and threatened communities. Although it was started by communities impacted by tree monoculture plantations in Brazil in 2004, the ecological destruction and social impacts of any type of large monoculture is generally similar, whatever the crop of choice is.
For over a month, the transboundary haze caused by the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan has continued to blow across Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, reaching the Philippines this week. This has occurred continually for over two decades. In Brazil, the Amazon forest is also burning for the same reason – fires caused by monoculture plantation development. Meanwhile, areas in Siberia, Australia and even the Artic have also recently burnt with an unusual intensity, giving rise to climate change concerns that can no longer be ignored. Yesterday, and continuing over the weekend, climate change strikes are taking place all over the world, largely propelled by young people.What are the lessons that can be learnt here?
First, we need to wake up to the scientific fact that our current economic model is not working. The large monoculture plantation economy is a part of this flawed system. In many countries, it arrived with colonisation, clear felling forests and other precious ecosystems, poisoning rivers and soils with pesticides, as underpaid labourers toiled in poor working conditions and community land grabbed. Today, this exploitative colonial monoculture plantation model continues to be employed by corporations all over the world in sovereign countries. Since the 1990s, in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, large new areas of forests and even community agricultural land began to be rapidly converted into corporate monoculture plantations, after the transnational timber industry ran out of natural timber resources, as a result of several decades of overharvesting. Many of such forests and farmlands are also under the customary rights of local communities.
Second, we also need to accept that as far as ecological impacts of monoculture plantations are concerned, size does matter. As a result of their size and lack of crop diversity, coupled with the heavy use of pesticides, they can adversely affect the hydrology and soils of local ecosystems. Peat land can therefore dry up, making it more susceptible to forest fires.
Third, in order to protect forests and pursue more sustainable modes of agriculture and food production, the rights of local communities and farmers, including indigenous peoples, must therefore be strengthened. It is obvious that we need to undertake a new approach on agriculture and the rights of communities and farmers, especially with the arrival of climate change. Large monoculture plantations are not smallholdings. Corporations are not farmers. The more communities and farmers lose access to their territories, the harsher the ecological destruction that ensues and the stronger corporate control will be over what we consume and how we live.
Agroecology and community-run agriculturally diverse farms must be our future, if we wish to ensure that our children will be able to enjoy sufficient and sustainable food and natural resources and a safe environment. With climate emergency becoming our reality now, it is morally wrong to continue business as usual. Our agricultural system has to change, if we wish for humanity to survive climate change. The world must halt the expansion of destructive large corporate monoculture plantations. Communities and farmers must be allowed to reclaim their rights from corporations to feed, clothe and provide for the world sustainably, as it has always been before the advent of colonialisation. This is not a question of choice. There is no other choice. As eloquently spoken by the teenage climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, “there are no grey areas when it comes to survival.”