Brazil Photo Essay: A eucalyptus plantation from cradle to pulp mill

Photos and commentary by Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project (Exception: the last two photos are by GJEP Co-Director/Strategist Orin Langelle)

In June 2011 the Tree Biotechnology Conference hosted by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations took place in Bahia, Brazil where many industrial eucalyptus plantations are concentrated and where future plantations of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees are planned.

On Wednesday, June 29th, I joined conference participants for a tour of a eucalyptus plantation owned by Veracel, a major Brazil-based pulp and paper corporation. This photo essay describes the field trip, which shows eucalyptus plantations from their beginnings in the clonal greenhouse, to their end in the pulp mill.

The tour was also mainly a public relations ploy by Veracel and began at their visitors center next to to a patch of wild forest that is surrounded by eucalyptus plantations.

The photos below describe the Veracel guided tour of eucalyptus plantations:

First Stop: Veracel Forest Preserve where children and visitors are “educated” about the importance of eucalyptus pulp and the “greenness” of Veracel.  Note that the human figure in the poster is exhibiting total dominance over the trees.

On the way into the forest preserve, children and visitors are presented with a native forest monster and representations of some of the scary wildlife that live in forests.

Veracel forest monster

Scary forest raptor

On the way through the 6,000 hectare forest preserve – consisting mainly of formerly logged lands and some primary forest, participants were treated to a canopy rope bridge and photo shoots with 4 large trees we encountered on the path.  Most of the forest contained very young trees.

canopy rope bridge

one of the four big trees

The primary Mata Atlantica forest once stretched over much of the eastern edge of Brazil.  Large swaths of it have been eliminated and replaced with eucalyptus plantations.  Veracel took us next to the tree nursery where they propogate the 17 million eucalyptus clones they produce annually.  Henry Ford would have been proud.  The nursery was a very efficient assembly line operation.

Taking Cuttings to propagate new clones

“Clonal Garden”

Assembly line for clones 1

Assembly line for clones 2

Assembly line for clones 3

All the happy clones together

The next step for these clones, of course, is to be transformed into large-scale monoculture eucalyptus plantations.  Veracel harvests 11,000 of these 7 year old eucalyptus trees every day for their pulp mill.  Virtually the entire timbering operation is heavily mechanized to employ the fewest people possible, and uses an assortment of chemicals, from a petroleum-based hydrophilic polymer that is planted with the seedlings, to glyphosate-based herbicides that are applied to keep out competition plants, to the insecticides used to control “pests.”  In this way, Veracel can maximize its potential for profits.

The mechanical harvester rapidly gobbles up the trees

The jaws of the harvester up close and personal

This employee, clearly bored, awaits his cue to show the visitors how the mechanized planter works

After a couple of tries, they were finally successful in showing how the mechanized planter works

The result. Note the petroleum-based polymer gel at the base of the seedling

Despite several quotes from Rachel Carson, John Muir, Emerson and other naturalists posted at the nature preserve, the plantations rely heavily on chemical applications.  The guide informed me that the trees get three applications of toxic herbicide over their 7 year life span.  As a result, the plantations of non-native trees are devoid of understory plants or biodiversity.  Social movements in Brazil call them “green deserts” for this reason.

the ground beneath the plantation is barren of other life forms

Rachel Carson quote in the Veracel forest preserve. “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.”  Too bad they don’t listen to her.

The ultimate destination for the clones:

massive pile of eucalyptus chips at the Veracel pulp mill

From standing trees to boiled, bleached pulp in one day

The reason Veracel needs to greenwash their image: their giant stinking, polluting pulp mill

The stench of the pulp mill. “It smells like money”.

Veracel’s vision for the future: Make more money!

One of the obstacles, according to Veracel, of their achieving maximum productivity, is people breaking into their plantations.  On the way to the plantation, we passed what appeared to be an MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) encampment–black plastic shelters with a red MST flag flying high over them.  Indeed, elsewhere in Brazil, the MST as well as indigenous Tupinikim and Guarani populations, have taken over eucalyptus plantations and found better uses for the land.  In the case of the MST–as encampments for landless peasants.  In the case of the Indigenous Peoples–as a retaking of their ancestral lands from which they were forcibly removed when the timber company was given the land for plantations.  The cases we had previously documented were on Aracruz Cellulose land in Espirito Santo, but it seems to be occuring here in Bahia as well.  Below are photos from the encampments in Esprito Santo:

MST encampment in former eucalyptus plantation. The sign says “Eucalyptus plantations are not forests”. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Indigenous community re-takes traditional lands, removes eucalyptus plantation. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Eucalyptus plantations have been such a smashing success in other parts of the world, that now GE tree company ArborGen is trying to engineer them to be cold-tolerant so that the joy of eucalyptus plantations can be spread to new and untrammeled lands.  In the United States they hope to sell half a billion GE cold tolerant eucalyptus trees annually for plantations from Texas to Florida.  They’re invasive? Flammable?  Dry up ground water and worsen droughts?  So?  What’s your point.  They will make a lot of money for a few powerful people.

To learn more or to sign our petition to the US Department of Agriculture opposing GE eucalyptus in the US, click here

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