Issue 225: November 2004


 Planting trees for peace

There is a row of glass jars on my shelf, displaying half-a-dozen very different varieties of bean seeds that I have selected to plant next year. It's a comfortable, familiar routine: planting seeds, nurturing the garden, harvesting and selecting the ones I want for the next year.

Planting a tree, on the other hand, is a bit intimidating. It's a long-term commitment. The vegetable garden is, after all, an annual event. When we lived on the farm in Nova Scotia, we always planned to plant an orchard, but we never quite got around to it. (We did try once, but the sheep destroyed the young trees.) When we left fifteen years later, we realized that the ash sapling which had sprouted from a stump in front of the house the year we arrived was now a substantial tree.

Even more than saving seeds and protecting their diversity, planting a tree is a statement of faith in the future. That is why, with the news of the US election fresh in my mind, I am so glad to see the Nobel prize awarded to an African woman who plants trees. – C.K.

On Oct 8th, Kenyan environmental activist and deputy environment minister Wangari Mathai, 64, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, honouring her decades of work leading the Green Belt Movement. The Movement's dual aim is to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking – an essential need in rural Africa. Members have planted over 30 million trees across the continent.

Mathai launched the movement in 1977 and from a tree nursery in her own back garden, the number of rural tree nurseries in Kenya has reached 5,000, providing employment and income to thousands of rural women. The following are excerpts from a 1998 speech by Wangari Mathai on “The Linkage Between Patenting of Life Forms, Genetic Engineering and Food Insecurity”

“Traders have appropriated other people's resources, including human ‘resources' and territories, as free goods for centuries, usually by buying-off misinformed, unsuspecting or corrupted nationals. Biotechnology and patenting of life forms is the new frontier for conquest, and Africa ought to be wary because a history of colonialism and exploitation is repeating itself. . . . Corporations are trying to appropriate life through the same rules which have governed the world of business and profits in the past. Industry has in fact already managed to gain private monopoly rights (patents) on some living materials by distorting the original concept and intention of patenting – as life is obviously not an invention.”

“If we thought that slavery and colonialism were gross violations of human rights, we have to wake up to what is awaiting us down the secretive road of biopiracy, patenting of life and genetic engineering. Genocide from hunger, such as we have not yet seen, becomes a haunting possibility.”

“Today, patenting of life forms and the genetic engineering which it stimulates is being justified on the grounds that it will benefit society, especially the poor, by providing better and more food and medicine. But in fact, by monopolising the ‘raw' biological materials, the development of other options is deliberately blocked. Farmers, therefore, become totally dependent on the corporations for seeds.”

“It is now widely accepted that food security for local communities means the capacity to access, develop and exchange seeds and to produce enough food for the households, only selling the surplus to the market. Likewise, national food security means the capacity for a country to produce enough seed and food for its citizens and only the surplus should be sold to the commodity markets abroad.”

The United Nations, the World Bank, GE Trees and Global Warming – Anne Petermann

Editors note: The Kyoto Protocol on climate change seemed like a fine idea when the Convention on Climate Change was formulated in 1992. The Protocol, providing the specific recommendations for limiting climate change, had enough signatures to become formalized in 1994. It required ratification, however, by a specific number of high-polluting countries and this was not achieved until Russia ratified the Protocol this month (5 November, 2004.) Canada and the USA have not ratified the treaty .

Over the past decade, however, more and more concern has been expressed about the adequacy or actual consequences of various provisions of the Protocol. Forests as carbon sinks, and the provision for high-polluting countries to acquire off-setting carbon sinks in the form of forests elsewhere in the world rather than actually cutting their emissions, is now being harshly criticized.

When the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change last December agreed that Genetically Engineered (GE) Trees could be used in carbon offset forestry plantations, forest protection advocates around the world came together to launch a campaign to demand the UN ban GE trees.

These forestry plantations are included in the Kyoto Protocol under loopholes called “Flexible Mechanisms.” These mechanisms include trading in carbon credits, as well as Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM allows for private corporations and Northern countries to invest in forestry plantations in developing countries and consequently receive credits for the carbon absorption from these projects.

The United Nations has been involved in the promotion of genetically engineered trees since at least 1990, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provided support to the Chinese Academy of Forestry to help them get started on research into genetically engineered (GE) poplar trees. The United Nations Development Project provided $1.8 million to fund the project.

This investment has paid off in the planting of 1.4 million GE hybrid poplar and GE Populus nigra trees in an uncontrolled experiment in China. The trees have been engineered for insect resistance. This means the trees produce the bacterial toxin Bt, and any insect, beneficial or pest, that uses the tree will die.

Now the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is teaming up with the World Bank's Prototype Carbon Fund (PCF) to magnify this disastrous experiment throughout the developing world. By approving GE trees for use in carbon offset forestry plantations, the UN has opened the door to World Bank funding for these plantations. The inevitable contamination of native forests with engineered pollen from GE tree plantations will have a host of negative impacts both for communities located in or near adjacent forests and for the wildlife of these forests. Even non-GE plantations have proven disastrous for nearby communities.

While the World Bank insists that its Prototype Carbon Fund was designed to help alleviate poverty and promote development, Ken Newcomb, Senior Manager of the World Bank's Carbon Finance Business reveals that the real motive for their involvement is to “reduce the risk for private investors.” The Prototype Carbon Fund's largest carbon offset forestry plantation project, called Plantar, is in Brazil. While not a GE tree plantation, Plantar has nonetheless come under fire from the Rural Workers Union and others from Minais Gerais, where the plantations are located.

Monoculture tree plantations are incredibly water intensive, stealing water needed by nearby communities for agriculture. Because the plantations are all the same species, they are extremely vulnerable to attacks by insects and disease. In China, it was infestations by insects in non-GE monoculture plantations that led them to implement insect-resistant GE trees. While this program is called “reforestation,” monoculture tree plantations are not forests. One look at the straight and silent rows of identical trees with no understory plants and very little wildlife confirms that industrial tree plantations have as much in common with forests as commercial corn fields.

"No Ground Vegetation": Photographs of GM trees in China (May 2003) by Dietrich Ewald, a German forestry scientist, are available at

Additionally, evidence suggests that development of monoculture tree plantations actually contributes to global warming. A look at satellite maps from ten years ago compared to images today reveal a clear trend of plantations being developed where not long ago native forests stood. Add to this studies done by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Resources Institute that found that in tropical areas plantations at best sequester only 1/4 the carbon as native forests. In other words, conversion of native forests to plantations diminishes carbon sequestering potential. The addition of genetically engineered trees to the mix leads to forest health crises in the world's remaining native forests that will further exacerbate global warming.

In addition to insect resistance, trees are being genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, reduced lignin, faster growth and sterility. Experience with agricultural crops indicates that trees engineered for herbicide resistance will lead to increased applications of chemicals such as glyphosate on the land, causing water contamination, as well as toxic effects on wildlife and nearby human populations. [see Benbrook report p. 7]

Lignin protects trees, giving them rigidity. It is removed to make paper. Reducing lignin causes increased tree mortality from disease, insect infestation and animal browsing.Dead low-lignin trees also rot faster, releasing CO 2 more rapidly, contributing to global warming. Faster growing tree plantations cause rapid depletion of groundwater and desertification of soils resulting in the clearing of more native forests for new plantations.[. . . ]

Because of the potential for GE trees to contaminate native forests and increase forest conversion, they have no place in sustainable forest management practices that maintain healthy forest ecosystems. Additionally, because these plantations destroy the delicate balance of native forests and deplete ground water as well as potentially disbursing toxic pollen, they have the potential to devastate communities that are culturally and economically dependent on healthy native forests.

In sum, development of GE tree plantations cannot help abate global warming. Proposals by the UN and the World Bank for carbon offset forestry plantations– especially those that include GE trees– must be opposed.

– Anne Petermann is Co-Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project. To join the campaign, contact:<>



#225: November 2004 TOC
Planting trees for peace: : Kenyan Wangari Mathai wins the Nobel prize
The UN, the World Bank, GE trees & Global Warming, by Anne Petermann: monoculture plantations of GE trees are an environmental threat Old varieties prove their value: researchers find pest resistance naturally occurring
It's a wrap: Cargill creates biodegradable food packaging
The Giant gains visibility: Cargill is raising its profile as an ingredients supplier
A Cross-Canada Commitment to Food Security Policy: the national food security Assembly in Winnipeg launches a new organization
Blowin' in the wind - Creeping Bentgrass: the latest evidence of GE gene flow: 13 miles this time
Testing? What Testing?: a compilation study reveals negligible testing on the human effects of GMOs
More Pesticides Used on GM Crops: according to a new study by Dr. Charles
Benbrook in the USA