Global Tree Plantation Expansion

A Review
16 October 2012

The expansion of tree plantations and non-food crops is frequently left out of analysis on land grabbing, but is a crucial part of the picture. This paper provides an up-to-date review of tree plantations worldwide and summarises the latest research and data on their impact.

This article reviews the recent global expansion of different types of tree plantations. The review collates accounts from recent academic publications and by international, regional and local NGOs, and is accompanied by field research and interview observations about the causal processes, central features and likely futures of contemporary tree plantation expansion. This article offers the largest and most up-to-date review of tree plantations and tree plantation studies in the world and the very latest research and data is surveyed. Class, North-South, socio- ecological and agrarian political economic dynamics in expansion are discussed. Results indicate there are differences – depending on whether smallholder or industrial tree plantations are expanded – but also common problems. The literature on environmental and developmental impacts of expansion is also surveyed.


Download the paper



This article is the first attempt to comprehensively review the current academic and other knowledge on the expansion of tree plantations (TPs) across the globe. The reviewed material includes FAO data on TPs, existing academic literature, the extensive writings by the World Rainforest Movement on the topic, many other international, regional and local NGOs’ publications, movement material, official documents, interviews and discussions with specialists, foresters, company directors, officials and activists aware of the recent changes, field research observations from plantation areas, and quite extensive Google searches to locate articles from local and global newspapers, research institutions, and other bodies on the politics and economy of TP expansion. Hundreds of reports written in the past decade were covered: a comprehensive bibliography of key texts is presented. The aim is to illustrate where we stand now in terms of knowledge, introduce the key explanations on causes and impacts, summarize findings and outline areas needing further inquiry. The review sheds light on contemporary rural changes globally. Most of the research on current key rural transformations, such as large-scale land deals, has focused on food production. However, a large parcel of land-use, access and control takes place in non-edible industries, such as forestry. The share of new non-food land access, for mining, forestry, energy and conservation purposes, among others, has been significant. For example, in Latin America, the two most important non-food sectors in terms of land use are fast-growing forestry plantations (such as eucalyptus) and conservation (Borras et al. 2012). The literature on large-scale land deals has started to deal with these. Fairhead, Leach and Scoones (2012) review a collection of essays on ‘green grabs’, mostly dealing with conservation schemes.

Tree plantations have received less attention in this literature, despite being an essential part of the new emerging ‘bio’- or ‘green’-economy. This gap in knowledge needs to be bridged by reviewing the expansion of TPs. The review of expanding non-food resource exploitation carries potentially significant importance in the academic and political debate on rapid agrarian change of the past years caused particularly by large-scale land deals. As non-edible crops have been left out of analysis of ‘land grabbing’, narratives might be misrepresenting what is actually happening and why. For example, Borras et al. (2012) found that in Latin America and the Caribbean land and capital (re)concentration occurred in two broad mega-sectors: the flex crop (crops usable for food as well as other purposes, such as energy) complex/food sectors, and the broad non-food sector. According to the authors, this contradicts the dominant narrative that new land deals have occurred because of the food crisis of 2007–2008 and that such land grabs would be orientated towards food export to food insecure countries. The isolated study of food is thus problematic. It misses more general phenomena explaining large-scale land deals such as the newly emerged flex crop complex, the continuing importance of livestock, the sharp increase in demands for natural resources by newly emerged centers of capital, and responses to policies linked to climate change mitigation strategies (Borras et al. 2012).

To understand the quality and extent of ‘land grabbing’ in its totality and sub-parts, sector- specific politics should be analyzed. A discussion of significant changes in the forest industry, focusing on tree plantation expansion – the strongest of the drivers of change and accumulation in globalization – will begin this process. A detailed focus on the forest industry allows comparison with other industries and enables an understanding of how and if industry accumulation and expansion logics derive from industry-specific rules or from global capitalism, as a sub-system of global capitalism.

The focus in this review on the forest industry does not include oil palm and rubber. Oil palms are linked to the food complex and the energy industry. In order to delimit the unit of analysis to only the forest industry, rubber plantations are not included. Rubber plantations are linked more with the chemical and metal industries, as well as to a lesser extent the energy industry, as some old rubber trees have been recently chipped to fuel wood-energy plants.

The main species focus is on eucalyptus and pine; the two fast-growth main commercial plantation species used in pulp-making. Some other similar trees are also surveyed, such as acacia, and all forestry plantations are included in the statistical section illustrating where and what is planted across the globe. The main emphasis is placed upon the most visible part of the forest industry cluster: the corporate-controlled industrial tree plantation (ITP) holding companies. The most important actors to study in order to understand the expansion and political economy of global forestry are an increasingly merged group of Northern paper companies (such as International Paper from the US and Stora Enso from Finland-Sweden), alongside some rising Southern pulp companies (such as Fibria from Brazil and APP from Singapore). More analysis is required on the forestry empires of leading companies, given the dearth of research on the political economy of globalizing Northern multinational timber firms (Dauvergne and Lister 2011), although they have been alleged to cause many problems around the globe (Carrere and Lohmann 1996, Lang 2007, Gerber 2010).

Timber products are still mostly extracted from natural or modified natural forests, but the share of plantations is increasing. According to a 2001 publication by Sohngen et al., cited by UNEP (2012), plantations provided in 2001 some 35 percent of the globally harvested wood. Since then the plantation share has increased as plantations have grown while the total forestry area has not (ibid). Considering this global importance, discussion on plantations has been remarkably absent, although there is a growing literature. This review studies the political economic expansion of non-edible tree species cultivated in either 1) industrial large-scale forestry plantations of tens of thousands of hectares contractually controlled or owned by corporations (ITPs), or 2) small plots of a few hectares maximum size by rural households (smallholder-based forestry plantations, STPs).The conceptual division into corporate- and smallholder-based forestry is necessary to explain why there are divergences in expansion dynamics.

The conceptual separation between ITPs and STPs flows from the available data and the existing literature on TPs and agrarian political economy. For example, Bernstein (2010) suggests four questions to disaggregate the process and impact of development in agrarian political economies. These are: who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? What do they do with the created surplus wealth? Such analysis helps in understanding why, where and how plantations expand, as the politics and types of plantations are tied into relational dynamics between different social groups, including classes of labor. To assess differences in STPs and ITPs, Barney (2004) urges the study of the history of legal and informal resource tenure, within an analysis of rural political-economic restructuring accompanying TP expansion. Such analysis illustrates how expansion differs dramatically, for example in the contexts of Vietnam (Sikor 2012) and Brazil (Kröger 2011, 2012a).

An incorporated comparative analysis (see McMichael 1992) using Bernstein’s four questions on class dynamics is used as an underlying frame to organize the accounts of different but globally and temporally connected structural and institutional settings, schemes and actor dynamics where plantations expand. A comparison of studies of different settings suggests STPs have been the main form of industrial forestry expansion in places such as Thailand (Barney 2004), Vietnam (Sikor 2012) and Finland (, Facts, Ownership, accessed 28 June 2012), whereas ITPs have been the mainstay in countries such as Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Indonesia and Mozambique. Differences in class and power relations are discussed together with other socio-environmental issues commonly given as explanations for the ITP-STP divergence. Both STPs and ITPs are found to share the diminishing biodiversity problem inherent in single-crop plantations. Yet studies also note that plantations exist in radically different agrarian settings and thus have variance between them depending on context, with for example some plantations containing more underbrush vegetation than others.

The review sums up how the literature has answered the questions, why, where and what, and how fast-growth tree plantations have expanded. The main land use changes are outlined and expansion predictions are proposed based on existing data. In the how-section, the most commonly identified methods, consequences and dynamics of TP expansion are reviewed, including analysis of state-industry-civil society interaction, corporate land control, enclosures, class relations and socio-ecological modifications. Studies on STPs are reviewed for their findings on developmental differences and similarities in ITP expansion style. Finally, the environmental impacts are studied. The review is accompanied by sections presenting new and unpublished field research findings by the author, relevant to understanding the most recent changes or illustrating key issues not considered in the existing literature.


Published jointly by Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies (ICAS), Land Deal Politics Initiative (LDPI) and Transnational Institute (TNI). We acknowledge the financial support by Inter-Church Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO), the Netherlands.

Markus Kroger is currently an Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Helsinki, Department of Political and Economic Studies