Genetically engineered trees threaten forests and communities
The Western Hemisphere’s forests may soon suffer permanent damage due to the looming threat of commercial release of genetically engineered (GE) trees in the Americas within the next three years. Trees engineered to kill insects have already been planted in China and it appears that Brazil, Chile, and the US may not be far behind.
GE trees threaten catastrophe for the world’s remaining native forest ecosystems and forest-dwelling communities. Unlike GE crops such as corn and cotton, trees live for decades and can spread their pollen for hundreds of miles, making the threat of escaped altered genes from GE trees into the environment significantly more serious. The inevitable contamination of native forests by genetically engineered trees may cause destruction of wildlife, depletion of fresh water and soils, collapse of native forest ecosystems, cultural genocide of forest-based indigenous communities, and serious effects on human health.
Global Justice Ecology Project co-Director Orin Langelle and I have been campaigning since 2000 to stop GE trees. Our colleagues at the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement gave us the perfect opportunity to help build international support. They invited us to co-sponsor a major international meeting on plantations and genetically engineered trees in Vitoria, Brazil in November 2005. The meeting, co-sponsored by the Brazilian group FASE (Federation of Social and Educational Assistance Bodies), brought together 35 organizational, community, and indigenous leaders from around the world. Discussion focused on the social, cultural and ecological impacts of the plantations, mainly of pine and eucalyptus, being developed throughout the global South to fill increasing demands for disposable paper and packaging in the consumerist North. We briefed the group on genetically engineered trees, which will magnify the already devastating impacts of industrial tree plantations.
We have a rare opportunity to prevent a foreseeable disaster. This is the goal of the STOP GE Trees Campaign of the Global Justice Ecology Project.
Following our work in Brazil, we planned to travel to Chile to meet with the indigenous Mapuche group Kona Pewman, with whom we are working to stop GE tree plantations in Chile. The Chilean government and forestry corporations seek to advance Chile’s position as the world’s forestry and pulp leader through the development of plantations of cutting-edge engineered pines and eucalyptus.
Two days after our arrival in Chile, on the afternoon of November 28, Alfredo Seguel, the charismatic young coordinator of Kona Pewman, Matías Meza, a human rights attorney of Hungarian-Chilean ancestry, Langelle, and I were driving in Alfredo’s ancient four-wheel-drive “jeep” toward Chile’s central coast near the town of Nuevo Tolten. We were going to observe part of the Chilean coast threatened by two ill-planned proposals: a poorly constructed sewage treatment facility, part of an “environmental” side agreement of the US-Chile trade deal; and a plan by CELCO, a Chilean pulp and paper corporation, to dump its pulp-mill effluent directly into the Pacific, where it would contaminate over 100 miles of coastline with dioxins and other toxic organochlorines from the paper bleaching process.
Recent rains had caused substantial flooding, and we got stuck in the rising flood waters of the Rio Tolten on a remote back road. A delivery truck driver towed us to a mechanic who quickly got the old jeep running, giving us just enough time to visit a local beach for a quick wade in the Pacific Ocean before heading back to the city of Temuco for a meeting that Alfredo had organized with Mapuche community organizers to discuss GE trees.
We never made it to the meeting. While driving down the gravel road toward the highway back to Temuco, the jeep hit a pothole. It skidded out of control, flipped, rolled, and smashed to a stop on the passenger side. Langelle and I crawled, stunned and shaken, out of the hole where the jeep’s windshield had been. We then freed Meza, whose foot was caught under the gasoline-soaked jeep. We found Alfredo in a daze, covered in blood, wandering down the road on his cell phone telling someone that we would be late for our meeting. He had been thrown through the driver’s side window headfirst into the gravel road. Some passing motorists administered first aid to Seguel, using Langelle’s tripod to splint a broken arm that would require four operations to repair. Paramedics arrived and put him into a cervical collar. We were eventually transported by ambulance to the local clinic in Nuevo Tolten and later to the hospital in Temuco, where we were greeted by the group of very anxious Mapuche activists in town for the meeting. Seguel would remain in the hospital for the next four days. The rest of us were lucky to escape with contusions and broken ribs.
Our meeting was rescheduled for a few days later, and without Seguel, who had been released from the hospital and was recovering at home. We discussed how best to educate the rural Mapuche communities that would be most affected by the development of GE tree plantations.
Later we had the chance to meet at Alfredo’s bedside with the youthful and energetic activist Alejandra Parra, who helped translate for us the lightning-fast Chilean Spanish. The accident galvanized our relationship, bonding us all with a high degree of trust. Seguel has since made a full recovery.
An historic decision
We returned to South America in March 2006 to campaign for a global moratorium on GE trees at the Eighth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Curitiba, Brazil. We worked with various experts including geneticist Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of the Federation of German Scientists and England-based EcoNexus, Dr. Michael Hansen of Consumer’s Union and Miguel and Simone Lovera of Global Forest Coalition in Uruguay.
The GE trees issue was discussed on the opening day of the CBD’s Forest Biological Diversity Working Group meeting. Our efforts paid off when 10 countries, beginning with Iran and Ghana, raised the call for a global moratorium on the release of GE trees into the environment. The US is not a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity so US industry representatives had to rely on Canada and Australia to lead the counter-offensive, opposing the GE trees moratorium and requesting instead a compilation of existing (and inadequate) information on GE trees’ impact. Our campaign was ultimately rewarded with a historic decision by the UN CBD, acknowledging for the first time the potential dangers of GE trees and recommending a precautionary approach when considering their use – a direct reference to the Precautionary Principle, which is enshrined in the CBD. If followed, this recommendation would act as a de facto moratorium on GE tree development: The Precautionary Principle demands evidence of both a need for a new technology and of its safety, before the technology is used. With GE trees, neither exists.
The CBD’s decision also launched a global study of the ecological and social risks of GE trees, inviting participation from a broad cross-section of actors, including potentially affected indigenous communities.
The forest products industry insists that GE trees would reduce pollution from pulp mills, decrease the quantity of toxic herbicides and pesticides used on plantations, eliminate the pressure to log in native forests, mitigate global warming, replace fossil fuels, and even clean up toxic waste sites. But what the marketers spin as altruistic is in reality geared toward increased profits, with some serious ramifications.
If released into the environment, GE trees will cause unique and far-reaching social and ecological problems. Pollen models created in 2004 by Duke University researchers suggest that wind can carry pollen from forests in the southeast US into eastern Canada, 1,000 miles away. The release of GE trees will likely cause widespread irreversible contamination of native forests with genetically engineered pollen and seeds. Offspring of contaminated trees would then themselves become contaminants.
Some of the traits being engineered into trees include tolerance to toxic herbicides, resistance to insects, faster growth, reduced lignin, and sterility. Each of these has potentially serious side effects.
While industry claims that trees engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide RoundUp will decrease the amount of herbicide applied, Charles Benbrook, prominent agro-ecologist formerly of the National Academy of Sciences, found that using glyphosate-resistant agricultural crops resulted in up to three- to six-fold increases in the use of the herbicide. The use of “RoundUp Ready” GE trees has potentially serious consequences for nearby communities. A study of farmworkers in Oregon found that glyphosate exposure significantly increased the risk of late-term miscarriages and an Ontario study found an association between glyphosate use and the cancers non-Hodgkins lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Yet another study found that the toxic effects of glyphosate are enhanced when it is inhaled. Tree plantations are frequently sprayed from helicopters, causing the spray to drift into surrounding areas.
GE tree promoters assert that engineering trees to kill insects, accomplished by insertion of the gene for production of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin, will lead to reduced pesticide use: in essence, the tree becomes a pesticide. However, this type of indiscriminate use of a pesticide leads invariably to the emergence of pesticide-resistant “super-pests,” which in turn leads to the need for additional, often more toxic pesticides. Contamination of native forests with the trait for Bt toxin production will disrupt the intricate balance of forest ecosystems of which insects are an integral component. Bt toxin can remain toxic as it moves through the food chain, harming beneficial insects – and perhaps other organisms as well – that feed on the target insects. There is also the potential for bacteria in the soil to pick up the Bt gene and transfer it to other organisms with unpredictable results.
Numerous studies also raise serious questions about the human health impacts of Bt toxin. Studies show that Bt can provoke a potent systemic immune reaction that is greatest when Bt is inhaled. Dr. Terje Traavik of The Norwegian Institute for Gene Ecology reported on findings in 2004 that residents of a Philippine village adjacent to Bt maize fields showed symptoms of “respiratory, intestinal and skin reactions and fever,” during the time that the maize plants were pollinating. His studies from these preliminary findings are continuing.
Bt trees could be far more dangerous than Bt maize. Pine plantations are notorious for heavy and far-reaching pollen. In Chile, some indigenous Mapuche communities are completely surrounded by pine plantations. There is intense pressure from Chilean forestry companies to engineer Bt pines for these plantations. This could be disastrous for these communities, leading to widespread outbreaks of serious illness and increasing the already disproportionate impacts they experience due to Chile’s unsustainable forestry program. Pine plantations currently compose 80 percent of Chile’s plantations. Industry in Chile has projected a release of Bt radiata (Monterey) pine by 2008.
The pulp and paper industry is engineering trees for reduced lignin because their pulp will be significantly more valuable than pulp from conventional trees. Lignin strengthens and protects trees but must be removed in a costly, toxic process when pulp is made into paper. Low-lignin trees would sell at higher prices because they are cheaper to turn into paper. Industry argues that low-lignin trees will mean less pollution from pulp mills. Paper-making processes with less-toxic outputs already exist, but are not widely used due to the cost of re-tooling mills. Unlike low-lignin GE trees, however, these “closed loop” technologies would not contaminate native forests with a gene that could impair trees’ resistance to insects, disease, wind, or cold.
Trees engineered to grow faster are of obvious benefit to the pulp and paper industry, whose bottom line is tied to fast rotations. Far from helping to take logging pressure off native forests, however, these plantations of fast-growing trees will quickly exhaust groundwater and soils, and accelerate conversion of native forests to new plantations. Escape of the gene for faster growth would allow contaminated trees to out-compete native trees, much as non-native invasive species are crowding out native plants and animals in ecosystems all over the globe.
Not surprisingly, the US has a lead role in the development of this revolutionary technology, with hundreds of test plots concentrated primarily in the Southeast, Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest. US corporations are targeting countries in the global South for GE tree plantations, but the above regions, in particular the US Southeast, are also under threat.
According to the Asheville, NC-based Dogwood Alliance, “Southern forests contain some of the most biologically rich ecosystems in North America. From the Gulf Coast, Ozark Mountains, and Southern Appalachians to the pine woods and swamps of the East Coast, southern forests house an abundance of plant and animal diversity and pristine watersheds. Many of the region’s plant and aquatic species can be found nowhere else in the world.” According to the USFS, the Southeast is currently the largest paper-producing region in the world, producing approximately 25 percent of the world’s paper supply. This pressure is destroying native hardwood and conifer forests through industrial-scale clearcutting and the conversion of forests and wetlands to intensively managed pine plantations.
The world’s leader in GE tree research and development is Summerville, SC-based ArborGen. ArborGen is working to develop fast-growing loblolly pine as well as “improved pulping” [low-lignin] eucalyptus and cold-tolerant eucalyptus among others. Development of cold-tolerant eucalyptus would allow these fast-growing trees to grow in currently inhospitable climates, such as the Southeast US.
ArborGen is a joint research venture between three pulp and paper corporations: International Paper and MeadWestvaco, both headquartered in the Southeast US, and New Zealand-based Rubicon. Monsanto was an early partner whose influence can still be seen. (In 2002 ArborGen hired former Monsanto executive Dr. Barbara H. Wells as its new CEO.)
While ArborGen is putting emphasis into developing GE trees for use in the Southeast US, it is also focusing on Brazil. In a July 2005 address to shareholders Luke Moriarty, CEO of Rubicon, emphasized the key role that Brazil will play in ArborGen’s GE tree plans, calling the country ArborGen’s “most important geography.” He further emphasized the economic potential of establishing GE low-lignin eucalyptus plantations in Brazil: “…by reducing the amount of lignin actually produced by the tree itself, a huge reduction in the total cost of wood-pulping can be achieved. Pulp operators can be expected to pay a significant premium for successful low-lignin treestocks.”
Last October, ArborGen announced that it was shifting its focus from research and development to the marketplace. According to the Charleston Post and Courier, spokesperson Dawn Parks said ArborGen was “evolving from a research and development company to a commercial enterprise,” and planned to hire engineers and production workers to design and run machinery capable of producing larger quantities of the engineered seedlings.
Aracruz Cellulose, International Paper, and Suzano are also involved in research into GE trees in Brazil.
A report called “Genetically Modified Trees in Chile: A New Forest Conflict,” published on the Mapuche Web site mapuexpress.net, emphasizes the urgency of the threat posed by GE trees to Chile’s forests and people. It reports that the Chilean government has spent millions of dollars to support the genetic engineering of exotic eucalyptus and pines, warning that Chile has no legal or environmental safeguards to keep the technology in check.
China is the only country known to have commercial GE tree plantations. In an attempt to stop the rapid desertification of a large part of the country, China developed huge plantations of poplars. These monoculture plantations were plagued by insects that killed many of the trees. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Development Programme helped China develop insect-resistant Bt poplars to use in the plantations. In 2004, Huoran Wang, a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry in Beijing, reported to the FAO that one million GE Populus nigra trees had been planted in China, adding, “poplar trees are so widely planted in northern China that pollen and seed dispersal can not be prevented.” Attempts to prevent genetic pollution by maintaining “isolation distances” between GE and non-GE poplars is “almost impossible,” Wang concluded. Indeed, the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences reports that contamination of native poplars with the insect-resistance gene is already occurring.
The advance of GE tree technology is outpacing regulation. Claire Williams, a visiting professor at Duke University, discusses this problem: “…The pursuit of genetic engineering in forest research is principally corporate, shaped by the imperatives of private investment, market forces and government regulatory institutions. Novel forest tree phenotypes are created as a means to increase shareholder value of investor companies. And although potential benefits will accrue to shareholders, it is clear that ecological risks of certain transgenic traits engineered into trees are likely to be shared by all. Private investment in forest biotechnology is … fueling the creation of novel transgenic phenotypes in trees at a rate that is outstripping public policy deliberation and scientific assessment of environmental concerns specific to trees.”
With their potential to devastate ecosystems and communities around the world, and lacking thorough risk assessments, the release of GE trees must be prohibited.
The plantations connection
In Brazil, Chile, and around the world, rural and indigenous communities rely on intact native forests for their livelihoods, shelter, water, fuel, and food. Plantations cannot meet these needs. In countries where native forests have been removed and industrial monoculture tree plantations developed, wildlife and indigenous and rural communities pay a heavy price. Expanding plantations with GE trees, justified as a solution to the increasing demand for paper by wealthy countries, will magnify these problems.
This connection led to the call for the Vitoria, Brazil meeting on plantations and GE trees in late November of 2005. Activists attended from places around the world where plantations have become a major problem and where GE trees are a looming threat – including Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, South Africa, Europe, and North America.
Peoples’ perceptions of plantations are remarkably similar. While in Brazil plantations are called “green deserts,” due to their reputation for destroying biological diversity, people in South Africa call them “green cancer,” due to the tendency of eucalyptus plantations to spread wildly and destructively into other areas, and in Chile plantations are called “green soldiers,” because they stand in straight lines and are advancing steadily forward, destroying everything in their path.
In many countries – Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa – timber plantations got their start or expanded rapidly under authoritarian regimes. However, corporations continue land takeover and plantation expansion under the neoliberal economic paradigms that have flourished in the post-authoritarian years.
In Chile, plantations force Mapuche communities onto poor-quality lands. The communities lose access to water during the summer growing season and must rely on water trucks. The contamination of ground and surface water by pesticides and herbicides used on the plantations results in rising levels of sickness in their communities. The communities also experience the effects of heavy pollen counts from the pine plantations. The pollen contaminates water, and causes allergies and skin problems. Since the explosion of the plantations on former Mapuche land, poverty rates among Mapuche communities have risen dramatically. In Lumaco, one of the poorest regions of Chile, 60 percent of the population lives under the poverty level; 33 percent, in extreme poverty.
Those who oppose the plantations are subjected to political repression. In 2002 four Mapuche activists, accused of burning 108 acres of a pine plantation, were sentenced to 10 years in prison under “terrorism” laws created by the military to suppress opposition to the Pinochet Regime. The use of these laws in Mapuche trials has been condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In Ecuador, corporations are cutting deals with local communities and poor rural landowners that enable plantations to expand without having to purchase land. This strategy means companies can abandon the land after the plantations have stripped the soil and depleted the groundwater. The corporations promise resident communities a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the trees in exchange for tending the plantations. The compensation that the communities ultimately receive, however, does not even cover the cost of caring for the remote plantations. Some communities in these mountainous regions have begun to rebel, breaking the contracts and burning the plantations.
In Brazil people have also begun rebelling against the rampant expansion of plantations. Following the meetings in Vitoria, participants traveled to an indigenous Guarani and Tupinikim village in the process of reclaiming 27,000 acres of land stolen from them under the dictatorship and given to Aracruz Cellulose for eucalyptus plantations. Leaders of the village recounted the victory of the people over the timber industry in taking back their traditional lands. Earlier in the year they had taken over the Aracruz Cellulose pulp mill down the road in protest of the expansion of eucalyptus plantations. But on January 20 of this year, following an unfavorable court ruling, the indigenous residents were violently evicted and their homes bulldozed and burned. Fleeing residents were shot by gunmen in helicopters. The court ruling was later overturned and the indigenous people have returned to rebuild their village. Their story has inspired movements against plantations all over the world, and spurred the “Vitoria Statement” that emerged from the meetings in Vitoria.
An encampment of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) had taken over a portion of another Aracruz Cellulose eucalyptus plantation. The MST is a movement of landless workers in Brazil that has had great success in settling abandoned or misused lands throughout the country, setting up encampments and demanding legal title to the land. The structures of the MST camp – which included a community center – were approximately 10 feet by 10 feet and covered in a thick black plastic. Leaders of the MST camp described their decision-making process in which the camp is divided into grids, with each section electing a representative to make decisions. While we were there, the residents were preparing for the ritual “baptism” of the camp that was to occur the next night. They were going to be naming the camp Galdino dos Santos, for an indigenous chief who had been murdered while on a journey to Brasilia two years prior.
On March 8, 2,000 women from Via Campesina had commemorated International Women’s Day by storming an Aracruz Cellulose facility and destroying an estimated eight million eucalyptus seedlings slated for future plantations.
During the UN CBD meetings in Brazil, we met with representatives from the MST and Via Campesina, Friends of the Earth and other Brazilian groups to give them information about GE trees and a copy of the new video on GE trees, A Silent Forest: The Growing Threat, Genetically Engineered Trees, narrated by world-renowned geneticist Dr. David Suzuki. The video is currently being translated into Portuguese and Spanish for use by activists in China, Chile and Brazil. Since these meetings, a grassroots campaign has been launched in Brazil for a country-wide ban on GE trees.
In the US and Canada, 13 national, regional, and local organizations have come together as the STOP GE Trees Campaign, whose goal is to ban genetically engineered trees. To accomplish this goal, the STOP GE Trees Campaign builds economic disincentives, social pressures, and legal barriers against GE trees. Activities include public education, community organizing, media outreach, and distribution of A Silent Forest.
Internationally, Global Justice Ecology Project and the STOP GE Trees Campaign are working to educate activists worldwide about the GE tree threat and offer support for local efforts to prevent development of GE tree plantations.
In addition, a global campaign is being launched to demand the UN CBD pass a moratorium against the genetic engineering of trees at its 2008 Conference of the Parties in Berlin.
To become involved in the STOP GE Trees Campaign, visit www.globaljusticecology.org or www.stopgetrees.org. You can download a copy of the GE Trees Action Tool Kit, order a copy of the video A Silent Forest, and find information on donating to the campaign.
Anne Petermann is co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project.