A plantation is a large-scale estate meant for farming that specializes in cash crops. The crops that are grown include cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar cane, opium, sisal, oil seeds, oil palms, fruits, rubber trees and forest trees. Protectionist policies and natural comparative advantage have sometimes contributed to determining where plantations are located.
Among the earliest examples of plantations were the latifundia of the Roman Empire, which produced large quantities of grain, wine and olive oil for export. Plantation agriculture grew rapidly with the increase in international trade and the development of a worldwide economy that followed the expansion of European colonial empires. Like every economic activity, it has changed over time.
Industrial plantations are established to produce a high volume of wood in a short period of time. Plantations are grown by state forestry authorities (for example, the Forestry Commission in Britain) and/or the paper and wood industries and other private landowners (such as Weyerhaeuser, Rayonier and Sierra Pacific Industries in the United States, Asia Pulp & Paper in Indonesia). Christmas trees are often grown on as well. In southern and southeastern Asia, teak plantations have recently replaced the natural forest.
Industrial plantations are actively managed for the commercial production of forest products. Industrial plantations are usually large-scale. Individual blocks are usually even-aged and often consist of just one or two species. These species can be exotic or indigenous. The plants used for the plantation are often genetically altered for desired traits such as growth and resistance to pests and diseases in general and specific traits, for example in the case of timber species, volumic wood production and stem straightness. Forest genetic resources are the basis for genetic alteration. Selected individuals grown in seed orchards are a good source for seeds to develop adequate planting material. Wood production on a tree plantation is generally higher than that of natural forests. While forests managed for wood production commonly yield between 1 and 3 cubic meters per hectare per year, plantations of fast-growing species commonly yield between 20 and 30 cubic meters or more per hectare annually; a Grand Fir plantation at in Scotland has a growth rate of 34 cubic meters per hectare per year (Aldhous & Low 2020), and Monterey Pine plantations in southern Australia can yield up to 40 cubic meters per hectare per year (Everard & Fourt 1974). In 2000, while plantations accounted for 5% of global forest, it is estimated that they supplied about 35% of the world's roundwood.
Some plantation trees, such as pines and eucalyptus, can be at high risk of fire damage because their leaf oils and resins are flammable to the point of a tree being explosive under some conditions. Conversely, an afflicted plantation can in some cases be cleared of pest species cheaply through the use of a prescribed burn, which kills all lesser plants but does not significantly harm the mature trees.
Many forestry experts claim that the establishment of plantations will reduce or eliminate the need to exploit natural forest for wood production. In principle this is true because due to the high productivity of plantations less land is needed. Many point to the example of New Zealand, where 19% of the forest area provides 99% of the supply of industrial round wood. It has been estimated that the world's demand for fiber could be met by just 5% of the world forest (Sedjo & Botkin 1997). However, in practice, plantations are replacing natural forest, for example in Indonesia. According to the FAO, about 7% of the natural closed forest being lost in the tropics is land being converted to plantations. The remaining 93% of the loss is land being converted to agriculture and other uses. Worldwide, an estimated 15% of plantations in tropical countries are established on closed canopy natural forest.
In the Kyoto Protocol, there are proposals encouraging the use of plantations to reduce carbon dioxide levels (though this idea is being challenged by some groups on the grounds that the sequestered CO2 is eventually released after harvest).
In the 1970s, Brazil began to establish high-yield, intensively managed, short rotation plantations. These types of plantations are sometimes called fast-wood plantations or fiber farms and often managed on a short-rotation basis, as little as 5 to 15 years. They are becoming more widespread in South America, Asia and other areas. The environmental and social impacts of this type of plantation has caused them to become controversial. In Indonesia, for example, large multi-national pulp companies have harvested large areas of natural forest without regard for regeneration. From 1980 to 2000, about 50% of the 1.4 million hectares of pulpwood plantations in Indonesia have been established on what was formerly natural forest land.
The replacement of natural forest with tree plantations has also caused social problems. In some countries, again, notably Indonesia, conversions of natural forest are made with little regard for rights of the local people. Plantations established purely for the production of fiber provide a much narrower range of services than the original natural forest for the local people. India has sought to limit this damage by limiting the amount of land owned by one entity and, as a result, smaller plantations are owned by local farmers who then sell the wood to larger companies. Some large environmental organizations are critical of these high-yield plantations and are running an anti-plantation campaign, notably the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace.
Farm or home plantations are typically established for the production of timber and fire wood for home use and sometimes for sale. Management may be less intensive than with Industrial plantations. In time, this type of plantation can become difficult to distinguish from naturally regenerated forest.
Teak and bamboo plantations in India have given good results and an alternative crop solution to farmers of central India, where conventional farming was popular. But due to rising input costs of farming many farmers have done teak and bamboo plantations which require very little water (only during first two years). Teak and bamboo have legal protection from theft. Bamboo, once planted, gives output for 50 years till flowering occurs. Teak requires 20 years to grow to full maturity and fetch returns.
These may be established for watershed or soil protection. They are established for erosion control, landslide stabilization and windbreaks. Such plantations are established to foster native species and promote forest regeneration on degraded lands as a tool of environmental restoration.
Probably the single most important factor a plantation has on the local environment is the site where the plantation is established. If natural forest is cleared for a planted forest then a reduction in biodiversity and loss of habitat will likely result. In some cases, their establishment may involve draining wetlands to replace mixed hardwoods that formerly predominated with pine species. If a plantation is established on abandoned agricultural land, or highly degraded land, it can result in an increase in both habitat and biodiversity. A planted forest can be profitably established on lands that will not support agriculture or suffer from lack of natural regeneration.
The tree species used in a plantation is also an important factor. Where non-native varieties or species are grown, few of the native fauna are adapted to exploit these and further biodiversity loss occurs. However, even non-native tree species may serve as corridors for wildlife and act as a buffer for native forest, reducing edge effect.
Once a plantation is established, how it is managed becomes the important environmental factor. The single most important factor of management is the rotation period. Plantations harvested on longer rotation periods (30 years or more) can provide similar benefits to a naturally regenerated forest managed for wood production, on a similar rotation. This is especially true if native species are used. In the case of exotic species, the habitat can be improved significantly if the impact is mitigated by measures such as leaving blocks of native species in the plantation, or retaining corridors of natural forest. In Brazil, similar measures are required by government regulation
Sugar plantations were highly valued in the Caribbean by the British and French colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries and the use of sugar in Europe rose during this period. Sugarcane is still an important crop in Cuba. Sugar plantations also arose in countries such as Barbados and Cuba because of the natural endowments that they had. These natural endowments included soil that was conducive to growing sugar and a high marginal product of labor realized through the increasing number of slaves.
Plantings of the Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), are usually called plantations.
Oil palm agriculture is rapidly expanding across wet tropical regions, and is usually developed at plantation scale.
Fruit orchards are sometimes considered to be plantations.
When Newfoundland was colonized by England in 1610, the original colonists were called "Planters" and their fishing rooms were known as "fishing plantations". These terms were used well into the 20th century.
The following three plantations are maintained by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador as provincial heritage sites:
Other fishing plantations:
African slave labour was used extensively to work on early plantations (such as tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar plantations) in the American colonies and the United States, throughout the Caribbean, the Americas, and in European-occupied areas of Africa. Several notable historians and economists such as Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, and Karl Marx contend that the global capitalist economy was largely founded upon the creation and produce of thousands of slave labor camps based in colonial plantations, exploiting tens of millions of enslaved Africans.
In modern times, the low wages typically paid to plantation workers are the basis of plantation profitability in some areas.
In more recent times, overt slavery has been replaced by para-slavery or slavery-in-kind, including the sharecropping system. At its most extreme, workers are in "debt bondage": they must work to pay off a debt at such punitive interest rates that it may never be paid off. Others work unreasonably long hours and are paid subsistence wages that (in practice) may only be spent in the company store.
In Brazil, a sugarcane plantation was termed an engenho ("engine"), and the 17th-century English usage for organized colonial production was "factory." Such colonial social and economic structures are discussed at Plantation economy.
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