Plantations and the Conservation of Biodiversity

In spite of their recognized value as substitutes for wood from natural forests and their key role in restoring local ecosystem services, tropical plantations are often viewed in a negative light (Carnus et al. 2003). It has been claimed that monocultures of exotic plantations are no more diverse than monocultures of soybeans or other agricultural crops. Some even do not want to use the word "forest plantations", claiming that monospecific plantations are not truly "forests". While plantations in general support fewer native wildlife species than a native forest, they often support more diversity that other land uses in the same region (e.g., pastures, degraded land). Plantations also support a greater diversity of native plant species in their understories than agriculture or pasture systems.

It is becoming widely accepted that the conservation of biodiversity has to take place in managed landscapes as well as in protected areas (Pimentel et al. 1992; Brown and Lugo 1994; Guindon 1996; Lamb 1998; Harvey and Haber 1999). In many regions of the tropics the landscape consists of a complex mosaic of forest patches, pastures, and agricultural fields that are heavily influenced by human activity. Any efforts to conserve biodiversity within this managed landscape must be compatible with local livelihood needs and offer sustainable and economically attractive alternatives to local farmers. Strategies that provide various ecosystem services and fulfill local human needs, in addition to promoting the conservation of biodiversity, will have a higher chance of success (Cairns and Meganck 1994; Lamb 1998).

One strategy that can potentially facilitate the maintenance or recovery of biodiversity within agricultural landscapes is the establishment of native forest plantations on degraded agricultural lands. In addition to providing a variety of economic and environmental services (such as timber production, carbon accumulation, soil protection, and land reclamation), plantations may help local biodiversity by facilitating regeneration of native tree species and providing habitats for forest animals (Parrotta 1992; Lamb 1998; Montagnini and Porras 1998).

A variety of management strategies can be used to increase diversity in plantation ecosystems, even those including exotic species. These strategies include: diversifying the number of tree species planted, leaving forest remnants in the landscape, and decreasing the intensity of management operations (Carnus et al. 2003). Management strategies that fall within the guidelines needed for forest certification help to ensure that plantation forests as well as native forests are managed in a way that promotes wildlife habitat.

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