Mahatma Gandhi said, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” He also said, “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
In no place do these statements resonate more than in one of the world’s largest wood-producing regions, the Southern US — where in recent years forest cover loss from large-scale industrial logging has been four times that of South American rainforests.
Healthy, intact forests provide critical life-supporting services. They ensure a steady and clean supply of drinking water, purify the air, provide natural flood control and create a space of beauty for spiritual renewal — services estimated to be 15 times greater than forests valued for wood products alone. Recent scientific studies have also underscored that letting forests grow to soak up carbon out of the atmosphere can help avoid catastrophic climate change.
Yet in the southern US, forests are being threatened today as never before, thanks to misdirected efforts by European nations that are importing our forests to burn for electricity on a growing scale. This is harming not only the health of the forests, but the well-being of the people who live in the communities around them.
Exploitation and Injustice
Over the past few years, the South has become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets to fuel power stations in Europe under the guise of “renewable” energy. Industry and government tout the wood pellet industry as providing “green, renewable energy jobs” despite scientific evidence that burning trees for electricity will exacerbate, not mitigate, climate change.
As a result, forest disturbance rates across the rural communities of the US Southern Coastal Plain are among the highest on the planet. This expansive economic exploitation has degraded our forests and our rural communities, disproportionately affecting low-income people and people of color in some of the poorest rural counties in the nation.
This rural landscape has a long history of forest destruction. Over the decades, tens of millions of acres of natural forests have been displaced by single-species tree plantations that are routinely sprayed with toxic herbicides and fertilizers. Remaining natural forests are degraded by logging. What were once large expanses of old, intact forests have been largely reduced to a patchwork of clearcuts, pine plantations and commercialized forests. The industrialization of forests in the southern US has degraded biodiversity, carbon sinks, natural flood control and other critical services forests provide.
Equally important is how this exploitation affects people. Black Americans own less than 1 percent of the rural land in the South yet make up a majority of the population in many of the rural counties that make up the nation’s “Black Belt.” While corporations and some landowners have accumulated wealth from logging forests, rural communities living on the front lines of the destruction have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country.
It is an injustice that those who benefit the least from destructive industries bear the brunt of the impacts.Along with a degraded landscape, these rural communities are overburdened by pollution from nearby paper mills, toxic waste dumps, coal pollution and some of the dirtiest industries of the modern industrial world. And tax breaks for logging and other destructive industries hurt public funds that could otherwise go to schools, health care and other critical social services that support community well-being.
At the same time, the Southern region is bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change in the US due to flooding from extreme weather. Residents of low-income rural communities and communities of color are among the worst hurt, often lacking resources to evacuate or make ends meet until they can get back to work. It is an injustice that those who benefit the least from destructive industries bear the brunt of the impacts.
Stop the Exports
Recently, front-line communities, climate scientists, and faith, environmental and justice organizations have united in opposition to this rapidly expanding wood pellet export industry. Local communities are pushing back, concerned about more air pollution, dangerous truck traffic and other detrimental community impacts.
While forest landowners may benefit, rural communities broadly haven’t seen widespread economic prosperity follow in the wake of forest industry expansion. There is little evidence that the industrial-scale logging of forests has contributed to creating vibrant, thriving rural, Southern communities. On the contrary, it is destroying the ability of standing forests to provide benefits such as clean drinking water and natural flood control.
In the same way we need a just transition away from resource extraction in the coal fields of Appalachia, we need a just transition in the forest economy of the Southern Coastal Plain to one that values the community benefits of standing forests.
An emerging diverse movement across the South working at the intersection of forests, climate and justice is focused on a new vision for the region — a just transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy and a new forest economy that supports landowners to keep more forests standing, creates healthy jobs for low-income communities and communities of color, and ensures that everyone has a beautiful and healthy place to live, work and play.
At the heart of this movement is a recognition that we must put justice first. It is simply not acceptable to continue to put low-income people and people of color on the front lines of a destructive economic system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a few while destroying our life support system.
We must right the wrongs that have not only destroyed our forests, climate, air and water but also placed the burden on vulnerable communities that have suffered the most. By restoring the forest — as well as the air, water and climate — we can restore our communities, our relationship to each other and our morality.
We can provide for everyone’s needs, but not if we do not eliminate greed. It’s time to unite behind a vision for a new economy that values life above profits and that creates equitable opportunities for all.
Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia.