The fruit of foresight

Travelers flying over the arid flatlands of the Monagas and Anzoategui provinces in eastern Venezuela are often startled by the sight of an immense patch of green.

They are looking at one of the world's largest tree plantations: close to 500,000 hectares of Caribbean pine. Owned by Productos Forestales del Oriente, C.A. (PROFORCA), a Venezuelan government company, the plantation is the product of an ambitious project that began nearly 30 years ago.

That is when officials at PROFORCA launched a plan to make better use of the arid climate and poor soil conditions in large areas of the Monagas and Anzoategui by planting them with Pinus caribea, a tropical pine species that thrives in those conditions.

In the late 1960s, the notion of planting trees in Venezuela seemed almost comical. Blessed with vast native forests, Venezuela's wood resources seemed inexhaustible. But over the last 30 years economic growth has gradually outstripped domestic wood supply, and the country is now a net importer of wood products.

As a result, Proforca's foresight is now paying handsome dividends. In the 1980s the company began selling concessions to harvest mature trees, and since then virtually all of Proforca's projected harvests through the year 2016 have been purchased by 10 private companies. Investors include Chilean wood products company Terranova S.A., Jefferson Smurfit Corp., the world's largest producer of containerboard and corrugated packaging, and other foreign and domestic companies.

During 1997 these companies will cut and process some 882,000 cubic meters of wood worth around $4.6 million. The annual harvest will increase to 2.7 million cubic meters next year as more trees reach maturity, and will plateau at 5.5 million cubic meters per year in 2016.

But unlike harvests from native forests, which in many cases are not being replanted after they are logged, PROFORCA's plantations are designed to produce a sustainable yield. The company plants an average 20,000 hectares with genetically improved pine seedlings each year.

The IDB has helped to fund two stages of the plantation project. A $34 million loan in 1984 was used to plant 180,000 hectares of pines and construct a demonstration sawmill. In 1991 the Bank approved a $62.5 million loan for the second stage of the project, which included planting 165,000 additional hectares, protecting existing stands from fire and pests and rehabilitating 324 kilometers of forest roads.

The IDB is also helping to fund agroforestry demonstrations for communities that live on the margins of the plantation. The plots, totaling 150 hectares, show how agricultural crops can be cultivated along with trees.

The greatest benefit for local residents, however, is jobs. In a region with few other economically viable industries, PROFORCA directly employs 730 full-time and 650 seasonal workers. By the time private wood processing companies are operating at full capacity early in the next decade, an estimated 3,600 additional jobs will be created near the plantation.