The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A plantation is an area of trees (or sometimes other crops) planted by humans, typically grown as an even-aged monoculture for timber production, as opposed to a natural forest, where the trees are usually of diverse species and diverse ages. A plantation is not a natural ecosystem. Plantations are also sometimes known as "man-made forests" or "tree farms", though this latter term more typically refers to specialist tree nurseries which produce the seedling trees used to create plantations.

A plantation is usually made up of fast-growing trees planted either to replace already-logged forests or to substitute for their absence. Plantations differ from natural forests in several ways:

  • Plantations are usually monocultures. That is, the same species of tree is planted in rows across a given area, whereas a conventional forest would contain far more diverse tree species.
  • Plantations may include unconventional varieties of trees, including (in a few cases) hybrid trees and genetically modified trees. Since the primary interest in plantations is to produce wood or pulp, the types of trees found in plantations are those that are best-suited to industrial application. For example, pines, spruces and eucalyptus are popular because they grow extremely quickly and are good for furniture and timber.
  • Plantations are always young forests. Typically, trees grown in plantations are harvested after 10 to 60 years, rarely up to 120 years. This means that the forests produced by plantations do not contain the type of growth, soil or wildlife typical of old-growth natural forest ecosystems. Most conspicuous is the absence of decaying dead wood, a very important part of natural forest ecosystems.

Plantations are planted by state forestry authorities (for example, the Forestry Commission in Britain) and/or the paper and wood industries and other private landowners. Christmas trees are often grown on plantations as well. In southeast Asia, rubber plantations and more recently teak plantations have replaced the forest.


Ecological impact of plantations

Critics charge that due to the vastly different nature of the ecosystem that develops around plantations, they are not a fitting substitute for old-growth forests, and the replacement of old-growth trees by plantations results in the loss of biodiversity. Plantations may also involve draining wetlands to replace mixed hardwoods that formerly predominated, with pine species.

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).

Other plantations

Tea plantation in Malaysia
Tea plantation in Malaysia

Some farms of smaller crops other than trees may also be called plantations, particularly in historical usage. Tobacco, sugarcane, tea, cotton and coffee are examples. James Dole introduced the pineapple plantation to the island of Lanai. Before the rise of cotton in the American South, indigo and rice were plantation crops.

By convention, plantations of fruit-bearing trees are termed orchards, even if grown on scales that occupy a landscape to the horizon. Plantations of grapevines are termed vineyards.

A comparable economic structure in antiquity was the latifundia that produced commercial quantities of grain or olive oil or wine, for exportation. A hacienda ("land holding") is a self-sustaining social structure on grassland that typically raises cattle, not a plantation.

In historic times, the term "plantation" was also used of new colonies or settlements.

Plantations of people, colonisation

The word plantation may also refer to a colony, as in the history of Ireland— see Plantations of Ireland— or in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern American colonies, from Maryland southwards.

Slavery and plantations

Slave labour has manned the early plantations (such as cotton plantations) in the southern states of the USA, and in modern times low wages paid to plantation workers are an essential part of plantation profitability. Sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil worked by slave labor are perhaps the best example of the plantation system at its height.

In the American South, the plantation was centered on a plantation house, the residence of the owner, where important business was conducted. The plantations engendered their own characteristic architecture: see Berkeley Plantation

In Brazil, a sugarcane plantation was termed an engenho ("engine") and a 17th-century English usage for organized colonial production was "factory". Such colonial social and economic structures are discussed at Plantation economy.

Last updated: 05-12-2005 13:00:18
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04