The shortage of poplar threatens the Spanish industry of plywood

ProPopulus Team

In just a few months, in 2020, the availability of Poplar as raw material for the Spanish plywood industry will match the demand. Since then, Spain’s plywood industry faces a scenario of scarcity already portrayed in the inventory published in 2017 by the public Society of Infrastructure and Environment of Castilla y León (company): the number of cubic meters of poplar wood is reduced gradually up to reach 280,000 cubic meters in 2023. It is an arid landscape in more than one sense, and irreversible, at least in what regards the immediate, as a poplar takes 15 years from its planting up to the right time for it to be cut, thus trees planted along this year will not be transformed into wood until 2034.

We had the opportunity to talk with Ignacio Garcia, director of AEFCON ( the Spanish Association of Plywood Manufacturers), who says that according to their forecasts “in 2020 the availability of poplar wood will match the needs of the industry, and from that moment on  there will be a scarcity of raw material to be accentuated by 2023”.  Given the shortage of raw material “the only alternative is to import poplar wood from third countries and consequently, the increase in costs. Unfortunately, there will be companies that will not be able to impact this increase in costs on their customers and might not survive this scarcity situation”.

The main reason for the shortage that the plywood sector will face, was the paralysis of plantations by the Duero Hydrographic Confederation in 2008. “It was a political decision that now has consequences for the industry, and although plantations were retaken by SOMACYL, it wasn’t in the proportion that the Confederation did”. Says Garcia. “On the other hand, there is the situation of private owners who have been abandoning poplar plantations mainly because of problems with hydrographic confederations, the delay in permits and the fees to be paid, which make poplar plantations not profitable or less so than other alternative crops”.

Although poplar plantations represent less than 1% of Spain’s wooded forest area, poplar as a forestry resource comes to account for more than 50% of the wood cut in some provinces of that country. In the case of Castilla-Leon, for example, “poplar wood cuts represent approximately 40% of the total economic value of cut rolled wood, poplar being the forest species with greater economic value”, according to Populuscyl, a public enterprise belonging to the Castilla-León local government, created to serve public and private owners in the management of poplar plantations. On the other hand, poplar plantations benefit landowners in riverside areas, professionals dedicated to their care and logging companies. In all, the poplar sector generates about 11,000 jobs in Spain, counting direct and indirect jobs.

Given that the shortage situation envisaged from next year can only be addressed by importing third-party raw material, the industry has taken some steps for the future, with the idea of reversing the scarcity situation from 2033: “We are struggling to solve the problem in the medium and long term by trying to increase the number of plantations and trying that the Administration (mainly the hydrographic confederations) does not put barriers to poplar plantation. And he adds that “during (Mariano) Rajoy’s last government a Forestry Action Plan was developed with the collaboration of all sectors involved; it gathered a series of actions aimed at increasing the number of poplar plantations. Unfortunately, the government resulting from the motion of censure has forgotten about this Plan and we don’t know if the measures contained in it will be implemented someday”.

On the other hand, there are methods such as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) systems that are already being implemented in other countries, and that could be an alternative to encourage populiculture. The idea behind PES systems is essentially paying owners to protect their land in order to guarantee the provision of some “service” provided by nature. For Garcia establishing such systems could encourage farmers to become foresters or at least to include agroforestry plots in their properties.  “Let’s bear in mind that an owner who decides to plant poplars does not receive any income until 15 years after planting it, when he sells the wood; during those 15 years many things can happen. If instead of planting poplars the owner plants any other agricultural crops, the harvest can be collected at least once a year, with the corresponding annual income. Therefore, the owner must see a clear profitability in poplar plantations to compensate the 15 years waiting, and not to devote himself to planting other agricultural crops. The payment for ecosystem services in the case of poplar plantations, for example, for being carbon sinks, would help improve the profitability of the plantation and therefore owners could opt for populiculture”, he explains.

In any case, some measures must also be taken at European level. “There is no common European forestry policy and it is difficult that there will be one due to the diversity of interests in forest issues between the countries of North and South of Europe”, García explains. “However, there are things that can be done, taking advantage of the current situation in which the European Commission wants to reduce CO2 emissions so that the European economy is neutral in emissions by 2050. To achieve this, we need carbon sinks and poplar plantations are excellent sinks. From our European organization EPF we are preparing a dossier to know how poplar plantations can contribute to the objectives of the Commission, in order to develop policies at European level that favor poplar plantations in all member countries”.

The set of measures at all levels, local, national and European, could help to increase poplar plantations throughout Europe, thus ensuring not only the environmental benefits inherent to poplar plantations, such CO2 sequestration, but also the supply of locally produced wood. This would prevent the industry from importing materials from third countries, maintaining resources in European rural areas and thus improving local economies, while helping to mitigate climate change by reducing the carbon footprint in logistical processes.

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