Plantations all too often are an ecological and social disaster. They can be seen as a branch of horticulture: plant-by-plant cultivation. But plantations more or less by definition are for perennial plants – trees such as oil-palm, coconut, olive, rubber, and cocoa; shrubs such as tea and coffee; and sugar-cane. Like arable, plantations tend to be monocultural and lend themselves to industrialization: big machinery and industrial chemistry. Often they employ a lot of people but the work tends to be monotonous and hard and many of the workers are itinerants with no homes of their own and dubious legal rights. Much of the work on plantations is seasonal.
Plantations do have a benign side, though, and can lend themselves to enlightened approaches. Plantations of many kinds can morph into various forms of agroforestry, integrating various forms of livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry of all kinds; or horticulture including, as once was common in Italy, olives with grape vines. Orchards too are a form of plantation, and they can be a delight if so designed, providing many forms of livestock with a very pleasant habitat and varied diet, and/or accommodating horticulture. Plantations can also be socially benign. I once stayed on a tea plantation in India that had its own village where the children were well educated, with opportunities that can be all too rare to move on to university; and the children on their way home from school were in sight of their parents and uncles and aunts, working in the fields. There are a lot worse ways to live.
In short, as is usually the case in agriculture, the prime cause of the ecological disaster and the social injustice that we have so often seen on plantations lies with the underlying economy and governance – the obsessive desire to maximize short-term wealth at the expense of all other values; and the underlying morality, or lack of it, which makes a virtue of ruthlessness.
In the following pages, in the fullness of time, we will look at positive attempts to develop plantations in agroecological ways – and/or to replace them with some other approach.