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Commercial Eucalyptus Plantation: Boon or Bane?

Eucalyptus is an alien species in India, first introduced by Tipu Sultan in 1790. It was then reintroduced by the Forest Department as a useful species during the 1970s, owing to its perceived use as firewood and timber when the country was experimenting with the concept of social forestry. It soon found use in the paper and pulp industries because of its suitability and ease of harvest.

The tree is also used as a fuel source in small-scale industries like brick kilns, potteries, lime production, and as poles for the construction industry. However, over the years, it has become strikingly apparent that it has several harmful impacts on our local agroecology, with the harms outweighing the benefits, so the country should refrain from promoting its commercial cultivation.

Eucalyptus is a high-maintenance crop

Aerial View Of A Eucalyptus Plantation
Aerial View Of A Eucalyptus Plantation

First of all, eucalyptus is a water-guzzling and nutrient-depleting crop. The trees (over 5 years old) consume over 785 litres of water per kg of total biomass. This is about two times higher than finger millets.

The plant puts the entire hydrology of a semi-arid or rain-fed region at stake, causing irreversible damages to the natural aquifers and springs. It also causes rapid depletion of surface and ground water and soil fertility.

In 2017, after the depletion of the state’s groundwater table, Karnataka banned it’s cultivation on private lands and restricted its cultivation to areas with high rainfall.

Allelopathic effect on other vegetation

Second, it is a known scientific fact that eucalyptus has an “allelopathic effect” on other plants. This means the roots and leaves of the plant exude toxic chemicals (hormones from the roots).

These restrict the undergrowth of native species like grasses, herbs, and shrubs that form the basis of the food pyramid and provide shelter to native fauna. Native plants and crops cannot grow under these plantations after a few years.

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The ecological terrorist

Eucalyptus plantations are highly vulnerable to wildfires due to the presence of essential oils and resins they secrete. This was most recently evident during the Australian bushfires in 2020.

Eucalyptus is repeatedly alluded to as an “ecological terrorist” due to these negative consequences. However, entrepreneurs and corporations seem to have overlooked this fact. They are now aggressively promoting its cultivation on a commercial scale, using technologies to produce mass planting material.

Alarmingly, their efforts seem to be paying off in the tribal hinterlands of southern and western Odisha. In particular, the private sector is making heavy investments in Rayagada, Koraput, Nabarangpur, Malkangiri, and Kalahandi districts, spanning over 3500 acres.

The misery of farmers

Eucalyptus Forest 1 Commercial Eucalyptus Plantation: Boon Or Bane?
Eucalyptus Plants

This is a disturbing and dangerous trend, as these are socio-economically backward and ecologically fragile regions. Most farmers in the region are tribal farmers with small and marginal lands. The private sector players, including a few entrepreneurs, have adopted a system of contract farming (last 5 years’ trend), wherein they acquire 80–200 hectares (ha) of land with 99-year lease agreements at throwaway prices to develop it’s commercial plantations.

Farmers are engaged to grow eucalyptus, adopting a commercial agroforestry model. The commercial planting cycle is three to five years long, with the companies breaking even on their investments within three years’ time.

The deleterious effects on the eco-fragile region

This trend has two broad kinds of deleterious effects on the eco-fragile region. Firstly, eucalyptus plantations threaten the fragile ecology of this region, which the FAO in 2002 declared as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) and biodiversity hotspots at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, 2002.

The private agri-business companies promote this species primarily to supply raw materials to the paper and pulp industries in the region, like JK Paper Mills, Ballarpur Industries, Limited (BILT), Orient Paper Mills, etc. They also advocate for the cultivation of intercrops like black gramme and minor millets.

But ironically, it has negative effects on the growth and yields of other crops. The care that this species requires in terms of canopy pruning, pollarding, thinning, and root pruning tends to reduce the land and light available for other crops grown along with it.

In fact, a field survey by local NGOs working in South Odisha of eucalyptus farmers in the region has reported that a majority (over 90 percent) of the commercial plantations are only of eucalyptus, with no intercrops planted in between the rows of it’s saplings. This in turn threatens the food sovereignty and traditional agricultural systems of these regions.

Commercial crops could soon become a priority vis-à-vis food crops, and that might sound the death knell for household food and nutritional security if not checked now. the loss of local crops, especially minor millets (Ragi-finger millet, small millets, suan, kodo, etc.), pulses, and oilseeds (Niger), that is climate resilient.

These crops, which also form the staple food and cash crops of the local communities, will be further reduced or rendered extinct. Furthermore, encouraging plantations to feed industrial needs would harm all crop breeding and development programmes in the long run due to the scarcity of local landraces and the best varieties.

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change, and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty-three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, GiZ, UNICEF, Sightsavers, Aide et Action, Practical Action, Agragamee, and DAPTA. He has a keen interest in indigenous and marginalized communities, hunger, malnourishment, and food policy issues.

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