On 30 January 2019, a division bench of Justice Ravi Malimath stayed an order banning the cultivation of fresh eucalyptus. This decision overturned a Karnataka High Court ruling of 2017 wherein the ban had been enforced. Starting in 1980s, for more than three decades now, the criticism and debate around the cultivation of Eucalyptus has only become louder.
Eucalyptus is a topic of contention, not just in India but several countries including Kenya, Chile, Ethiopia, South Africa, Portugal, Pakistan, Indonesia, China and Thailand. But none of these countries other than India has taken as harsh a step as banning its cultivation. Eucalyptus is cultivated in almost all states and Union territories of India, and the most suited variety from the 700 available species are picked according to the region of cultivation.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka are few of the states which produce the bulk of eucalyptus in the country which suffices the demands of the timber, pulp and paper industries. However, Karnataka in 2017, banned eucalyptus citing four academic papers.
The first paper written by R M Palanna was based on the observations recorded in a eucalyptus trial plot near Hoskote. However, the conclusion of Palanna was not to discourage plantation of eucalyptus. The second paper quoted the “impact of Eucalyptus plantations on ground water availability in South India”.
However, the authors were academicians and not geologist or forest professionals. The conclusion of a study from a Pakistani site was referred, which also contributed to the ban. As a fourth reference, National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) word on eucalyptus was considered. Incidentally, none of these papers expressly held eucalyptus responsible for being ecologically unfriendly. The NGT also has unambiguously stated that there cannot be a complete ban on growing eucalyptus in the state of Punjab, and plantations may be required in waterlogged and other safe areas.
T M Narayan and three other farmers from the Kolar region (area where this controversy began) challenged the validity of section 27AA of the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976 under which the notification was issued. The counsel stated that not all the parties were heard properly before banning the plantation in the state and farmers’ opinion and narrative was majorly missing while concluding the case. The same legislation was also challenged by few of the eucalyptus consuming industries.
What Led To The Ban?
During the late 1700s, eucalyptus was introduced in India by the then ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, as an ornamental tree to enhance the beauty of his gardens. It was only in 1952, that Eucalyptus was raised on plantation scale.
The Karnataka State Forest Plantation Corporation raised large scale plantation and almost all the districts in the state became home to eucalyptus plantations. Karnataka also supplied seeds to other states in India for raising plantations.
Eucalyptus plantations were widely encouraged due to its fast growth and the ability to meet the rural requirements of firewood and shelter. At the same time, it also helped the pulp and paper industries to flourish by supplying the necessary raw material.
The other side of the story is that, the eucalyptus debate in India may not be related to the characteristics of the plant as such, but to the style of official promotions of farm forestry. This sort of forestry benefitted the better off segments and failed to address the poorest members of society.
John B Raintree in his research paper titled, “The great Eucalyptus Debate: What is it really all about” states, “at the request of FAO Forestry department in Rome, I undertook a socioeconomic analysis of the eucalyptus debate in India. The Indian debate is particularly instructive, not only because it was exceptionally well represented in the popular as well as the scientific press. While most of the argument was couched in ecological terms, many of the underlying issues in the debate were socio-economic in nature.”
Brij Kishore Singh, retired principle chief conservator of forests, Karnataka, in his book, Destroy Forests, Destroy Life, writes about the tussle between the Karnataka government and the foresters. “Realising the importance of quick biomass production, eucalyptus was introduced during the 1960s and 1970s. Working plans in many divisions prescribed conversion of forests to uniform system where clear felling of natural forests was carried out, followed by planting the area with monoculture of teak and eucalyptus, to oppose this move environmentalists became active and started to protest,” he writes. The debate relates to the controversy surrounding social forestry programmes in India in the 1980s. As a result, eucalyptus became a symbol, a central theme of complex objections and issues to the establishment of social forestry.
Accusations And Misconceptions Versus Farmers’ Experiences
For the better adaptability of eucalyptus, fast growing, high yielding, site specific Eucalyptus clones, adopting root trainer technology, were developed during the early 1980s. This technology came to India in early 1990s. This technology helps the development of multiple roots, which are surface feeders and go to a depth of 1-3 metres only and do not affect the ground water table.
Today, all over the world, 70 per cent of plantations are a result of this technology. When K Durgaprasad Raju, a farmer from village Chakradevrapalli, Western Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh was asked if he knows about the eucalyptus property being a water guzzler he said, “in 20 years of my Eucalyptus plantation, I have never seen any root system going beyond 3.5 m. Ground water table in my region goes up to 8-10 m. How is it possible for the tree to disrupt the water table? ”
Eucalyptus faces more than one accusation. Other than being called the water guzzler, it is also defamed for making the soil acidic and showing allelopathic effects.
Allelopathic effect is a biological phenomenon that leads to the production of one or more biochemicals, hence adversely affecting the growth of other species. Also, the leaves are considered to be acidic, which further deteriorates the quality of the soil. Since the cultivation of eucalyptus is banned in Karnataka, we reached out to get the opinions of eucalyptus farmers from the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. R Paparao from village Choduvaram, Eastern Godavari, Andhra Pradesh, says, “I have been growing Eucalyptus on my land for the past 18 years now. I have been using the leaves as manure ever since. I generally grow chillies along with Eucalyptus. This time my chilly production was 5 quintals more than the normal, after treating my land with eucalyptus leaves as manure.”
Ram Reddy, who owns 30 acres in Pineapaka village of Kammam district, Telangana, switched to eucalyptus plantation in 2002, because it is a herculean task to find labour in his area. Nevertheless, he grows paddy, millet, cotton and chillies as rotation crops after every 12 years or three rotations of Eucalyptus plantation, and has not noticed any problem with the quality of the soil.
Another tribal farmer named Saiyam Kannaparazu from the rain-fed region of Golegodum village, Telangana, opted for eucalyptus plantation and runs a full-fledged agro-forestry model at his 4-acre farm with black gram in the spacing between Eucalyptus rows. Saiyam does not know about the controversy about the tree, but says, “I was growing cotton before four years whose prices fluctuated very much in the market. There are few paper industries nearby and I am assured a minimum price growing Eucalyptus.”
Before eucalyptus was banned by the Karnataka High Court for being a water guzzler, it bore the brunt of something similar at the National Green Tribunal in 2015. A case was filed by Safal Bharat Guru Parampara Punjab, stating extreme over utilisation of ground water in the state of Punjab and citing commercial eucalyptus cultivation as one of the reasons behind it.
A landmark judgement was delivered by the Punjab and Haryana High Court which stated that if the proper management of eucalyptus cultivation is undertaken, the growing of eucalyptus is neither anti-environment nor is it disastrous for the water table. The bench of 16 April 2015 further reiterated that there cannot be a complete ban on eucalyptus plantation in the state of Punjab. However, the forest department was held responsible to evolve appropriate policy by regulating and restricting the growth of the said plantation in the water logged and safe areas by way of proper regulations and continuous monitoring.
According to a Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report (‘The Puzzle of Forest Productivity, 2017’), eucalyptus plantations yield more net income (hectare/annum) to farmers than almost 60-70 per cent of agriculture crops. It can play a major role in increasing future farm level income, on the back of new productive clones which are currently under development.
A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report (FP/48/E) 2014, said around 93 per cent of industrial wood requirement of the country is met out of farm/agro forestry plantations (about 70 per cent of which is eucalyptus). It has benefitted the farmers and the industry, and has substantially reduced pressure on forests.
Out of India’s total 328.73 million ha of geographical land, 25.98 million ha comprises farmer-owned uncultivated wasteland. Trees like eucalyptus not only help in increasing farmers’ income, but also fulfil the government’s target of covering the geography with 33 per cent of forests (National Forest Policy, 1988) which currently pegs at only 22 per cent.
Monika Mandal is a journalist based in Delhi.
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