Eucalyptus versus Biodiversity

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity;
and I'm not sure about the universe."
Albert Einstein

The Brazilian Cerrado follows the same fate of the Mata Atlântica of which less than 8% is left. The Amazon follows the same fate with incentives of the government with taxpayers money! Converted to agriculture or urban areas, the Cerrado is fast succumbing to the agribusine$$. A recent research led by Conservation International - CI estimates that "only 4,1% of the Cerrado is legally protected. The biome risks disappearing by 2030. Of the original 204 million hectares, 57% have already been completely destroyed and half of the remanining areas is highly altered, possibly unable to serve the purpose of conserving the biodiversity." And more: "The deforestation of the Cerrado is alarming, reaching 1,5% or three million hectares per year. That equals 2,6 football fields per minute. Efforts from all sectors of the society are necessary to reverse this picture."

In recent years, Brazil has openly promoted¹ the destruction of this biome by accepting the reckless expansion of Eucalyptus farms throughout the Cerrado. Is this a good idea? Before we proceed, lets go back in time to learn how it all started.

"Eucalyptus was introduced to Brazil in 1910, for timber substitution and the charcoal industry. It has thrived in the local environment, and today there are around 5 million hectares planted. The wood is highly appreciated by the charcoal and pulp and paper industries. The short rotation allows a larger wood production and supplies wood for several other activities, helping to preserve the native forests from logging. When well managed, the plantations are sustainable and the soil can sustain endless replanting. Eucalyptus plantations are also used as wind breaks. Brazil's plantations have world-record rates of growth, typically over 40 cubic metres per hectare per year, and commercial harvesting occurs after year 5. Due to the continual development and governmental funding, year-on-year growth is consistently being improved. Eucalyptus can produce up to 100 cubic metres per hectare per year. Brazil has become the top exporter and producer of Eucalyptus roundwood and pulp and has played an important role in developing the Australian market through the country's committed research in this area. The local iron producers in Brazil rely heavily on sustainably grown Eucalyptus for charcoal; this has greatly pushed up the price of charcoal in recent years. The plantations are generally owned and operated for national and international industry by timber asset companies such as Thomson Forestry, Greenwood Management or cellulose producers such as Aracruz Cellulose and Stora Enso. In the 1990s, Brazil exported approximately $1 billion, and by 2005, $3.5 billion. This trade surplus has drawn large amounts of foreign investments to the agricultural sector. The European Investment Bank and the World Bank have given full public support for foreign investment in Brazil's pulp and paper industry and cellulose processing plants. Private industry in Brazil has invested $12 billion so far in pulp and paper since 1993 and has recently pledged to invest an extra $14 billion within the sector over the next decade. The forest products industry accounts for 3% of all global trade, accounting for over $200 billion USD per year. The recent presence of many foreign TIMOs (Timberland Investment Management Organizations) represents the economic potential of the forestry activity. Worldwide TIMOs manage assets worth more than $52 million, of which $8 billion is to be invested into Brazils developments before 2012.

Overall, South America is expected to produce 55% of the world's Eucalyptus round-wood by 2010." ²

Searching the internet I found an interesting paper that I reproduce below:

"The outstanding single feature of the genus (Eucalyptus) is its capacity for rapid growth as an exotic if soil and climate conditions are generally suitable. Many Australian soils are exceedingly deficient in phosphorus and other essential mineral nutrients. Sites which are like this are characteristically occupied by the peculiarly Australian vegetation of which Eucalyptus are a part. On the most extremely nutrient deficit sites Eucalyptus may be excluded almost entirely... In many areas where they are planted outside Australia the basic fertility levels are higher than in the natural Australian habitat. It is for this reason that in many cases the growth is greater when they are seen as an exotic, rather than under natural conditions.

The studies indicate that the toxic substances to the soil through the leaf litter remain for a long time in low rainfall areas and will have inhibitory effect on seed germination of crop plants. The inhibitory effect will be minimised once the toxins are leached out by the rains. It may be said that no crop can be grown successfully near Eucalyptus trees in low rainfall areas, where there is every chance of toxic substances remaining in the soil for a long time.

Not only is Eucalyptus toxic to the germination of other plants, it is also toxic to soil organisms responsible for building soil fertility and improving soil structure. Earthworms are significant among the soil fauna for improving the fertility of the soil through deposition of their faecal material and for increasing the permeability of the soil to air and water. Their activity may increase soil porosity by as much as 27 per cent.

In 1881 Charles Darwin, published his last work, the result of a lifetime's study of earthworms, in which he wrote: 'It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.'

These strategies for maintaining the nutrient cycle are not associated with Eucalyptus plantations in India. In semi-arid zones Eucalyptus excludes other plant associates through its high water nutrient demands and its allelopathic effects. The large nutrient deficits created by Eucalyptus as an exotic, therefore, cannot be compensated by the nutrient returns from other species. The scanty leaf litter of Eucalyptus is itself not easily biodegradable because Eucalyptus pollutes the soil for decomposing organisms. Thus, there is no quick release of the nutrients locked in the leaf litter. As a result, continuous cultivation of Eucalyptus will leave the soil drained of nutrients.

Land for Food or Land for Wood?

Conflicts over land use for food production and land use for commercial wood production have emerged from social forestry programmer at three levels.

First, the transfer of land from food crops to Eucalyptus plantations has generated a conflict between the two uses with lands previously under the staple food, ragi, now producing wood. According to a sample survey of the Karnataka government, nearly 13 per cent of agricultural land in one district was already under Eucalyptus in 1985, and this figure has increased since then, because under social forestry, the cultivation of Eucalyptus has been expanding systematically. Most of this expansion is at the cost of the area under ragi. The area and production of ragi is shown in Table 5.15 which clearly indicates that there has been a dramatic reduction in food crop.production as a result of the expansion of wood production." ³

Our destiny has been decided! Brazil will become the world´s largest exporter of pulp, paper, meat and soya at the cost of total destruction of a unique and irreplaceable biome, an extraordinary source of raw material for the pharmaceutical industry and responsible for the cure and/or alleviation of innumerable diseases. All of this is to be soon lost forever. How stupid we are.

Oscar - October, 2010

¹ http://www.estadao.com.br/noticias/vidae,bndes-ajudou-a-patrocinar-desmatamento-da-amazonia-diz-tcu,628829,0.htm

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucalyptus

³ http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80a03e/80A03E0b.htm


Photos by Oscar Ribeiro

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