On World Environment Day, out with Eucalyptus

A new directive of the Karnataka forest department boosts our hopes to end the scourge of eucalyptus monoculture. Will it also address our water crisis?

An informative signpost in Dandeli speaks fondly of the virtues of the aggressively introduced eucalyptus
As with Indian cities coping with the many-tentacled monster of unplanned urbanisation, Bangalore faces a humongous water crisis. While that is no closely guarded state secret, it is a dismaying paradox for a city that was once abundant with standing freshwater reserves despite not being close to a river. With myopic and foolhardy urbanisation, we have squandered our gifts. 

In 1960, Bangalore had 280 lakes; today there are 17. Of these, most are contaminated by untreated sewage and are unfit for use as sources of potable water. Over time, Bangaloreans have encroached upon the city’s lakes to reclaim land for construction. Some of the city’s major residential areas, stadia and transport terminuses stand on reclaimed wetlands. During a malarial outbreak a few decades ago, authorities blamed these marshy tracts for supporting breeding grounds of mosquitoes. Soaking up the stagnant water, the authorities decreed, would address the problem. 

In came Eucalyptus, a tree native to Australia that has been traditionally used to drain swamps, most notably by Jewish settlers in Israel in the previous century. First introduced in India in the 1790s by Tipu Sultan in Nandi Hills near Bangalore, Eucalyptus globulus was subsequently planted on a vast commercial scale in the Nilgiris in 1843 to meet demand for firewood and pulpwood. In fact, eucalyptus has been in the Nilgiris for so long that some people argue that the hills are so named for the bluish hue imparted to them by stands of Blue Gum viewed through the mist. In truth, the hills take their name from the indigenous Kurinji, which carpets the meadows of the sholas when it blooms every twelve years.

Hybrid varieties of exotic eucalyptus have been reared in nurseries and planted across the country, where these fast-growing trees have gradually replacing native mixed indigenous forest. The drive gathered steam in the early 1980s with administrations advocating “social forestry” to generate a replenishable supply of fuel and timber for rural communities. 

Eucalyptus has a lot going for it as a commercial plantation tree. It grows quickly, producing more wood every year than many native species for a comparable volume of water intake. Eucalyptus cultivation offers livelihood opportunities for planters, who sell the wood harvested to brick-making kilns, where it is used as firewood. Eucalyptus oil is also used in aromatherapy and medicine. 

Though studies attempting to prove the role of eucalyptus in lowering the water table have yielded mixed and often conflicting results, opinions stand enthusiastically divided on the role that the tree plays in depleting the table as test results show wide local variation. In April, however, Karnataka’s water minister blamed eucalyptus plantations for depleting groundwater levels in the basins of the Arkavathi and Kumudvathi rivers, which originate in Nandi Hills. That was sort of like pointing the finger at Tipu Sultan, while it is the forest department’s unmitigated enthusiasm for social forestry that really calls for containment. 

Under the aegis of social forestry, standing tracts of natural indigenous forest have often been replaced with commercial eucalyptus monocultures (as also varieties of introduced Australian acacia and casuarina). A paper authored by a conservator of forests in 1996 defending the forest department’s stand on promoting eucalyptus extols the tree’s many virtues including “drought resistance, fast growth and fire hardiness” among others. 

The chief bone of contention for environmentalists, apart from the tree’s many debated negative properties, is its virulent exoticity. Over this issue, environmentalists and planters have clashed frequently. Apart from flower nectar, the tree offers nothing to animals or birds. However, planting has continued unmitigated. It is possible to observe, deep inside wildlife sanctuaries in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, luxurious stands of eucalyptus flourishing in the native forest. 

In March, C H Vijayashankar, Minister for Forests in the Karnataka cabinet, announced that eucalyptus monocultures on forest land would be stopped. The ministry, he said, recognized that eucalyptus has contributed to serious environmental degradation, especially of arable soil, and depletion of the water table. 

Only time will tell if the move will address, at least in part, some of Bangalore’s water woes. Meanwhile, nature enthusiasts will unanimously give eucalyptus the finger.

A farewell salute?

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