Time to Ban Eucalyptus, Acacia Plantations

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The findings are startling. A study undertaken by the Karnataka forest department has found that large scale plantation of eucalyptus and acacia has played havoc with ground water level in three districts of the state – Bengaluru Rural, Kolar and Chikkaballapur – and converted them into barren lands.  Based on the findings, the Karnataka government has banned the plantation of these two species in the whole state.

Just sample the findings of this extensive and collaborative study;

  • In Bengaluru Rural (Hoskote), water absorption by eucalyptus was 2 times more than that of ragi crop
  • Water absorption by eucalyptus plantations in three years was greater than the actual rainfall in Bengaluru Rural
  • 20 years of eucalyptus plantation deepened bore wells by 90- 100 meters in Kolar district
  • Water requirement of each eucalyptus plant ranges from 50-90 litres a day
  • In stressful conditions such as drought, its roots are capable of reaching out up to 20-30 feet and extracting more water

 

That these two alien species, promoted vigorously by the World Bank and planted extensively by most state governments under the social forestry programme back in the 1980s, are water guzzlers and can cause serious damage not just to the ground water but also affect rainfall patterns has been known for quite some time. And yet, governments of all hues have found it expedient to promote plantation of these species for reasons that have never been explained and can only be speculated on.  Social forestry, undertaken on a large scale in the 1980s under the patronage of the World Bank to meet the firewood and timber demand in the country, is now a thing of the past. But the fixation with eucalyptus continues to this day.

In our state, eucalyptus and acacia species have been planted on a large scale even in natural forests, endangering them in the process. Apart from the fact that these two species help in the rapid depletion of the water table, they – especially acacia – also prevent the growth and survival of other indigenous species. Neither of these two is a fruit bearing species. The acacia leaf is useless as animals don’t eat it. Given the shortage of fuel wood, there may have been some justification in the past for planting these species in areas away from human habitation. But planting them amid natural forests – and that too in areas where there is no shortage of fire wood – is plain criminal. In any case, with most households having switched over to LPG, the firewood argument has now become redundant. With the government itself taking the lead, most industrial houses/mining companies obliged to undertake compensatory afforestation have found it all too convenient to plant these fast-growing killer species.

Traditional fruit bearing, shade giving trees like mango, banyan and jackfruit have been felled in lakhs to facilitate the building of wide roads, swanky apartments and other ‘developmental’ projects. But compensatory plantation has rarely been taken up with any seriousness. As a result, most places that boasted of a heavy green cover in the past have now become barren areas with concrete structures or metalled roads taking their place. The Bhubaneswar-Cuttack stretch of the busy National Highway No 5 is a case in point. It is hard to find some shade on this 25-km long road that used to provide plenty of it just some years back.

The best part about these traditional tree varieties is that they grow naturally without needing much attention, except in the initial few days when they need to be protected from being gobbled up by cattle. Once they grow up, they live for decades, providing shade, fruit and other useful things to humans and – more importantly – absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. And yet, there has been a strange reluctance on the part of the government to go for these species and an unexplained zeal to promote species that are known to have several harmful effects.

Karnataka has shown the way. Will the Odisha government follow suit?

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