Eucalyptus – Commercial Agroforestry plantations in Odisha, India – “Ecoterrorism” or “Economic emancipation”?

By Ravi Shankar Behera and Dr. Ranjit K Sahu

Eucalyptus is an exotic species introduced in India from Australia, mainly by the Forest department. Eucalyptus is now being promoted by entrepreneurs, private companies at a commencial scale, a trend, fast catching up in the tribal hinterlands of South and Western Odisha. Contract farming with tribal farmers is now a reality. Farmers are now motivated to grow eucalyptus along with seasonal crops as a agro-forestry model. Huge patches of land for 99 years are taken on lease by companies and entrepreneurs at very cheap prices, for commercial eucalyptus plantations, primarily to supply to the Paper and Pulp industries.

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 However, On 30 January 2019, a division bench of Justice Ravi Malimath stayed an order banning the cultivation of fresh eucalyptus. The Karnataka Government brought out an order during 1990 to restrict the planting of eucalypt in the State, permitting it to be raised only in areas receiving a rainfall of between 500 mm and 750 mm. Planting is further restricted to degraded Reserved Forest and waste lands, which are barren, and that along with eucalyptus a good proportion of indigenous species be mixed. The larger question now is – Ecology Vs. Short term or Perosnal Economy Vs. Sustaianble Long term economy.

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 Multiplication of clonal plants to raise eucalyptus agro/farm forestry plantations, is done with root trainer technology, which promotes lateral root system (versus tap root system of seed-based plants) to enable the root system to go only up to a depth of 1.5-2.0 metres in the soil. Every year, over 150,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations come up in India, creating around 70 million person-days of employment in rural areas. The water use of a Eucalyptus plantation has been found to be 785 litres/kg of total biomass, which is higher than from agriculture crops (about 2 times higher than from Finger millet).

Eucalyptus is a fast growing tree species and requires gallons of water for its growth and extracts lot of soil nutrients, considering the fact that the high intensity of saplings being planted in one acre of degraded land. There are other offsets for the land, water, local biodiversity and household level food security issues. Eucalyptus depletes the already degraded lands from its soil nutrients and moisture reserves and inhibits the undergrowth due to allelopathic properties. It exudes chemicals, which restrict the growth of undergrowth including grasses, weeds, shrubs and other species in the area. After a few years, it is observed that there in no longer any growth of other species under the eucalyptus plantations. Furthermore the decomposition of the dead plant parts is very slow which adversely affects the nutrient cycling.The entire hydrology of the region is at stake, causing irreversible damage to the natural agquifers and springs, which are the natural sources of drinking water and ground water recharge in the hilly tribal tracks.

Also, eucalyptus has certain essential oils and forest fires are attributed towards this aspect. Fires spread at a rapid pace, as is evidenced from the recent Australian bush fires, which has caused extensive and unprecedented damage to the forest, living animals, birds and the local biodiversity. Millions of animals, birds and other species have been completely wiped out. There is every possibility that such a disaster may repeat anywhere in the world, where eucalyptus is grown in a large scale. Owing to these adverse effects, Eucalyptus is often referred as “Ecological Terrorist”.

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Eucalyptus plantations are lucrative. This is being promoted as a get-rich-quick scheme. Such a strategy, effectively reduces the original flora and fauna and undermines and eventually eliminates the biodiversity the basis on which theregion was originally naturally protected. The plantations, mainly of E. globulus and sometimes its clones, are also controversial.  They are accused of a gamut of sins: depleting groundwater, fostering fires, encouraging erosion, vitiating watersheds, deterring native flora with voracious roots and allelopathic effects, etc. Eucalyptus has negative effects on the yields of intercrops when it was grown for wood production. It requires techniques such as canopy pruning, pollarding, thinning, root pruning by trenching and moving the first intercrop row farther from the tree-row for reducing the competition and to improve yields of intercrops in agroforesty.

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Heavy investments are being made by the private sector actors in Kashipur Block of Rayagada district, Koraput, Kalahandi and Nawarangpur districts. The contiguous tracks of land run into 200 to 500 acres. Three to five years is the commercial planting cycle. Break even is after three years of the investments. Improved Eucalyptus saplings and clonal plants, technical assistance and buy back arrangements are now being supplied by companies in a typical business model with the tribal farmers, who often are small and marginal farmers. Small holder tribal farmers are shifting to these agroforestry models for fast economic returns with little investments, with limited labour and within a short span of time. Eucalyptus has this inherent charateristic of coppicing, where side branches arise, after the pole is cut. Therefore, there is no need of undertaking fresh plantations every year. The land and family labour, is of the local famers and villages communities, which most often than not, is not accounted in the crop economics and business model.

Typically, a farmer receives INR 15000 per acre, mainly in the form of saplings (INR 2 per Sapling and INR 4.50 per clonal sapling), digging of pits and planting the saplings. About 1000 saplings are planted in one acre of land with a spacing of 10 foot X 10 foot. The companies do not provide any other support like fertilizers or pesticides, fencing etc. The average production of eucalyptus is 24 tons/acre. Considering the price of INR 4500 per ton, the farmer gets on an average, INR 1 lakh per acre after 3 years of the plantation cycle when the poles are clean cut.

Some Companies now claim it as a profitable business model and help in reclaimation of wastelands and increased carbon sequestring that addresses the challenges of global warming and climate change. Companies also justify that the intercrops undertaken under the plantation is helpful for the farmers to suffice for their household consumption needs. Intercrops like Black Gram and Millets are being sown in the commercial plantation sites. However, a majority (over 90 per cent) of the plantations do not include the intercrops !!!

There are cases of companies tying up with local NGOs to encourage tribal farmers to adopt the commercial agroforestry model. Such efforts have resulted in large patches of eucalyptus plantations. However, due to natural calamities like cuclones – “Phailin”, “Hudhud” and “Titli”, most of the plantations were damaged, causing heavy losses. Partnerships between the companies and NGOs are strained now and a few cases of cancellation of the contract have been effectuated. NGOs feel they are cheated. There are also cases of companies not paying the salaries of field staff.

This exploitative business model invariably benefits the entrepreneurs and private companies, whose main motive is “profit”. The primary objective of such companies is to collect the poles to feed the paper and pulp industry vis-à-vis the interestes of the small and marginal tribal farmers, who primarily depend on subsistence agriculture for household level food and nutrition security. The commercial plantations are now endangering the cultivation of their conglomeration of food crops including millets and paddy. The deleterious effects on commercial eucalyptus plantations on the environment and biodiversity would be immense after a 12 year growing cycle, endangering the soil fertility, local agro-ecology, water table and socio-cultural dynamics including food availability and food sovereinity, as the dependency of the planting material will continue to be on the private companies.

Although the cost of cultivation of bamboo plantations is almost half that of commercial eucalyptus, Bamboo as an alternate, is currently not being adopted by the tribal farmers. This is due its limited availability of planting materials, cumbersome maintenance and not being promoted aggressively by companies. Bamboo has multiple uses in paper and pulp inductries, local handicrafts and small traditional businesses. Adaptability of bamboo to the local agro-ecology is remarkable from hill to coastal areas along all soil types. This could be a better option for tribal farmers and a win-win situation for all stakeholders and the environment.

Farmers have observed decreased productions over the years in the 12 year planting cycle. The fertility of the lands has further deteriorated including the groundwater table. Some of the farmers are now shifting to land clearing of the eucalyptus plantation areas by uprooting the roots and stubbles and going for Cashew nut plantations.

Ultimately, it is the local farming communities who will bear the brunt of the faulty commercial plantations in the long run !

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

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