Eucalyptus: Feel Free to Plant a Few

Here in Galicia (and Portugal too), conversations about the eucalyptus can get pretty heated. It can be quite hard to have a conversation about anything ecological without someone pulling the topic towards eucalyptus. Like most other things in this world, people here are pretty polarized on the topic. With most everyone split into one of two groups, the first trying to argue how terrible they are, and the second arguing how excellent they are at making money. (Summarized quite well by this parody of despacito in which the generations argue about eucalyptus). The truth, however, seems to be that neither argument is complete.

So today we wanted to take a closer look at the eucalyptus (specifically the blue gum – eucalyptus globulus), its use in the region, and try to be as honest and fair as possible as we try and answer the question ‘Are they profitable or are they a problem?’

Background

For those of you not from these parts, you might be a bit lost, so we’ll catch you up.

Eucalyptus was first introduced by a missionary over a hundred years ago as an interesting species with strong botanical possibilities. Over time, however, it migrated away from the garden and towards the use it more commonly has today: a fast and straight-growing wood more valued for its practical uses than ornamental.

Its adoption really took off in the 60s and 70s when the first factories were made for processing the paper pulp, and large scale “repopulations” have been steadily increasing until today where it occupies about 400,000 hectares, where there is only 3 million total.

Recently, a governmental moratorium has put an end to new plantations until 2025, which promises to lower the amount of eucalyptus in the region. However, at the same time, Inditex the Spanish Company best known for its clothing stores ‘Zara’, have plans to increase eucalyptus production by a third in Galicia, in order to begin making “sustainable” clothing from its pulp.

So it seems that pressure is mounting, where on one side (generally) the older generations want free reign to be able to plant as much eucalyptus as they can in order to extract what they can without believing there to be any consequences. While the younger generations mostly want to get rid of the species entirely, usually without a viable plan for what will replace them. Of special interest is the growing trend of “Working days for de-eucalyptization” in which the plan is to get together to kill and rip out as many eucalyptuses as they can because the tree is bad, without a very strong long-term design for the transformation of the land.

The Pros of Eucalyptus

People can be a bit over-eager to share their negative opinions about eucalyptus so I thought I’d start with all the positives this tree has. And there’s plenty! This is a tree with amazing potential.

  • Low management – One of the many reasons we’ve started using Eucalyptus for forestry is it’s ability to survive in poor ecological conditions where other species couldn’t. It’s quite easy to plant eucalyptus in the middle of nowhere, disappear for a decade and come back to harvest a full grown tree.
  • Easy/Cheap material for construction – It’s straight wood makes it a fine wood for minor or outdoor constructions. Just don’t get it wet.
  • Carbon sequestration – Being one of the fastest growing and largest species, eucalyptus can capture a lot of carbon.
  • Organic matter – Though in most instances when eucalyptus is harvested the majority of the tree is taken away, if it were left to degrade, or chipped and returned to the soil, it’s fast growing nature could be harnessed to improve the quality and amount of organic matter in a soil.
  • Quick shade/forest – Eucalyptus can be used as a fast growing canopy to create favorable conditions for more sensitive or younger species.
  • Thin Canopy – It allows quite a bit of light to pass through, and does not tend to create closed canopies. Therefore, what species do grow in the understory tend to have enough light to grow well.
  • Profitable – For better or worse, there is an established multi-billion euro industry that is capable of turning eucalyptus wood into paper pulp. This creates thousands of jobs and allows a reliable (though small) source of income for those interested in selling their trees.
  • Mushrooms – It’s wood is being successfully used a substrate on which to grow medicinal and edible mushrooms like shiitake.
  • Strong presence. – Being beside a eucalyptus tree is a healthy experience. It calms the nervous system, and can inspire us. Barbara McClintock – Nobel laureate famous for revolutionizing our understanding of DNA, famously found the peace and connection she needed to understand what was happening withinchromosomes during daily meditations under a eucalyptus.
  • Oil – Though most plantations are harvested for wood, eucalyptus oil harvested from the leaves has a huge medicinal potential. It’s used mainly for easing respiratory problems, for its antimicrobial properties, and as an insect repellent.
  • Ecologic Benefits – Though it is not the most symbiotic species, eucalyptus can actually form some strong relationships with native species. A few examples are the mycorhizal mushrooms that can form associations with eucalyptus roots to improve the soil. And a few birds that are known to nest in eucalyptus.
  • Processing – The main reason we’ve narrowed in on the eucalyptus is because it is so easy to process into paper pulp. With no difficult bark, and long straight growth, this tree provides little resistance to the industrial process.
  • Eucalyptus can be used to dry swamps. This could be either positive or negative, but I’ll place it here, because done with a strong ecologic criteria it is possible to apply this well. (though admittedly it has plenty more negative ecologic applications.)
  • Harvests water – Though not in large quantities, the eucalyptus does have the capacity, like all trees to capture dew from the humidity in the air on its leaves and rain it down on the soil in droplets.
  • It’s beautiful. – It’s simply a stunning tree. Nothing else to say there. And if you want to treat yourself, google ‘rainbow eucalyptus.’

The Cons

As for the negatives, most of them have little to do with the tree itself but how we plant them. Single trees are well within the capacity of a biodiverse landscape to incorporate in a healthy way. The fact is we rarely plant a single eucalyptus, and instead overplant them industrially, so that that the small negatives of each tree are amplified by the thousands of them planted together.

  • A driver of wildfire – If you ever walk into a eucalyptus wood during summer you’ll understand the danger that it poses. The weak shade, and inability to hold onto humidity can create a hellish environment. This, in concert with their management which usually creates strong corridors for wind to channel through, as well as the fact that their bark and leaves are very rich in flammable oils, creates the perfect conditions to start and continue fire.
  • Water Depletion – Though the eucalyptus isn’t the species with the highest needs for water, it does not create the ideal conditions for water. Since it is usually planted in dry environments with low fertility, it can become a strain on the environment’s ability to store water, and creates conditions that weaken the soil’s ability to store water.
  • Aggressive to natural water ways – Eucalyptus, through it’s interuption of the natural way water moves through an ecosystem, can degrade land to the point where natural waterways are weakened or, in many cases, even dry out entirely.
  • Water Repellant Soil – eucalyptus partners with soil microorganisms that create conditions that coat individual particles of sand and clay with a hydrophobic substance, that once dry, makes it very difficult for water to be reabsorbed into the soil. This means that light summer rains do not enter into the soil before they evaporate, and fall rains will take longer before they are absorbed into the soil.
  • Erosion – Due to the way Eucalyptus is managed as well as the fact that it does not associate well with other species, the soil is left quite vulnerable to erosion. When large amounts of water move through the environment, soil tends to drag along. This is made especially dramatic when they’re planted on steep and hilly environments, as they frequently are.
  • Desertification – The result of the last few bullet points taken together is that, on a regional scale, desertification can be accelerated, as less water is stored, soil is less fertile, and wildfire wipes out any regenerative advances.
  • Acidification of soil – Personal observation has shown us that over time soils associated with eucalyptus tend to become acidic which, in turn, mean that less species are able to thrive, roots are less able to absorb certain minerals, and that environment is made less able to establish other species if the land is transformed into a different type of land-use.
  • Allelopathic soil – Eucalyptus allelopathic. This means that they secrete root hormones and chemicals that inhibit the gowth of other species. This is one of the driving forces in the lack of symbiotic species. However, it must be said that with enough rainfall (usually over 800-1200 liters/m2 a year) these allelopathies can wash away, won’t accumulate over time, and their damage can be lessened.
  • Demanding of soil – what little fertility the soil has is extracted by the eucalyptus. Eucalyptus have a habit of leaving soils with less mineral diversity then they found it.
  • Overly Extractive – Typical management of eucalyptus, through the harvest and exportation of their body, can be very extractive. This creates a sitation where the cycle of soil creation is interrupted and our fertility and sent elsewhere. Everything that the eucalyptus pulled from the soil, is not returned to the soil.
  • Weak ecology – The eucalyptus through its individuality, lack of symbiosis, allelopathic behavior, and degradation of the environment creates a weak ecology in whih nature is not free to thrive.
  • In addition, there is consistently a lower variety and less richness of birds and herbs under eucalyptus plantations.
  • Poor ecologic decision making – Like most places around the world, the last half century has seen a steady increase in the harvesting of native forests, and the plantation of eucalyptus in their place. This has left us with a grossly impoverished natural world.
  • Invasive – Due to the fact that in this region, the eucalyptus has no natural herbivores. Without human intervention, eucalyptus can grow uninhibited, and behave invasively.
  • Low management – Yes. This was in the pros. But there’s an important conversation to be had about management. Low management allows us to sever our relationship with nature, to forget our land for decades and them come in and harvest. A eucalyptus isn’t building our relationship with nature, it’s facilitating exploitation.
  • Weakens society – A tree that is so able to withstand such terrible conditions that no relationship between us and nature is needed, leaves us without the need to understand nature. IT’s a relationship that we would argue, weakens us. It allows the belief that we don’t need nature for our survival to continue, and allows us to forget to show nature the gratitude she deserves. Essentially, the eucalyptus is a hyper individualistic tree that works to confirm the value of our own individuality, and forget our communal nature.
  • Governmental corruption – Though hard to prove with a reliable source, there are many cases known locally throughout portugal and Galicia in which local government officials will take bribes (or moved by self-interest) to make policy that continue the proliferation and profiting off of these destructive practices involved in the expansion of the eucalyptus industry.
  • Impoverished economy – Yes. The economy of eucalyptus was also in the pros for being a stable and secure source of money for landowners. However, it’s our opinion that when compared to the damage those plantations cause, when looked at over the course of generations we’re losing money. And when compared to the wealth that could be received from a biodiverse productive ecosystem, what landowners earn is pitiful. We’ve sold out our land for a few cents a meter once a generation, when that same land could be producing enough to generate a steady income year after year from an established forest.

So what? Is it good or bad?

So based on all that information drop, what conclusions are we supposed to take? Is eucalyptus sustainable or not? Is it good or bad? And though this is sure to frustrate some people, the answer is “It depends!” It depends on how we plant them.

First off, there’s no reason to be against eucalyptus. The tree has no fault. In the same way that a hammer can be an excellent tool or a dangerous weapon, it’s how we plant eucalyptus that matters. In small numbers, and mixed into a diverse ecosystem they have the potential to be beneficial. Finding hundred-year-old eucalyptus at 40 meters tall, with a trunk the size of a car, in the midst of diverse forests makes my soul leap. It’s a beautiful and majestic tree that has the potential to be Europe’s version of the sequoia.

Looked at on an individual basis, the tree is a powerhouse. It can sequester more carbon than most others, create forest conditions quicker than others, and build soil. The issue then, has more to do with monoculture. Or how eucalyptus behave when massively overplanted. When we treat the natural world like a factory and leave no space for anything other than the product we’re trying to extract, it makes sense that we start to see the natural world degenerate.

So, is it sustainable?

If our main goal is sustainability, then plantations of eucalyptus are hard to find an argument for. However, if our goal is regeneration, to go above and beyond simple sustainability, and move towards an active improvement of the landscape then plantations of eucalyptus make absolutely no sense.

What’s more, it doesn’t even make economic sense! There’s no reason our land should be used primarily for paper production, it’s a waste of our land’s potential. And as we have some of the greatest potential to be a producer of anything that will grow on a tree in Europe, singling out paper seems a bit nonsensical. We have more heat, more sun, and milder winters (for more growth) than the majority of Europe. While also having a strong rural culture, and fertile soil. We can be a land that produces almost anything it wants.

We should not be a land that primarily produces paper pulp. And even if we really wanted to produce paper pulp, the only reason we don’t do that within a biodiverse ecosystem is that it adds a bit of complexity. And the industrial process hates complexity and is more than willing to sacrifice the natural world (as well as our relationship with it) to eliminate as much complexity as it can.

Then how do we use Eucalyptus?

Many people would like to make the point that we should simply forget the eucalyptus, try and eliminate it. But the eucalyptus is here to stay, and in reality, it can be such a tremendous resource. Why fight it? There’s plenty of ways to work with it.

Eucalyptus growing among a wide diversity of species.

In a future post, we’ll write about a few projects we’re currently working on that began their life as a eucalyptus forest, and are being transformed into biodiverse and productive landscapes. But until then, we’d like to take a bit of time to review some basic ways in which eucalyptus can be used positively.

  • Don’t be afraid to plant eucalyptus! But space them out. We’ve planted eucalyptus in the majority of the plantations we’ve made. Keeping at least 10 meters between them, and with the intention of pruning them heavily, and harvesting them within 4-10 years.
  • Don’t rip out or cut all the eucalyptus just because you don’t like it. If you’ve got a lot of eucalyptus you’ve been given a tremendous gift! Design a strategy for transitioning from one ecosystem to the next in which the benefits and capabilities of the eucalyptus (listed above) are taken into account.
  • Place the eucalyptus in relationship to other tees. Eucalyptus doesn’t take too much light away from others, and by itself, it’s negative effects are mostly negligible. It’s a friendly companion for a few years before its allelopathy can buil up in the soil.
  • When planting into spaces where eucalyptus predominates use lime to raise the ph of the soil. Sprinkle some into the hole you’ll be planting into, or over the soil.
  • You can create a canopy quickly with eucalyptus. Because it is so fast growing you can start to create the conditions you might find in an established forest in a shorter time-frame.
  • Eucalyptus can be used as a nurse tree. For example, planted to the north of an avocado, it can be a protective coat that diverts the frosty northern winds that may settle down over the avocado in the early morning hours just long enough to help the young tree survive frost.
  • If water is an issue, maintain a small crown through pruning the majority of its branches to limit transpiration.
  • Think about how it will fall. When such a fast growing and large tree is planted with other trees, if you’re plan is on cutting the tree within a few years, you should have a pretty good plan of where the tree will fall.
  • Keep things wet! Eucalyptus begin to be problematic for an ecosystem when things dry out. Keeping humidity in the soil for as long as possible can minimize those problems.

Alternatives

Without strong alternatives to eucalyptus, people will continue to plant them in large monocultures. But demonstrating their potential within biodiverse ecosystems can inspire people to transition away from these destructive systems.

We see part of our responsibility here to create some of those alternatives. We want people to understand that anyone can change how they manage those places where eucalyptus are grown in uncontrolled numbers. So, one of our goals is to help out a wave of new ecologic understanding that shows how to outcompete eucalyptus monoculture through systems like the ones we’ve highlighted on this blog before. If you’d like to get a sense of the type of systems we might advocate for in our region, you can check out some of our previous posts on the “The Forest is a Pantry” and the “Ice-Cream forest“.

Until then, stop hating on eucalyptus! It’s a tree, not a problem. Maybe, think a bit more about how what we’d like to do with all that we have.

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