Escape from Australia: Eucalyptus around the world

Although it was years ago, I can still vividly recall a particular afternoon driving down a rural highway in the Algarve of southern Portugal with my mom. It was a beautiful day. A beautiful summer. Neither of us had ever been to Portugal before and we had all the windows rolled down in the car as we drove through the countryside. It smelled incredible outside. We kept remarking on the smell to each other because, mixed with the rural highway, the perfect light, and the rural beauty of Portugal, it was utterly magical. What in the world smelled so good?? This place is amazing!

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Eucalyptus lined highway in rural Portugal.

Weeks later, I am working on a rural Portuguese farm trying to clear brush when Rui, one of the owners, finally spits on the ground in anger and tells me, “The eucalyptus too strong and fucking companies harvest their shit to destroy hillside and the road washed out and nothing we can do!”

Ah. The beautiful smell is eucalyptus. And the situation is a bit more complicated than what I first imagined driving down that countryside road.

Native to Australia, a few species of eucalyptus have been steadily introduced across the world throughout Mediterranean or highland tropical climates that do not have any danger of severe winter frosts. The trees are grown for lumber, pulp, erosion control, essential oils, as windbreaks, and as an easy mass solution to past deforestation. Indeed, they are incredibly fast growing: when first planted, they can grow by up to 10 feet a year!

But what effects do these trees have on the environments or societies where they are introduced?

In Portugal, eucalyptus trees were first introduced in the late 1800s. Centuries of intensive land use and poverty had eliminated almost all the native forests in the countryside and, because they are so fast growing, eucalyptus were planted to replace these native trees. The trees are adept at finding and using vast amounts of water in dry climates. Within a few years after their introduction, the trees outcompeted native species throughout the country and today eucalyptus is the most abundant tree in Portugal, covering about seven percent of all land. Indeed, there are areas where the tree stretches from horizon to horizon without a single break. This runaway success pits the tree against Portugal’s native cork oaks, among other species. The cork oak has a long history in the country and is even illegal to cut down, but compared to eucalyptus, the species is very slow growing. Today, a battle rages across rural Portugal and Spain over the future of eucalyptus. While many environmentalists and farmers wish to see the eucalyptus trees destroyed (among other problems, it exacerbates the area’s tendency to have destructive wild fires), other farmers and industrial interests use the trees as a source of lumber and wood pulp for paper because the trees grow so fast. I saw this conflict first hand on the rural farm where I worked in 2013. Rui was upset because eucalyptus harvesters come through the rural Algarve on a rotating basis to remove all the trees for processing. This is a mixed blessing for this area because while it does control the growth of the trees and the farmers are paid for the use of their land, the huge machinery needed to cut down and haul out the often-massive trees destroys roads and native plants, encourages erosion, and scares off or kills wildlife. As I can personally attest, recently cut areas are eerily quiet. Since native animals dislike even undisturbed stands of eucalyptus, after the destruction of a harvest, there is virtually no wildlife anywhere. All that is left are tire tracks from the machines, new sprouts already emerging from the freshly cut stumps, and the thick cloying smell of eucalyptus oil permeating the quiet air.

While Portugal struggles with trying to balance the income from eucalyptus forests with the environmental and economic benefits of its native forests, it is not alone in this struggle. After coming to Ecuador, I was surprised to learn that this country too has a long history with eucalyptus trees replacing native forests. From my apartment window, I stare at a forested mountain that forms the backdrop for most of Quito and a few blocks from me, the city’s Parque Metropolitano stretches over 560 hectares in the east of the city. Both mountain and park are completely covered by eucalyptus trees. There are virtually no native trees left in either forest and it is unclear what these areas even looked like before there was eucalyptus.

Huge industrial interests are involved in the production of eucalyptus plantations across Ecuador. These range from vast monoculture plantations along the country’s northwest coast to small-scale farmers in the rural Andes Mountains who, like the farmers in Portugal, are paid to have their eucalyptus groves periodically harvested. Although the trees were first introduced to Ecuador in the late 1800s, it was not until the 1950s and 60s that significant numbers of trees were planted in the mountains that straddle the country. By the 1970s there were approximately 18,000 hectares of eucalyptus planted in the country but by 2000, this number had jumped to 81,000 hectares, an increase of 458 percent in about 30 years. Ethnographic surveys of native farmers involved with eucalyptus plantations indicate mixed and often contradictory opinions of the trees. First, the farmers almost universally indicated that they valued native species more than eucalyptus for their medicinal and ecological benefits and because native species are able to coexist with traditional forms of agriculture. Eucalyptus was criticized for damaging the soil, killing crops by using up all the water, destroying medicinal plants, and eliminating traditional hunting and foraging activities in native forests. Native fauna avoid the plantation monocultures thereby creating “eucalyptus deserts” because the plantations do not offer any foraging opportunities and the gummy resin in the trees discourages native birds. However, due to their fast growth, hard wood, and the international demand for wood pulp, eucalyptus trees are praised by rural farmers for providing employment, windbreaks, fuel wood, and construction materials for domestic use while also providing valuable income when the wood is sold for industrial uses.

People who live in traditional mountain communities therefore face a trade off between a monetization of their land and lifestyles through plantation crops such as eucalyptus versus a continuation of their traditional way of life. Speaking about the damage that trees cause, one campesino reported:

“They cut down the primary forest, where you used to be able to hunt guanta, and different kinds of bird to eat, like parrot, partridge, wild turkey, piton, [and] piguala, and now they’re all gone, you can’t find them anymore…. The rivers are drying up, the trees are gone, [and] the animals are fleeing. They destroy everything to plant that stuff of theirs. Now there’s nothing by eucalyptus.”

However, contradicting this, other campesinos praised the trees’ accessibility, hardiness, utility, monetary value, and remarkable wood production ability.

Although the fast growing nature of eucalyptus and the strong and straight lumber they produce is valued by local small scale farmers, I believe that the industrial and economic development aspects of eucalyptus plantations best explain the spread of the tree throughout Ecuador. Furthermore, I see an analogous situation in Portugal, where profitable and fast growing monocultures of eucalyptus have replaced or threatened the slow growing and low profitability of the native cork oaks and olives traditionally valued by Portuguese farmers.

Apart from the ease of planting monocultures of eucalyptus to replace slow growing and heterogeneous native forest species following deforestation, eucalyptus plantations seem to also represent core ideals of development and industrialization in Latin American countries such as Ecuador. Compared to the often “mysterious”, unexplored, potentially dangerous, and nonindustrial attributes of native forests, eucalyptus trees are a thoroughly studied species easily planted in mass quantities and easily marketable to global industrial interests. This makes the tree intricately tied to the development, “economic progress” and industrialization of modern Ecuador. Indeed, these plantations represent a “common desire to transform nature by imitating European aesthetic values…. [They are representative of how] the aesthetics of “civilized” countries were imposed in the Andes to emulate the modernity [of the west].

In this regard, I find one passage out of a book describing Ecuador’s indigenous peoples vis a vis development and the eucalyptus tree to be particularly revealing. The author begins by quoting a 19th century U.S. American Ambassador visiting Lake San Pablo in Ecuador. The Ambassador writes: “No grove, no forest, relieves the wandering eye. The noises of railroads, sawmills, or steamboats are listened to in vain. All is silence below… it is the gloomy life of the brute; and there are no vestiges of the active, struggling, intelligent life of enterprising man.”

A description such as this would be particularly galling to the elites in charge of Ecuador during this time. Like those across most of Latin America throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the elites of Ecuador longed more than anything else to emulate Europe or the United States and to destroy the “backwards barbarism” of Latin America’s indigenous and mestizo populations.

After quoting the U.S. Ambassador, the author continues the passage by saying that Lake San Pablo today bears little resemblance to the Ambassador’s original 19th century description because “today roads, eucalyptus trees, and houses are sketched all over the countryside.” The words of the Ambassador “do, however, provide insight into the unofficial western criticism of Andean landscapes [because they] aptly reflected U.S. and elite Ecuadorian notions of progress and the role that modernization might play in delivering Ecuador into the league of modern nations.” The author writes, “Ecuador’s political authorities… embarked on a series of “proyectos del embelecamiento”… to transform rural landscapes from being ‘dreary’ and ‘barren’ to being ‘beautiful’ and ‘productive’ through the [elimination of traditional ways of life] and the introduction of new species, in particular [the] eucalyptus tree.”

Ecuador today has both one of the highest levels of biodiversity and highest levels of deforestation in the world. While it is clear that native forests were far from untouched before the arrival of large scale agriculture and monoculture tree plantations, they were nonetheless vastly more diverse than what is being planted today. In the interandean region of Ecuador, it is estimated that only about one to two percent of the original forest cover remains. New eucalyptus plantations today are often accompanied by mass protests from local populations but given the country’s need to monetize its natural resources, the lack of native forests due to deforestation, and the fast growing and easy to sell nature of eucalyptus, the growth of eucalyptus plantations is all but certain to continue. Once these plantations are growing and the native forests are gone, local populations are then forced to enter the marketplace to acquire goods that their environment had once provided for free.

I fully support the development of Ecuador and other historically impoverished nations. I also agree that given humanity’s ever expanding population, there is a role for large-scale industrial farming of both food and wood products in all countries around the world. For these purposes, the eucalyptus is certainly a useful tree. Indeed, if it were not, it would not be planted in such abundance. However, as I read articles detailing the destruction of the last of Ecuador’s coastal forests for eucalyptus plantations and discussing the deceptive practices of the companies involved, or as I travel around the central Andes of Ecuador and see hillside after hillside or park after park filled with nothing but eucalyptus, I cannot help but mourn the loss of the biodiversity that preceded the arrival of this tree. In California, the eucalyptus is so established that most people may even believe it to be a native plant, and in Portugal there is no longer any natural forest left untouched by eucalyptus trees. I hope that as the political and economic situation in Ecuador improves, some balance can be found between the economic benefits of this tree and the ecological destruction that it too often also brings.

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