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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 160 | Noviembre 1994
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Nicaragua

Eucalyptus: the Bessings of a Damned Tree

Wiping out forests to sow eucalyptus trees is disastrous, but on lands where nothing is growing, where only the eucalyptus can grow, might not that “damned tree” be an answer, a blessing of nature?

Raquel Fernández

Is it good to plant eucalyptus? Is it bad? Or does it depend on each specific case?
Andrea Ortiz has a look not often seen among the Nicaraguan peasantry. There is no fear in her eyes, none of that air of a beaten dog that so many women here seem to have. "Look," she explains, "I have seven children and you can't imagine what I've had to do to give them a chance. Before, I washed clothes for other people, I did anything I could think of, sometimes I had to leave my children alone all day long. But now, I just wash for my own house."
The difference between "before" and "now" is about five acres of communal land planted with eucalyptus. Each small plot of this miniforest is held individually. By exploiting her share, Andrea Ortiz can make $100 a month. That might not seem like much money, but with this fixed salary, along with the meat and eggs from a few chickens and perhaps a pig or two, Andrea can guarantee a fairly decent subsistence. The eucalyptus trees spell the difference between total ruin and peace of mind. If this is the fruit of the eucalyptus, then blessed be this very controversial tree.

Poor Soils and Peasants Without Hope


In the northwestern region of Nicaragua, the León and Chinandega plains extend out from the base of the Maribios volcanic range, seriously eroded and contaminated by 30 years of cotton mono cropping. The range has also historically suffered deforestation as well as the consequences of volcanic eruptions. Almost nothing can grow in these soils anymore.

But 464 heads of peasant households in the community of Posoltega, 60% of the residents of this very desertified zone, organized to plant over 100 acres of eucalyptus. Since then, different associations related to the cultivation, use and oversight of eucalyptus have become involved with the project.

The grassroots organization that has emerged around the eucalyptus has among its objectives protecting trees both from thieves out for firewood and from fire, long time enemy of the eucalyptus. To prevent both threats, five control towers have been built where, day and night, someone takes care of this forest that belongs to everyone. Those who live in and around Posoltega have had the wisdom, on advice from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), to plant eucalyptus in such a way that the plantation is one whole, even though each parcel is private property. This way, it's easier to band together and protect everyone's livelihood.

The unity that has sprung up around this common patrimony and guarantee of subsistence has facilitated the emergence of new and small projects that help improve living standards. These include both family and community gardens, basic grain plots and the raising of chickens, pigs and cows. The surplus is sold by the Posoltegans in the neighboring city of León, Nicaragua's second largest city.

These peasants, who were formerly small cotton growers, felt that their future opportunities were closed off with the drop in cotton prices on the international market and the dramatic degradation of the quality of their lands resulting from prolonged and heavy use of agrochemicals. Today, the eucalyptus represents hope for them. They see in this tree a dignified way to assure survival.

Guaranty of Security and Life

A group of women from the Posoltega area is hard at work on a small plot of land. They are doing volunteer work, preparing a nursery of pochote (Bombacopsis quinata). The pochote is in danger of disappearing due to the demand for its wood, used to construct quality furniture. Although the women all grow eucalyptus, they are also interested in the pochote.

Angela Velázquez owns over three acres of eucalyptus. Although mother and grandmother to a family of 30, she still has time to donate to the nursery. "The thing is that pochote is prettier than eucalyptus for furniture and I want to have furniture in my house made out of this wood," she explains. But the pochote takes more than 35 years before it can be harvested. Wouldn't it be better to make the furniture with eucalyptus? "Well, I guess I'll get a chair made with eucalyptus wood, and sit in it to wait for the pochote to grow!", she says, laughing.

Nilvia Guido, much younger than Angela, has one child and owns under an acre of eucalyptus. This small parcel puts her in charge of her own future. "If my husband ups and leaves me for another woman, I have the means to defend myself and my child," she says with assurance. The peasants of Posoltega, like those in other zones reforested with eucalyptus, have learned to love this tree, to care for it and respect it as someone respects that upon which their life, food and future depend.

Thank You, Eucalyptus

For many years, the Nicaraguan peasantry, as in many other places in Latin America, has been conditioned to hate the eucalyptus tree. They saw it as an obstacle to the plow and thus, their harvests something that made it difficult to expand the lands used for cattle ranching. The trees had to be eliminated to facilitate human effort and the production of wealth and well being. Only with the destruction of vast areas of forested land were many people finally able to understand how much the forests are really worth. But by the time that realization had been made, the soil was so impoverished that the few things able to grow in it grew so slowly that they were not a real alternative.

But there is a solution. Some trees are able to live in almost any environment, to stand the most adverse of circumstances and also to grow quickly so quickly that they are, potentially, a real alternative. Among these trees are the more than 600 varieties of eucalyptus that exist throughout the world.

And to the eucalyptus we must add one aspect that is key to the future of Nicaragua as a country: the recovery of a forest culture among the peasantry. For that reason alone, it is worth it to plant eucalyptus.

From Australia to the World

All existing varieties of eucalyptus come originally from the continent of Australia, from its islands to the north and west or from Tasmania. Dozens of local varieties are found only on one tiny island, and nowhere else in the world.

The eucalyptus first left its natural environment around 1766 on the ships of British Captain James Cook. Some 20 years later, the tree was described and baptized with its current name by the French botanist L'Heriter.

During the 19th century, the eucalyptus was increasingly studied and experiments were undertaken to acclimate it to areas outside its native zones. This was done with an eye towards taking advantage of its most intriguing characteristic: the speed with which it can grow and produce firewood and lumber. Under optimum conditions, certain varieties of eucalyptus can grow up to 5 meters per year.
Since the tree left Australia, it has spread throughout the world. Today, more than 80 countries have planted eucalyptus ranging in areas from a few experimental hectares up to more than a million hectares in Brazil, half a million in India and more than 400,000 in Spain. In those last three countries, where most of the eucalyptus trees outside their native zones are found, flourishing lumber and paper industries are based on the eucalyptus forests.

A Bad Rap: It Drains Water

Maybe it is precisely due to this universal success of the eucalyptus that so many contrary opinions have emerged regarding it. A number of theories hold that the eucalyptus is a dangerous tree, capable of generating many negative and few positive things, a damned tree. If all these theories were true, Australia, covered with vast eucalyptus forests, would be a dead continent. But, far from that, it is a sanctuary where many species, unique to that environment, have been preserved and thrive.

It is said that the eucalyptus tree absorbs water and dries up land, because it needs so much water in order to grow so fast. This is a half truth. It is true that the eucalyptus absorbs a lot of water, like all plants do, but it also uses water more efficiently than other species. The acacia another rapid growth tree needs a third more water to produce the same amount of wood. But nobody speaks ill of the acacia.

The eucalyptus is also accused of making more difficult the passage of rainwater towards the phreatic or underground level. This is true. But it is also true that any plant species, large or small, absorbs some rainwater as it makes it way down to the groundwater level. The only way to assure that all rainwater descends to the phreatic level would be to not let anything grow at all a not particularly appealing solution.

The eucalyptus consumes less rainwater than it appears to at first, because it has the ability to close up its leaves in such a way that, during droughts, its evaporation transpiration process is dramatically reduced. When it does not rain and the other trees turn yellow and parched, the eucalyptus stays green not because it has enormous reserves of water hoarded away, but because it shuts off the stomas something like the pores on human skin on its leaves, and doesn't allow the water to escape through them. In other words, the eucalyptus doesn't "sweat."
As proof of the fact that the eucalyptus uses lots of water, its enemies point to the fact that this tree is used to dry swamps. The eucalyptus certainly has a powerful root system to support its height a soaring 40 meters, on the average. Its roots rarely go beyond 20 meters deep, but they have a very special characteristic. They grow turning downward, drilling through the earth like a corkscrew.

But this is not always bad. Among the many hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus, there are some whose roots are especially strong, and thus capable of eventually drilling through very hard rocks. Sometimes they can even get through that layer of impermeable rock that will not allow rainwater to pass. If they can perforate those rocks, little by little the surface water trickles towards the groundwater through fissures opened up by the roots. It will reappear in some other place, in the form of a spring or well. The eucalyptus doesn't suck swamps dry, but rather unclogs their drains. For many decades now, eucalyptus trees have been planted in swampy areas and the water is still there.

More Bad Press: It Ruins the Soil

Another accusation leveled at the eucalyptus tree is that it ruins the soil. This is another one of those half truths surrounding the eucalyptus, and has to do with the lack of forest culture throughout the world.

The eucalyptus is a crop for economic use, not something just to spruce up the scenery. All tree and plant species extract nutrients from the soil and if they are planted and harvested, the soil will be poorer for that. This happens both with forests and with cornfields. The difference is that in cornfields some type of fertilizer is used.

The misfortune of the eucalyptus is that when planted in closed formation it has the appearance of a forest, and not everybody understands that a forest also needs to nourish itself. But the eucalyptus economizes to the maximum the nutrients it needs for its development, because it can sprout new shoots. When cut down for lumber, the eucalyptus tree produces new shoots, among which the plantation owner has only to choose the one most appropriate to his/her ends and cut the rest. This selection is generally made after two years, and means, for the plantation's owner, an interesting input of firewood or lumber for stakes.

The shoot chosen begins to grow again and, in a period varying from 5 to 25 years depending on the use to which it will be put it is ready to harvest again. Thus, the eucalyptus "saves" the land all those nutrients needed to produce its complex root system and its stump is not cut. Lumber can be extracted from the same stump for up to 100 years, with no need to reforest.

The roots of the eucalyptus go deep down into the earth and can absorb nutrients no other species even reaches. Thus, this tree is not competing with other plants. Those nutrients in the deepest reaches of the earth do not benefit any species, precisely because of the depth at which they are found. But the eucalyptus can bring them up to the surface to transform them, among other things, into its own leaves. Once dry, they fall to the ground and fertilize it.

Firewood in your own Backyard

The eucalyptus is a species that has been used massively for a relatively short time 100 years compared to far longer histories of oak, beech or mahogany, for example. Nonetheless it has many uses indeed.

The first is that it produces good firewood. This is very important in a country like Nicaragua, where more than 55% of the energy consumed is estimated to come from wood burning around a million metric tons annually. To date, all that wood has come from natural forests, more mistreated and reduced by the day. Eucalyptus groves could gradually replace the firewood now being extracted from natural forests. "The eucalyptus trees can protect the natural forest," says Ben Chang, the main adviser of the Dutch financed FAO mission that is dedicated to reforesting large areas of Nicaragua with eucalyptus trees.
A number of Nicaraguan peasant families are already planting eucalyptus trees with the aim of having firewood to harvest. They plant the trees close to their houses, where they can easily keep an eye on them.

Paper, Posts, Boxes

The eucalyptus can also be used for construction. Its trunk, straight and upright, is a natural beam. It can serve as a post for fences or a tie for rails assuming that trains will one day make a comeback in Nicaragua. It can be used as a telephone post. It can also be used in mining and for wooden shipping crates, particularly for nontraditional export products.

Naturally, it can also be used for making furniture, although it must be taken into account that, given its rapid growth and slender form, there is a lot of tension within the wood. That can be a real problem with furniture, creating cracks that make the furniture unserviceable. If one wants to make furniture with eucalyptus, it is important to make sure the tree has time to settle and consolidate itself. That means waiting the full 25 years. That's a long time, although still less than required by other species.

"The big problem with the eucalyptus tree in Nicaragua is that there is still relatively scant production," says Ben Chang. "If there were a supply of 20,000 tons annually, a pulp factory could be installed to make paper, frames or parquet, products that still are in much demand internationally and bring good prices. This would give jobs to many Nicaraguans and generate a great deal of wealth."

Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Uses

Many other things can be done with eucalyptus. The trees are covered with aromatic flowers that attract honey producing bees. The trees pollinate almost exclusively through insects and eucalyptus honey has a characteristic flavor in great demand on the international market.

In Nicaragua and throughout the world, eucalyptus leaves are used to treat colds and coughs. But few people know that they are also effective in the treatment of diabetes. Seven eucalyptus leaves boiled in a liter of water, then drunk in three portions for breakfast, lunch and dinner cures the so called incurable diabetes in good time.

If there were sufficient eucalyptus production, Nicaragua could install a processing plant to extract from the leaves their essential oils, which have medicinal effects and can be used in the pharmaceutical industry as well as in making perfumes. In countries with significant industrial infrastructure, the eucalyptus can be transformed into vegetable based charcoal for the preparation of steel and cement.

Windbreaks

The eucalyptus tree arrived in Nicaragua some 50 years ago, but didn't make much of a splash. It wasn't until the 1980s that it began to be massively used to make windbreaks to control the erosion on the vast cotton plains in Nicaragua's northwest region.

When the wind hits these walls of trees several kilometers long it loses force and can't lift much soil off the top layers, or damage the crops. The windbreaks helped tremendously in León and Chinandega, whose populations had long suffered serious respiratory problems from the dust storms caused by the wind sweeping across the cotton plantations. During the 1980s, many scientists from throughout the world came to Nicaragua to study this use of the eucalyptus and see how it could be applied in other parts of the world.

With the precipitous decline in cotton prices, unemployed workers and peasants from this region turned again to the eucalpytus, machetes in hand and found a survival alternative. "The eucalyptus trees safeguarded the few remaining native forests in these areas," Chang points out. "Why not continue in an organized fashion to plant entire forests specifically for firewood? Or for other things as well. Lumber is a product whose price has never fallen on the international markets."

The Ants Killed Them

Peter Devereux is an Australian ecologist who has worked in Nicaragua since 1988, under the auspices of the Augusto César Sandino Foundation (FACS). When he came to Nicaragua for the first time, he was surprised by the enormous mistrust that the eucalpytus tree sparked among those Nicaraguans concerned about the environment and conservation. It was comparable only to that caused in Australia by our beloved and respected pine, which there is considered an exotic and "suspicious" species. This reality forced him to reflect and brought him ultimately to several conclusions. "I am a great fan of the eucalyptus," he declares, "although I think that, to the degree possible, it is better to reforest with native species."
He tells of an experience taking part in a reforestation project in a huge area near Pueblo Nuevo, in the northeastern department of Estelí. They were reforesting with eucalyptus and a native species, the mandagual (Casealpinia velutina), also a very rapid growth tree. Shortly after the trees were planted, the eucalyptus trees were all dead, devoured by ants, yet the mandagual trees continued to flourish, even in the midst of it all.

There is a very simple explanation for this phenonmenon. For thousands of years, the mandagual has developed its defenses against the ants, while the eucalpytus never had to in its native environment of Australia. Thus the ants here finished the eucalyptus trees off fairly quickly.

Without a doubt, the ideal solution would be to reforest with native species, preferably from the same area as the plot to be reforested and with an economic yield high enough to represent a real alternative for the area's population. But many areas in Nicaragua and other countries are desperate for some economic solution, and with their natural forests either gone or on the brink of disappearing. These extensive zones could be reforested with eucalyptus, as long as the conditions are appropriate.

The eucalyptus is a tree, a creation of nature, a living thing. And every living thing is good, although it can be poorly used by human beings. But that is not the eucalyptus' problem.

In many areas, native forests have been decimated to plant eucalyptus trees and this grave error has, in part, sparked the bad reputation that the tree currently has among environmentalists.

Undoubtedly, wiping out forests to plant eucalyptus trees is anti ecological. But on land where nothing grows and only the eucalyptus tree is able to thrive, why not use this resource that nature offers us?

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