When Planting Trees is Controversial

Posted by Alanna Elder – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU

Eucalyptus

Route 1, which leads from Asunción to the department of Itapúa. Photo Credit CC https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Ruta_1_paraguay_misiones.jpg

A few weeks ago I went to a seed fair in Itapúa, the department in the southeast corner of Paraguay. We left at 4:30 a.m., and the sky lightened slowly as we turned through a tangle of highways south of Asuncion. We started seeing rows of these tall, skinny trees; backlit, they made a strobe-light out of the rising sun. The NGO director who was driving had already told me what she thought of eucalyptus, or rather, of PROEZA, a state plan incentivizing farmers to grow the tree. PROEZA has won support from the UN’s Green Climate Fund, a pool of $10 billion reserved to help poorer countries cut emissions, on the promise that it will reduce poverty while reforesting and promoting renewable energy. PROEZA’s critics say it will yield plantations that demand pesticides and constrain biodiversity, engulfing more lands and farmers into soybean-corn systems by powering grinders with biomass.

Two major peasant farming groups – the Mesa Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinos and the Liga Nacional de Carperos – wrote letters supporting the project. But on another drive in Paraguay’s interior, a leader from the Federación Nacional Campesina told me the trees are “poisonous, like soy.” Eucalyptus carries a more pleasant connotation for me: a nice candle, herbal tea, a walk under the canopy. It’s a lesson in how plants – as commodities, as invasions, as aesthetic – can make people feel, an example of how species with loaded meanings also carry political power. Eucalyptus, which is actually a genus that includes hundreds of species, has a lot of baggage around the world.

In India, the trees represent the social failings of past forestry programs and the loss of native forests. The species grown in Portugal and California’s Bay Area may present a fire hazard. In Uganda, as elsewhere, critics say eucalyptus use too much water and degrade habitat for birds and insects. They grow fast. They are pretty. They are pillars of the paper industry. Most are native to Australia. They can release chemicals from their roots, limiting other plant growth, and contain chemicals with soothing properties. Some carry a fungus known to have caused deaths among people with HIV-AIDS, although Eucalyptus is not the only genus to host the pathogen. And in Paraguay, these trees are tainted by association to an agricultural model that has exacerbated land inequality without paying much in taxes or providing many jobs. They are another stretch of sameness on the highway, taller and older than a soy field, but just as socially complicated.

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