The controversy over eucalyptus planting in Kerala | Explained

Why did the Kerala government allow the Kerala Forest Development Corporation to plant eucalyptus trees? Why were environmentalists and social activists against the order?

Updated - May 30, 2024 08:48 pm IST

Published - May 28, 2024 08:30 am IST

A eucalyptus plantation at the Pampadumshola National Park under Munnar wildlife division.

A eucalyptus plantation at the Pampadumshola National Park under Munnar wildlife division. | Photo Credit: Jomon Pampavalley

The story so far: The Kerala government issued an order allowing the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC) to plant eucalyptus trees for its financial sustenance in 2024-2025. Environmentalists soon protested the decision saying the move would adversely affect forests and heighten human-animal conflicts in future. Subsequently, the head of the Forest Force submitted a report to the State Forest Minister saying it hadn’t permitted the planting of eucalyptus trees inside forests. On May 20, the government amended its order to limit permission to only cut exotic tree species from lands in the KFDC’s control.

What are KDFC and its plantations?

The KFDC was established on January 24, 1975, as part of a dynamic production forestry enterprise. According to the KFDC website, the corporation has around 7,000 hectares (ha) of plantations. The plantation working circle includes the following species: Eucalyptus grandis, Acacia auriculiformis, Acacia mangium, Acacia crassicarpa, Acacia pycnantha (also known as wattle), Alnus nepalensis, Casuarina equisetifolia, and Pinus patula.

Eucalyptus plantations have a rotation age of nine years; Acacia auriculiformis trees, 18 years; and Acacia mangium, seven years. At the end of each cycle, plantations approved by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate change are felled.

Clear-felled plantations are planted with species listed in a management plan. Before planting, experts check for soil quality and consult with the Kerala Forest Research Institute. As of this month, the KFDC website also said plantations of exotic species, including eucalyptus, would be converted to those of indigenous species once exotic flora has been felled “so as to be more ecologically and environmentally friendly”.

What was the issue with the order?

In 2021, the State government had published an eco-restoration policy. Among other things, it sought to address what it called the “proliferation of invasive species that are not suitable for our environment” and the resulting “depletion of natural forests”. Such depletion, according to the policy, was in turn forcing wild animals to move to human-occupied land in search of food and thus increasing the prevalence of human-wildlife conflict.

For example, a recent study by the Kerala State Forest Protective Staff Organisation — an association of frontline forest officers — found replacing exotic plants in forested areas with the corresponding natural species could help ensure food for wild elephants at Chinnakanal in Munnar. The Chinnakkanal landscape is prime elephant habitat in the Munnar forest division, and is filled with eucalyptus trees. The policy also acknowledged that invasive species of plants as well as animals had rendered “serious damage to natural habitats and ecosystems” and that “eradicating such invasive species … is of high priority.” Environmental activists alleged following the State’s order — permitting the KDFC to plant eucalyptus trees — contravened the policy’s aspirations and undermined efforts to beat back invasive species and mitigate human-animal conflicts.

What is eco-restoration?

Kerala has around 27,000 ha under industrial plantations. Against the backdrop of climate change and the promise researchers have said trees offer to mitigate against its worsening, the Kerala government had decided to phase out plantations of eucalyptus, acacia, wattle, and pine by 2024 and replace them with natural forests. This process is called eco-restoration. Many of these areas are currently overwhelmed with invasive species.

For example, in 2019, in the Marayoor Sandal Division in Idukki, the forest department initiated a project supported by the UNDP, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority. Some 108 hectares of exotic species were removed to allow natural grasses to flourish. The result: active water streams in the area were restored after a 30-year gap.

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