Eucalyptus: A Plague to Most, Profit to Few
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
Armando Carvalho removed eucalyptus trees from his family’s 12 hectares of land in Santa Comba Dao, where the Great Fire of October 2017 and Leslie, the tropical cyclone in October 2018, caused damage. (Photo by Maria Joao Gala/Global Images)
The “epidemic” of eucalyptus must be “fought” or “we run the risk of having another year of fires like 2017,” according to a forestry and an environmental engineer in their book, Portugal in Flames: How to Rescue the Forests (2018).
On the other hand, an opinion piece in Produtores Florestais, (November 10, 2020), which is published by the pulp and paper company, The Navigator Company, argued:
“The attack on eucalyptus is incomprehensible to me and, even less, the little or no will of successive governments to defend the activity with public opinion. Will there be an alternative? Do you prefer to have larger and larger areas of bush? They have grown by a million hectares in recent years and are a fuse for fire. . . . ”
Pedro Ferraz da Costa, president of the Forum for Competitiveness, which consists of 53 firms, including The Navigator Company, and 38 individuals, continued:
“Faced with the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of hectares and the inability that we have witnessed over the past 25 years to integrate forestry services into agricultural policy, we cannot augur well for the forest-based industry. . . .
“Not having fires is not difficult. Sufficient measures are having firebreaks 50 or 60 meters wide, keeping the land impeccably clean, without weeds, and allowing no entry into the forest perimeter after sunset, as well as keeping teams of forest firefighters and aerial surveillance by two small planes and two helicopters.”
However, eucalyptus, which is exported along with its by-products, tends to be grown by small landowners on land rented or leased by big companies such as The Navigator Company and Altri.
The year 2017 was Portugal’s deadliest for forest fires with more than 100 losing their lives. Two fires dominated the national psyche: the Pedrogao Grande Fire in June in Central Portugal and the Great Fire in October in Central and North Portugal and northwestern Spain in which 97 percent of the municipality of Oliveira do Hospital burned, much to the shock of everyone. That year, fires consumed more than 442,000 hectares, according to the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF), reported Diario de Noticias (June 1, 2018).
There are 3.2 million hectares of forested land recorded in the sixth National Forest Inventory, or one-third of the country, according to Florestast (October 13, 2020).
In 2003, nine died and 120,000 hectares burned as a result of more than 7,000 fires. And, in 2015, the forest lost more than 12,000 hectares, according to Diario de Noticias.
Paper and pulp companies use Eucalyptus globulus, one of more than 700 species of eucalyptus native to Australia, because it grows fast (10 to 12 years as compared with 30 to 40 for native species) and without care.
Paper and pulp companies criticize the government for not taking responsibility for land management in a country where 98 percent of the forest is privately owned. Environmentalists blast the government for succumbing to the increased land demands of pulp companies, who they claim lie about the economic advantages of their business.
In the meantime, those who live in North and Central Portugal, including me, witness eucalyptus growing and spreading, and most see death and destruction in it.
What is it about eucalyptus?
There are several factors that contribute to forest fires in Portugal: uncleared land partly caused by depopulation in the 1970s by emigration, arson, drought and high temperatures caused by climate change, and high winds.
Eucalyptus is simply another factor.
In seasonally dry climates, oaks are often fire-resistant, as a grass fire is insufficient to ignite the scattered trees. In contrast, a eucalyptus forest tends to promote fire because of the volatile and highly combustible oils produced by the leaves as well as the production of large amounts of dead plant material, such as leaves and twigs, high in resin, preventing its breakdown by fungi and thus accumulating large amounts of dry, combustible fuel, according to Eucalypt Biology (2005) published by the Australian Government.
Consequently, dense eucalyptus plantings may be subject to catastrophic firestorms, according to Eucalypt Biology.
Almost 30 years before the Oakland, California, firestorm of 1991, a study of eucalyptus in the area warned that dead plant material beneath the trees builds up rapidly and should be monitored and cleaned regularly, reported Eucalyptus: Fuel Dynamics and Fire Hazard in the Oakland Hills (California Agriculture) (September 1973).
The warning was not heeded in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 1991, the Oakland fire destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and killed 25 people on 620 hectares. It has been estimated that 70 percent of the energy released through the combustion of vegetation in the Oakland fire was due to eucalyptus, according to A Transcontinental Legacy: Fire Management, Resource Protection and the Challenges of Tasmanian Blue Gum (March 2006), published by the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Eucalyptus also was a catalyst in the spread of the 1923 fire in Berkeley, California, which destroyed 568 homes, according to Eucalyptus: California Icon, Fire Hazard and Invasive Species (June 12, 2013), broadcast on the National Public Radio station, KQED, for Northern California).
In a National Park Service study, it was found that the fuel load (in tons per acre) of non-native eucalyptus woods is almost three times as great as native oak woodland, according to A Transcontinental Legacy: Fire Management, Resource Protection and the Challenges of Tasmanian Blue Gum.
Three species of eucalyptus, mostly Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian blue gum), were introduced to California by Australians during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s. By the early 1900s, thousands of acres of eucalyptus were planted with the encouragement of the state government. It was hoped that the trees would provide a renewable source of timber for construction, furniture making and railway sleepers, the latter of which it was found to be unsuitable because the ties twisted while drying and were so tough that it was nearly impossible to hammer rail spikes into them, according to The Eucalyptus of California – Seeds of Good or Seeds of Evil (March 31, 2021), Stanislaus State University Library.
“You Don’t Hear a Bird”
The risk presented by eucalyptus is more than its flammability. The tree draws a tremendous amount of water from the soil through the process of transpiration (80 liters per day for an adult), causes desertification, creates a monoculture by preventing the growth of other species and reduces biodiversity.
The journalist, Miguel Sousa Taveres, who now writes a column for Expresso in retirement, told TSF Radio Noticias, (November 20, 2019) that in a eucalyptus grove, the fresh smell and the humidity help to disguise the death of your other senses.
“You don’t see any form of life other than that one.
“You don’t hear water running. You don’t hear a bird. You don’t see a butterfly.”
Due to similar favorable climatic conditions, eucalyptus plantations often have replaced oak woodlands in California, Spain and Portugal. Therefore, there has been a loss of acorns that mammals and birds feed on as well as an absence of hollows that provide shelter and nesting sites for birds and small mammals, and for bee colonies, according to Equal diversity in disparate species assemblages: a comparison of native and exotic woodlands in California in Global Ecology and Biogeography (2002).
Eucalyptus plantations are called “green deserts” because, having evolved in a different environment, the trees have few natural interactions with local animal species, according to Aljazeera (August 23, 2021).
“Their leaves are not eaten by deer, cows or other local herbivores,” said Adolfo Cordero Rivera, an ecologist at the University of Vigo in Galicia, Spain, where eucalyptus are the most abundant trees. “The only animals that eat them are the eucalyptus weevils, another Australian invasive species.”
Eucalyptus has been introduced around the world from its native Australia. It has been controversial in most countries and removed in some. For example, Bangladesh, which is calling upon urban youth to invest in the commercialization of farming, is eliminating eucalyptus and banning its planting due to its negative effect on crops and the environment, according to Daily Bangladesh (February 2).
Types of trees in Portugal (Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests) (ICNF)
“An Uncontrolled Sprawl of Trees”
In their book, Portugal em Chamas: Como Resgatar as Florestas, Joao Camargo, environmental engineer, and Paulo Pimenta de Castro, forestry engineer and president of the Association for the Promotion of Forestry Investment, said that 9 percent of the country is composed of eucalyptus plantations, “an uncontrolled sprawl of trees” that fuels fires, reported Diario de Noticias (June 1, 2018).
“We understand there to be an epidemic when trees of the same age, or of very similar ages, expand throughout the territory,” said Paulo Pimenta de Castro, according to Diario de Noticias. “We are world-record holders which, in fact, does not translate into great real benefits. On the contrary.”
In a review of Portugal in Flames in Caderno de Geografia, Faculdade de Letras, at the University of Coimbra (2019), Antonio Campar de Almeida, of the Centro de Estudos de Geografia e Ordenamento do Territorio (CEGOT), Universidade de Coimbra, shared the authors’ findings:
“Portugal is the leading country in the world in relative area of eucalyptus plantations. Its expansion did not bring economic advantages for forestry as there was a decrease between 2000 and 2011 in Gross Value Added (the final result of productive activity), in value of -24 percent, in income of -32.8 percent and in employment of -13.2 percent.
“These data are reinforced as they seek to demonstrate the deception that has been created around the advantages of eucalyptus plantations in the country. The decrease in the weight of forestry in the national economy has been one of the realities: 1.2 percent in 1990 and 0.4 percent in 2010. . . . Also, the jobs offered in the paper industries remained smaller than that promised by entrepreneurs in the sector.
“A very close relationship has been observed between technicians and directors of pulp companies and positions at government agencies at different levels in the past few decades, a fact that has brought advantages to the ever-increasing proliferation of eucalyptus and its transformation. Thus, it is understood that despite attempts, usually through legislation, to control this proliferation, it does not cause any real effect on the ground, either due to lack of supervision, commitment or conviction.
“Whenever the eucalyptus is in question, the sector reacts with threats to leave the country. Some of these emigration experiences do not seem to have been successful as happened in Mozambique and the United States of America.”
What happened in Mozambique?
Portuguese groups and international coalitions protested the eucalyptus plantations of Portucel Moçambique, a subsidiary of The Navigator Company, according to the Portuguese environmental group, Quercus (July 14, 2021). Portucel Moçambique was allocated 356,000 hectares of land in central Mozambique, which is more than three times the area controlled by The Navigator Company in Portugal. So far, only 13,500 hectares have been planted, but already a large number of communities have accused the company of violating their rights.
Anabela Lemos, director of Environmental Justice in Mozambique, said:
“Portucel Mozambique claims that its plantations are improving the living conditions of rural communities and bringing economic development to Mozambique. In reality, this neo-colonialist project is usurping land and livelihoods from thousands of peasant families, leaving them without options for life. The promises made to communities of jobs, better lives and improved infrastructure have all been broken.”
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have appealed to the Mozambican government to revoke Portucel’s land concessions, according to Quercus. They also asked the World Bank to withdraw its financial support. The International Finance Corporation, owned by the World Bank, controls about 20 percent of shares in Portucel Moçambique, and the Forest Investment Program, another World Bank initiative, is helping to finance the planting of the first 40,000 hectares. This was included in Mozambique’s pledge “to restore forests” under the Bonn Challenge and the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, which were signed with the 2011 U.N. Paris Agreement.
Portuguese Laws Take and Give
After the 2017 fires in Portugal, Parliament passed legislation to prevent eucalyptus trees from being planted in burned areas previously occupied by other species, reported Diario de Noticias (June 1, 2018).
However, according to Quercus (January 11, 2022):
“Ordinance No. 18/2022 of the 5 of January, which alters Programas Regionais de Ordenamento Florestal (PROF), of February 2019, now provides for a potential increase in the area of eucalyptus in 125 municipalities, up to 36,701 hectares, in a legal exception for new forestation with eucalyptus resulting from compensation projects with relocation of areas.
“However, there is not even a proposal for a reduction in any municipality where the eucalyptus trees should be reconverted into other land uses, such as the planting of native hardwoods, namely oaks, cork oaks, ash, medronheiros (strawberry trees), or other species.
“The potential increase in eucalyptus in some coastal municipalities should consider the existing stands of eucalyptus contributing to the increase in eucalyptus monocultures and the risk of rural fires. Also, in terms of macro-zoning of eucalyptus productivity, in the interior of the country, the proposed change has no technical basis for forest management. An obvious example is the potential increase in eucalyptus to 19,995 hectares, mentioned in the Ordinance, from its present 1,818 hectares in the municipality of Castelo Branco. This can only be explained by the proximity to the pulp industries in Vila Velha da Rodao!
“The review of the Programas Regionais de Ordenamento Florestal in February 2019 was strongly contested by several municipalities and inter-municipal communities, so it is not understandable that the amendment now made by the government has not been heard by the Associaçao Nacional de Municipios Portugueses (National Association of Portuguese Municipalities).”
Neighboring Spain placed a moratorium on the planting of eucalyptus, according to O Minho (July 2, 2021).
“The transitional provision of the Galicia Agrarian Land Recovery Law, which prohibits new massive eucalyptus plantations in that autonomous region of Spain, came into force today, until December 31, 2025. Those that already existed can continue to be replanted.
There is the possibility of exceptions due to the data that are updating the Continuous Forest Inventory and that point to an area of Galicia occupied by eucalyptus trees of about 300,500 hectares. The objective is to reduce this area by 20,000 hectares over the next 20 years.
There is still a need for updated information to be able to articulate policies in the Galician mountains since the available inventory for 2018 does not adapt to the small landholding reality in Galicia (similar to that practiced in Minho).
“There are single parcels that, in reality, are 36 parcels with different owners.”
The Spanish moratorium aims to ensure a balanced distribution of species and uses in accordance with the European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy in a region sought after by large international companies such as Portugal’s Navigator, reported O Minho.
The Spanish government started promoting eucalyptus in the late 1950s with the opening of a state-run pulp-processing plant, reported Aljazeera (August 23, 2012). This happened at a time of urban migration.
Altri Plans to Open Factories in Spain
The Portuguese paper and pulp company, Altri, is preparing to invest 700 million to 800 million euros in Galicia, Spain, for the construction of two factories, which will generate 2,500 jobs, due to a lack of eucalyptus trees in Portugal, according to an interview with its chief executive officer (CEO), Jose Soares de Pina, in Expresso (April 8).
Feasibility and environmental impact studies are underway. However, a subsidy of up to one-quarter of the amount already has been guaranteed by the Spanish Recovery and Resilience Plan (PRR) (a European Council instrument to mitigate the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on European Union nations); another quarter by equity, and the rest through debt issuance, reported Expresso.
“In Galicia, we won’t need to import anything, contrary to what would happen in Portugal,” said CEO Jose Soares de Pina.
Altri’s chief executive officer stressed that successive governments (in the last 10 to 20 years) have lost the opportunity to manage the forest in Portugal.
“There has been a lack of demand and, at the end of the line, political will,” said Jose Soares de Pina.
Yet, he said, wood-based cellulose materials “can replace almost all applications that use products of fossil origin: polymers, coatings, some products in the food sector, hygiene products. In short, a range of possibilities has been opening up. The market is increasingly open to substitutes for fossil products.”
One factory will produce cellulose fibers (a kind of paper pulp) and the other will transform them into lyocell, which is a 100 percent biodegradable plant-based textile fiber. Because they are made of wood, lyocell-based products only take a few months to decompose, unlike items made of plastic, which can take a century.
“This investment – which is now the largest we have underway – will not prevent us from continuing to invest in Portugal,” said Altri’s chief executive officer at the Figueira de Foz factory. “This year alone, we have an ongoing investment of 50 million in our units.”
In the Expresso interview, Jose Soares de Pina explained that Altri is investing in capturing carbon dioxide emissions and some odors that result from wood processing. He said that in this sector, Portugal’s technology stands at a global level.
(Altri was created in 2005 as a result of Cofina’s restructuring process, through a spin-off of Cofina’s industrial assets, according to Altri’s website. The year was marked by acquisition, following the privatization of the company, of 95 percent of Celtejo, an operation that involved an investment of 38 million euros.)
Eucalyptus Survives Fire
Eucalyptus does not die by fire, concluded a study by the agricultural school, Polytechnical Institute of Coimbra, reported TSF Radio Noticias (April 27, 2021).
“The species is very well adapted to the occurrence of fire,” said Joaquim Sande Silva, coordinator of the study. “It resists very well the passage of fire, and very few eucalyptus plants actually die from the presence of fire. The fires pass: they kill other species, but the eucalyptus trees do not die."
Eucalyptus grows naturally. Pollen and seeds can travel and take root as far away as 80 to 100 meters, said Joaquim Sande Silva, a forestry engineer.
After the Great Fire of October 2017, a eucalyptus grove in Santa Comba Dao appeared to have a vast amount of plants.
“We identified the highest density of plants ever recorded in scientific literature. On average, about 300,000 plants per hectare.”
Scientists believe that the seeds can propagate through water courses. Therefore, genetic analyses are being carried out. Joaquim Sande Silva hopes that it will be possible to create models that systematize the way in which eucalyptus trees are planted in the country. However, the forestry engineer did not dismiss the importance of rigorous soil management.”
“We have to control the vegetation that appears and cut the trees when they should be cut: at 10 or 12 years old. If that is the case, the risk of expansion of the species is relatively low, although it still exists.”
In the biggest environmental protest in Portugal, on March 31, 1989, 800 people of Valpaços in Vila Real District uprooted eucalyptus on 200 hectares owned by Soporcel (now The Navigator Company). Photo by Jornal de Noticias)
How “Green Petroleum” Got Here
The Portuguese government discovered “green petroleum” in the 1980s.
“We abdicated from claiming community aid for agriculture, selling agriculture, pure and simple,” accused journalist Miguel Sousa Taveres, according to TSF Radio Noticias (November 20, 2019). “We sold agriculture for 600 million euros (120 million contos at the time when 1,000 escudos was known as a conto; the escudo was substituted by the euro in 2002) to Brussels.”
Jose Manuel Alho, former president of the Nature Protection League and current administrator of the leisure-enhancing Inatel Foundation, was a recent graduate student in Biology at the University of Coimbra who “happily” had met a collective of young activists who were to become the environmental group, Quercus.
“Eucalyptus was in great expansion. There were even plans to extend this type of production to the Autonomous Region of the Azores – namely, the island of Pico – “and it was one of the main” problems that Quercus was facing.
Macario Correia, the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1987, said in TSF Radio Noticias:
“There was a political framework that facilitated this increase: more facilitating legislation, community funds that were not quite sure where to direct and a very clear vision, especially in Agriculture and Forestry, to make eucalyptus the green petroleum of Portugal,” said the son of farmers. Correia also received university degrees in agriculture.
The licensing processes, explained biologist Jose Manuel Alho, “were sent to the municipalities at that time", and this was part of the problem:
“The councils did not have the sensitivity and environmental information we have today. The central administrative body was the General Directorate of Forests which determined when a municipality had reached 50 percent eucalyptus coverage.” This constituted “a business opportunity for large companies, which either bought land or leased it for 25 years.
“Therefore, the political and economic conditions were created for the eucalyptus business to flourish.”
Macario Correia said that the only political pressure was through the media.
An opinion piece of Jornal de Coimbra (January 18, 1989) extolled the 10 years of growth of eucalyptus as compared with “30, 40 and even many more years that native trees take to become economically viable”. “Attacking eucalyptus just because it is fashionable because it shows concern for the environment is gratuitous” and “there are great exaggerations with regard to the alleged harm”.
While, also in 1989, Miguel Sousa Tavares recorded in the program, The Hour of Truth (RTP 2) the aerial images of Portugal's first major demonstration against monoculture. The protest took place in the Serra da Aboboreiria, where Serafim Riem, co-founder of Quercus, chained himself to a tree-planting machine and organized 800 people. Thousands of eucalyptus trees were uprooted in the municipality of Valpaços on property owned by Soporcel (now The Navigator Company) despite the presence of several dozen Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) agents on horseback, who were shooting in the air, according to TSF Radio Noticias.
Jorge Paiva, professor of Botany at the Instituto Botanico de Coimbra, said: “I am not against a tree. I am against the way in which the country was ‘eucalyptized’. Soils were occupied that should not have been occupied."
The researcher said that he understands the aromatic, flammable and highly volatile nature of eucalyptus.
“Pine is also resinous, and resin is flammable, but the population is used to living off the pine forest,” said Jorge Paiva. “First, we lived on the oak grove. Then, the oak grove disappeared, and people lived off the grazing from the pine forest. But people really lived from the pine forest. The resin was collected, the cattle bedding was made, and the bush was cut.”
With eucalyptus, “the Portuguese people have been put in dependence on an economic power that can play with prices and that, if one day it leaves, leaves us not knowing how we are going to live.
“These trees leaning against each other allow a fire to spread much more easily,” said the botanist. “The fires of 2017 are destined to be repeated, and we will not be prepared with so many eucalyptus and pine forests.”
Journalist Miguel Sousa Taveres said:
“We are the country with the largest planted area of eucalyptus, even more than Australia, where eucalyptus grows naturally. It’s an absurd thing.”
The sixth national forest inventory shows eucalyptus occupying the largest area for a species: 26 percent, in 2015.
The argument of increased exports did not convince Miguel Sousa Tavares, who said:
“A lot of money was spent in this country planting eucalyptus trees. We pay for this, and everything it costs the firefighters, with our taxes.” Now, fixing the errors can be a Herculean task. “Right now, de-eucalyptizing the country would be a huge undertaking that would cost billions and teams of workers that we don’t have. It would be almost a military engineering program”.
Armando Carvalho, a forestry engineer, began managing his family’s 12 hectares in 1985, the year that he entered university. He joined Quercus. He acted against the practice of not letting the oaks and chestnuts grow because what made money were pine and eucalyptus.
The Great Fire of October 2017 affected every piece of his family’s land. Today, it is 50 properties and a patchwork of 80 articles with small areas of 600 to 800 square meters.
Land consolidation is one of the techniques that can help correct persistent land errors.
“I have a property, a large estate with two hectares, constituted through successive exchanges and one or another purchase but, above all, on the basis of exchanges,” said Armando Carvalho. The exchange is a mechanism that is expensive because the State “does not carry out or promote land consolidation. There are situations in which the administration costs more than the value of the exchanged portion.”
In TSF Radio Noticias, the forestry engineer asked :
“As a forest owner, if I invest in other species, who buys the trees? Who buys the cubic meters of poplar or oak that I have to sell? Where is the industry? What has the country done from a public policy point of view for there to be internal consumption of a raw material that comes out of our forests, which also can boost our economy?
“What work has been done, together with designers, architects and engineers to create new solutions for furniture and infrastructure, equipment, construction and public buildings?”
Yet, he said, land consolidation is essential to put all the pieces together and carry out a complex inventory of hectares and hectares of forest. The rest would take care of itself.
“Nature is wise. It never went to university because it didn’t have to. It puts the right species in the right place.”
In Galicia, after a 2016 forest fire, residents decided to take action to protect their village, reported Aljazeera (August 23, 2021). The next year, the community joined with a local non-governmental organization and put out a call for volunteers to help uproot eucalyptus.
About 20 people showed up.
Since then, more than 1,000 people have participated in the “de-eucalyptizer brigades” across Galicia, on public and private land. Volunteers are a diverse group: young and old couples, students, middle-aged adults and retirees.
According to TSF Radio Noticias, Serafim Riem, the environmental activist, said:
“This is work for 20 years, but what matters is that we start now.”