Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Alien Invasion

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Pakistan is headed for an ecological disaster. And the worst part of the scenario is that persons actually entrusted with preserving its ecology are helping it along on this doomsday path. In their insane quest for producing ever greater green cover with the least bit of work and without any understanding of the term ‘ecological imbalance’, officials of the country’s provincial Forest Departments have been promoting alien species. For close on forty years, mindless Pakistani foresters have progressively replaced indigenous trees with the imported Eucalyptus.


The hardy Eucalyptus, a native of Australia, was first introduced to the subcontinent as far back as the 1890s. Twenty years later it was being planted here in limited numbers for its oil (eucalyptol) that was known to have decongestant and antiseptic properties. Then nothing was known of its hydrological properties and the effect of its leaf litter on the chemistry of the ground.

In the early 1960s Pakistani foresters discovered Eucalyptus big time. Forest cover was sparse and ever falling and for some ‘smart’ foresters the Eucalyptus was godsend: the sapling required no irrigation, it was not browsed upon by livestock and it was a fast-growing tree that easily attained a height of six metres or above in three to four years. Best of all it tolerated most kinds of soils from sandy to mountainous to saline and waterlogged. Once planted the sapling simply grew: the survival rate of eucalyptus saplings, according to Raja Mohammed Zarif of the Pakistan Forest Institute (PFI), Peshawar, is now seen to be almost 100%.

On the other hand, indigenous species that had shaded this land for millions of years required heavy maintenance. For one, saplings of, say, neem and pipal – to name just two, required to be watered in the first year. They are both great favourites of livestock and they grow nowhere near as fast as Eucalyptus. Their survival rate is estimated to be no more than 15%. But that having been said, these trees, and scores of other indigenous species have thrived on the Indian subcontinent for millions of years.

From the earliest historical records we know that all highways were bordered by shade trees – the preferred species for this purpose being the pipal, banyan and kikar. And when he British tarred the ancient highways in the fourth decade of the 20th century, they followed this ancient practice – only now the shisham was introduced from Nepal. Those who grew up in the 1950s and the following decade will remember how the kikar and shisham spreading above the single-lane-two-way roads turned them into virtual tunnels of cool green.

We lost this eco-friendly feature in the 1970s when the highways were widened for the first time. Trees were cut down on a massive scale to make way for the new two-lane arrangement. Instead of those regal banyans and shady kikar and pipal trees the foresters of this sorry land planted the imported eucalyptus – a tree that grows straight up and has a thin canopy and therefore little shade. But as a sapling this was the species they could stick in the ground and just forget about about. So foolishly was this trend followed that when M-1 (between Lahore and Islamabad) was completed in 1997, the only tree planted along its two sides was the Eucalyptus.


Within years Eucalyptus became the rage with forest department officials. This was the answer to Pakistan’s dismally low forest cover: plant a hundred saplings and in three years they had a swaying forest of mature trees. No better result to show their superiors and win accolades and promotions. Best of all, there was no work involved after transfer of the sapling from the plastic bag to the ground. From 1970 onwards there was never a government building that was not endowed with its own forest of Eucalyptus and never a nursery of the Forest Department that did not flaunt thousands of saplings of this alien species. All others paled into oblivion.

The neem known to the ancients as ‘the cure for all diseases’, the pipal, banyan and the wild fig upon which dozens of bird species lived, the wondrous Prosopis (kandi in Sindhi, Jund in Punjabi) that fed humans and livestock in times of famine, that gorgeous Tacoma with its red flowers that made deserts bloom – to name only a few – species that had evolved over hundreds of millions of years to suit our environment and wildlife, were all consigned to oblivion. From now on the end the entire deforestation problem, so far as Pakistani foresters were concerned, was the fast-growing alien Eucalyptus. With the Forest Department leading the crusade, even private planters who knew no better considered no indigenous tree worthy of being planted upon this blighted land.

By 1985 unthinking forest officers had planted this tree in such diverse places as Makran, Thar and Cholistan, the hills of Bajaur, Swat, Dir and Indus Kohistan. It even replaced indigenous species on rich farmland in Punjab, Sindh and the Frontier province. Today as one drives north from Khar (Bajaur) to Dir or Swat, one cannot but be impressed by the fine stands of forest on the slopes. But closer inspection reveals that hillsides that should have been covered with cedar or pine are plagued with Eucalyptus.

Even earlier, foresters and farmers had observed that Eucalyptus planted around waterlogged lands eventually dried them out. With waterlogging of good farmland being a major bane following the laying out of the canal system, this became another great reason for the short-cutters of the forest department to promote the imported Eucalyptus even more aggressively. Time came when the word ‘tree’ meant Eucalyptus. From 1985 onwards, tree plantation campaigns were simply very aggressive Eucalyptus promotion drives. Indeed, even the banners strung out during these campaigns all over the Punjab province exhorting citizens to plant trees, typically pictured the thin, drooping crown of a Eucalyptus.

Even twenty years ago ecologists were questioning the effect of this tree on local ecology. Birds, other than an occasional crow, were known not to perch or nest in it. It provides no food either to bird, beast or man, and its leaf litter does not decompose to create humus. Its timber has, so far, found only scant use in the country’s chipboard industry and most users do not even consider it good fuel wood.

Recent research (since the mid-1990s) by Nuclear Institute of Agricultural Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad, a subsidy of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, casts interesting light on the properties of Eucalyptus. This tree is essentially as thirsty as it is hardy. It lays out a wide mesh of roots to draw water as well as nutrients from good distances around itself. The water consumption of a young tree ranges from 53 to just under 70 litres. A mature tree (five years or more) will consume between 80-100 litres. This consumption is per 24 hour-cycle! Small wonder then that Eucalyptus was so good at reclaiming waterlogged agricultural land and is now acknowledged as a water extractor. Taking the average consumption at 80 litres, Pakistan, blighted with no less than 100 million (as estimated by this writer and agreed to by various experts) Eucalyptus nationwide, is losing eight billion litres of water every day. That is, two trillion, eight hundred and forty-eight billion litres of good ground water is being uselessly squandered annually.

That is just one angle. A study conducted by this scribe together with a well-respected environmental scientist in December 2004 in Khushab district threw up another interesting aspect. A local NGO in Mitha Tiwana, a sprawling village, encouraged the planting of Eucalyptus on good agricultural land. The concept was that these trees would be sold to a projected paper mill to be set up in neighbouring Gujrat district. The mill was never installed, but when the farmers removed the trees after the five-year maturation period and resumed agriculture they were dismayed to learn that agricultural yield had fallen to less than half of the pre-Eucalyptus level. Interestingly, the trees also did not fetch the promised Rs 3000 but as little as Rs 30 per piece.

What ecologists already knew, now also dawned on Mitha Tiwana farmers: that Eucalyptus leaf-litter does not decay, but sits on the ground for long periods of time destroying most vegetation under it. Though no tests exist, botanists are of the view that the tree’s root exudates have much to do with reducing fertility over the long term.

For the past two decades Pakistani foresters have planted nothing but eucalyptus, however. In their madness, they have remained blissfully unmindful of the number of wells and springs that dried up on hillsides in Bajaur, Swat and Buner or the drastically falling water table in other parts of the country. While the government holds seminars to develop Groundwater Regulatory Frameworks to counter the fast receding aquifers both in rural and urban areas, the foresters continued to plague this country with the water-guzzling Eucalyptus. For some bizarre reason, none of the many ‘experts’ gracing these conferences (last one held in Islamabad, 18 May 2005) ever considered the effect of the inordinately high number of Eucalyptus trees in the country.

An interview with Mahmood Iqbal Sheikh who retired from the Punjab Forest Department as Chief Conservator several years ago was very revealing. Respected for his expertise as a tree taxonomist, he says that Pakistani foresters favoured this tree because it required zero maintenance. Pressure upon senior forest officers was great from ignorant, semi-literate politicians who wanted to see forest cover increased but who understood nothing of ecology. Moreover, they were not attuned to hearing arguments regarding technical matters. ‘Since we had to show results to save our jobs and secure promotions, we took this easy way,’ he says. As well as these factors, there was the ‘fear of failure’ that Sheikh says, was associated with the cultivation of indigenous species with their estimated 15% success rate that turned foresters to rely on this alien to show results.

He says that a Eucalyptologist from Australia, Dr Prior by name, was invited to Pakistan (sometime in the 1970s) who identified five of the over six hundred sub-species of the genera as suitable (if this word can be applied at all) for Pakistan. And that from then on, the corridors of the provincial Forest Departments rang with the cry for Eucalyptus. He confirms that no ecological studies were conducted vis-à-vis the species’ introduction into Pakistan ‘There was a dire shortage of timber and fuel wood in the country and this was the only tree that could meet the demand.’

It must be conceded that the provincial forest departments are not equipped to carry out ecological studies. But institutions like NIAB and the botany departments of the country’s several universities are engaged in this work. Dr Firdaus-e-Bareen of the Punjab University says that so far as she knows her department has never been contacted by the Forest Department for technical input. She says that the gross lack of coordination between the two departments certainly leads to such cases of misuse of alien species as one sees in Pakistan.

The mindset that governed the older generation of forest officials comes across very clearly from Sheikh’s interview. They have absolutely no understanding of ecology whatsoever. They look upon trees only and only as fuel wood and timber and as a means to promote themselves as ‘efficient officers’ and earn promotions. The dwindling water table and the bird life that depends upon fast disappearing indigenous trees be damned. In fact, while Sheikh admits that this is an extremely thirsty species, he denies that it can have any effect on the water table – regardless of the findings of NIAB and the number of trees he agrees cover this sorry country. Others of his ilk (who unfortunately currently teach at PFI) will go so far as simply refute the hydrological properties of Eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus was eventually banned in the country in the mid-1990s. It was recently banned a second time in Punjab. Yet there are men like Rao Khalid Mahmood, Conservator (Extension), responsible for reforestation in the province, who still very aggressively advocate Eucalyptus. So far as this ignorant man is concerned, Eucalyptus has absolutely no bearing on the falling water table or the drying springs. With great impunity he flogs a two-colour brochure that speaks of the many boons of Eucalyptus. It makes absolutely no mention of what the tree does to the water table and fertility. This leaflet has been prepared, among others, by the revered taxonomist M. I. Sheikh.

There is fortunately a new breed of foresters who graduated either from PFI or from other universities and joined the provincial departments from the early 1990s. Many of them are foresters not for the sake of making the illicit buck on the side, but because nature and its conservation are matters close to their hearts. Naeem Ashraf Raja of the Ministry of Environment, who did his post-graduation from PFI in 1992, is one such individual. Of his forebears he has this to say: ‘Those people were timber-oriented. They did not understand ecology and uses of the forest other than timber harvesting. Their only aim was to procure maximum yield from a forest or plantation.’ None of these worthies had ever paused to consider the cost-benefit ratio in terms of the tree’s effect on bird life and water table, Raja says.

Another conservationist working for the federal government goes so far as to assert that even among the new generation of officers, it is a rare person who understands bio-diversity. Most continue to look upon forests as a source of timber. He cites results of a study of bird diversity in adjacent blocks of shisham and Eucalyptus in Shorkot (Jhang district). The population in terms of number and species was ten times higher in the shisham grove. ‘But this is of no consequence so far as the typical forester is concerned,’ he says.

As the aquifer dries up, tube wells are being sunk deeper and deeper. True, illogical water usage has much to do with this depletion. But our Eucalyptus plantations play a significant role in it as well. When (not if) the water wars begin Pakistan will enter them with a handicap that we will have only our foresters to thank for. But long before we die of thirst because these fools could only think in terms of timber, our spirits will have been devastated because there will be no bird song. Gone will the warble of the bulbul, the mellifluous whistle of the golden oriole, the raucous call of the hornbill and the sad little kuk-kuk-kuk of the coppersmith.

Then the thirst will follow.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 1:00 AM,

5 Comments:

At April 27, 2013 at 2:41 PM, Anonymous Attique Anwar said...

I have had experience with Eucalyptus in Kunjah. Eucalyptus gave me a quick profit as well. But soon the craze was over. I am happy that it is over.

 
At April 27, 2013 at 7:36 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

This is scary. But I see wise people are coming back to local trees.

 
At April 27, 2013 at 7:50 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

I love Shesham, Pipal and Bar. But now Bar is also coming from abroad. No more those huge trees where people used to sit together.

 
At April 28, 2013 at 1:58 AM, Anonymous محمد ریاض شاہد said...

When i pass near a Bunyan tree , i feel its loneliness shadowing my heart.

 
At May 4, 2013 at 12:57 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No sir, People are not reverting to indigenous trees. I am right now travelling through Khushab district and I see Forest Department nurseries of thousands of eucalyptus saplings. And, mind, this tree has THRICE been banned by the Government of Punjab. Damn the forest Department!

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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