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Chapter 3 - What can we learn from the great eucalyptus debate?

The storm over eucalyptus, with its epicenter over the social forestry programmes of India, must be regarded as one of the most interesting chapters in the brief history of social forestry. With passions on both sides of the controversy still running high, one raises this topic at great risk to the good will of one's readers--almost regardless of what one has to say about it. Nevertheless, our purpose here is not to enter into the debate on one side or the other, nor even to recount the various arguments pro and con, but merely to identify the kinds of issues that have been debated in order to see what light they might shed on the socioeconomic attributes of trees and tree planting practices. 1

We must begin by acknowledging the fundamental paradox in which the controversy is rooted. On the one hand, the planting of eucalyptus appears to have been a dramatic success. Adoption rates have often been unprecedentedly high, targets for distribution of seedlings have been continually exceeded in many projects, and by widely used economic standards many eucalyptus plantations have shown very positive returns on investment (benefit/cost ratios > 5, internal rates of return > 50%). On the other hand, no tree has ever been so vilified and vigorously protested, even to the extent of being uprooted by the thousands in mass anti-eucalyptus demonstrations. What is going on here?

Unfortunately, the debate itself as carried in the public media of India has done little to resolve the paradox. For every argument there is an equal and opposite counter-argument. For every piece of evidence there is counter-evidence. After the heat and dust have settled, wherein lies the truth?

More than a question of species choice

On closer examination of the issues, it appears that while most of the debate has been couched in ecological terms, many of the underlying issues are social and economic in nature. Ostensibly the debate was about species choice but in fact much of it centered on eucalyptus as a symbol of popular disenchantment with many aspects of government development programmes. The part of the debate that is about species choice is complicated by the fact that such choices are always embedded in a complex of nterrelated decisions about other aspects of the tree growing practice. Thus, what was being debated in many cases was not the appropriateness of eucalyptus per se, but the whole technology and style of eucalyptus promotion.

The general conclusion that emerges from an analysis of the debate is that the socioeconomic impact of trees like the eucalyptus varies greatly from one situation to another and is characterized by a loose possibilism rather than a strict determinism. In other words, while the commonly used species of the genus do indeed have attributes that permit them to be used in ways that may limit their suitability for certain categories of users (i.e., "crop" ideotypes compatible with high-density, food- and labour-displacing monocultures), there is nothing inherent in the species that compels them to be always used in these ways. (The corollary to this is that simply changing the species won't necessarily solve the problems of an inappropriate tree growing practice.)

The analysis revealed that what most of the critics of eucalyptus in India really objected to was the promotion of:



planting by

landed farmers



high density,


low labour





private farmland


as a

cash crop for sale



urban industries


What most of the critics said the social forestry programme should have concentrated on instead was:

A variety of multipurpose trees


planted by

marginal farmers and landless labourers


integrated with other useful plants in multispecies woodlots



commons and wastelands



fodder. fuel, food. medicines and other ubsistence needs.



A variety of multipurpose trees


planted by

small and marginal farmers,


integrated with crops


in and around

homesteads and farmland



household cash and subsistence needs.


Disaggregating the issues in this way shows that the controversy was much more than a question of species choice. In fact, it was not just eucalyptus but the whole farm forestry approach that was being called into question, along with the economic development strategy in which woodlots on private farmland seemed to be the technology of choice. The crux of the controversy in India appears to have been the opportunity cost of social forestry programmes that were devoted, quite successfully, to helping the relatively better off segments of the population while failing to address the needs and opportunities of the poorest members of society--the primary intended beneficiaries of the social forestry programme, as originally conceived by government planners.

Numerous other issues sprang up around this central theme, as the momentum of the controversy increased and as the symbolism associated with eucalyptus grew and grew. It is instructive to attempt a more precise disaggregation and classification of the issues raised without taking sides and without recounting the actual arguments in detail. Table 5 presents a breakdown of the main issues identified in the literature review for this study, but even this extensive list cannot be regarded as a definitive catalogue of all the issues raised by the far-ranging eucalyptus debate.

The truth or falsity of any of the criticisms leveled against eucalyptus planting in India is not the question here. To qualify an issue as a legitimate concern, worthy of careful consideration by project planners seeking to anticipate and avoid potential problems, it is enough that the issue has been raised and debated.

What this list of socioeconomic issues surrounding the eucalyptus controversy makes clear is that the choice of an appropriate tree planting practice involves far more than just selecting trees with the right attributes. The attributes which determine the appropriateness of a particular tree are strongly conditioned by their interaction with a whole set of interrelated decisions about other aspects of the tree growing practice; namely, the management system under which the trees are grown (e.g. the pruning, lopping, coppicing, pollarding, thinning or harvesting regime), which is in turn determined by the spatial arrangement in which the trees are planted (i.e. the pattern and density of planting, either singly or in combination with other trees or crops), which is strongly influenced by the location within the landscape at which the trees are planted--all of which will depend upon the specific function the tree is intended to perform for a particular user within a particular socioeconomic context and an overall economic development strategy.

If we want to avoid this kind of controversy in the future it seems that we must tailor our tree planting programmes to meet the needs of all relevant user groups, base our planning on a careful assessment of the needs, constraints and tree planting opportunities of each group, and that we must make a deliberate and systematic effort to carry these findings forward as specifications for the design of appropriate tree planting interventions.

Table 5. A partial list of socioeconomic issues raised in the context of the eucalyptus debate in India.



Technical issues of socioeconomic import


Whether trees should be planted for cash income (pulp, poles from eucalyptus) vs. for subsistence uses (food, fodder, fuel, medicine, etc. from a variety of trees); single-purpose vs. multipurpose plantings.


Whether eucalyptus should be planted in cropland, thereby displacing food crops and employment opportunities for landless labourers while driving food prices up; whether

they should be planted in private cropland (i.e., the farm forestry approach where only landed farmers could benefit) vs. in the commons (where landless and marginal farmers

could benefit); whether the planting of eucalyptus woodlots on farmland was forcing adoption of eucalyptus as the only crop that could compete with adjacent woodlots;

whether eucalyptus woodlots had played a role in government alienation of village common lands; whether the planting of eucalyptus woodlots on the commons was displacing fodder and other multipurpose plantings; whether extensive eucalyptus plantings had enabled large landowners to meet minimal cultivation requirements and thereby avoid redistribution of land under new land reform legislation.


Whether trees should be planted in block plantations (fully occupying the land) or in

mixed species woodlots or agroforestry inter-cropping systems or along boundaries, etc.;

whether polycultures should be favoured over monocultures for ecological reasons;

whether high- density, short rotation plantings (as practiced by some commercial

eucalyptus farmers) are ecologically sustainable.


Whether the displacement of labour-intensive food crops by low-labour eucalyptus

woodlots was depriving landless labourers of traditional employment opportunities;

whether trenching was an effective and economically viable way of reducing competition

from eucalyptus roots.

Issues relating to the larger socioeconomic context of tree planting


Whether tree planting interventions should be geared to support an Development

industrial growth strategy (integration into the global economic Strategy system,

modernisation of agriculture and rural life, marginalization of farm labour and migration to

the cities as labour for large-scale, capital- intensive urban industries) or an

ecodevelooment strategy (local self- reliance in basic needs, preservation of peasant

culture and improvement of the indigenous agricultural base, absorption of population

increase within the rural areas, small-scale, labour-intensive rural industry); or whether, in

fact, a pluralistic strategy is needed to secure the benefits of economic development for all

members of society.

Who benefits from tree planting?

The issue of who benefits from a particular tree planting intervention is at the heart of the eucalyptus debate. One of the most important lessons we can learn from the controversy is that in assessing local tree growing needs and potentials great care needs to be exercised in the differentiation of client groups.

Much of the early debate centered on the charge that only large farmers were benefiting from eucalyptus farm forestry, but information on actual adoption patterns soon revealed that even relatively small farmers were adopting eucalyptus woodlots and doing quite well with them. What seems to have been given insufficient attention in the whole debate is that the cutoff point between adopters and non-adopters, between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, was not between the large and the small farmers, nor between the rich and the poor--but between the landed and the landless or near landless labourers, between the poor and the very poor. It is not surprising then that the parts of India in which eucalyptus planting was most fiercely protested (certain districts of Karnataka) are areas where the landless or near-landless constitute nearly half of the population!

The problem of the landless presents us with a paradox. Direct production to meet subsistence needs is a major economic strategy of small farm households in developing countries, and there are many agroforestry options to support this. But this is not a viable household strategy for the landless, who may have only a house site or less, nor for the large category of rural poor classified as marginal farmers (those whose landholdings are insufficient to meet subsistence needs). These households necessarily depend upon wage labour or other income-generating activities as their primary survival strategy.

There are an increasing number of technically and economically viable commercial tree growing innovations. No one could benefit more from these innovations than the rural poor and disadvantaged. Unfortunately, many tree planting projects have found that no one is less likely to benefit from such innovations than these people. Eucalyptus farm forestry is a prime example of a technology that has brought significant cash income to many of those who have been able to adopt it, including some marginal farmers who put their small plots under eucalyptus woodlots and went off to work in the city (Shepherd 1988). But what about the landless and marginal farmers who lack off farm employment opportunities? What about minority group land users who are "socially disadvantaged"?

It is a sad irony of development that, all too often in stratified societies, as soon as an innovation begins to generate a significant cash flow it attracts the attention of the local elite and is taken away from the poor. One strategy that has emerged to deal with such frustrations is to restrict the project's focus to subsistence-oriented interventions in order to avoid attracting unfavourable attention from local elites. This is what many of the critics of eucalyptus farm forestry said should have been the strategy of the community forestry programmes that focused on common property management (CPM). That is one solution. Are there no others? It would be a pity to abandon the idea of commercial tree planting for the poorest of the poor and simply accept that those who could benefit most from such income-generating activities are irrevocably blocked from doing so.

Ways to bring the benefits of tree growing to the landless

Fortunately, there are exceptions to this discouraging pattern. Cases have been reported in which the poor and disadvantaged have managed to obtain significant benefits from participation in income-generating activities. Even a limited search of the literature turned up four cases of demonstrably successful, or at least promising, approaches. No doubt there are more. Comparing these four cases to the controversial eucalyptus farm forestry approach reveals some of the differences that can make a difference in bringing the benefits of tree planting to the landless and near landless (Table 6).

Table 6. Differences in the technology and social organization of tree growing that make it possible for the landless and near landless to benefit from tree-based production systems.

(Eucs = eucalyptus, MPTS = multipurpose trees and shrubs)








Monocultural woodlots on private farms


  • MPTS on commons (the traditional alternative)



Function, location & species

  • Commercial development of MPTS in common property forests and small farm woodlots in Maharashstra (Shah and Weir 1987)

Cash + Subsistence


Function, location, management species, social infrastructure (CPM) and post-harvest handling (local value-added processing and marketing to urban consumers)

  • Agroforestry (various forms) on farms and public spaces in Bijapur (Hoekstra et al 1985)


+ Cash


Function, location, management, and species

  • Group farm forestry on redistributed "patta" land in West Bengal (Shah 1987)



Social infrastructure (tenure) (no technology change necessary)

The results are interesting. In three of the four cases a change of tree growing technology was involved (i.e. a change in one or more of the following: species, function, location, arrangement or management). One of these cases represents the traditional alternative to eucalyptus woodlots on the commons, i.e. a multipurpose mixture of trees for a variety of subsistence uses. The example from Maharashstra entailed the commercial development of such trees and other indigenous plants of the hilly commons for traditional medicines and fruits through a processing and marketing cooperative run by the local tribal people with assistance from an NGO (Shah and Weir 1987). This success story involved not only a different technology but also some important social infrastructural innovations.

The third case involving a different technology has not yet been validated by local experience but is part of an agroforestry research proposal resulting from a diagnostic and design study that was carried out in the Bijapur area of Karnataka (Hoekstra fLa1. 1985). Because the inhabitants of the watershed study area were, as a matter of standard methodological practice, differentiated into the diagnostically different categories--in this case the "resource rich" and "resource poor" land users--the overall design for agroforestry interventions was able to incorporate elements that specifically addressed the needs and opportunities of the marginal farmers and landless labourers within the watershed. Had such a procedure been followed from the start in designing the controversial social forestry programme, the controversy in Karnataka might have been avoided altogether.

In one very successful case (West Bengal) no change of technology was necessary. A social infrastructural innovation, the allocation of long-term tenure rights in marginal land to landless families, was all that was required to secure for them the benefits of conventional eucalyptus farm forestry.

These examples demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that, far from being merely a question of species choice, the right combination of changes in other technical or socioeconomic design variables may be all that is needed to bring about a favourable rearrangement of production factors so that even the poorest of the poor can participate in the benefits of tree growing. What these examples show is that we are far from exhausting the potential for creative solutions to the kind of issue that has deadlocked the eucalyptus debate. We still have a lot of underutilized technological and socioeconomic options in our bag of tricks.

In the long run, however, as the example of the processing cooperative in Maharashtra reminds us, it is unlikely that concentration on primary production systems alone will be able to solve the problems of steadily increasing rates of landlessness in many rural areas of the world in the twenty-first century. The historical record in areas of high rural population density in developing countries is clear on this point: when rural populations begin to exceed the labour-absorbing capacity of primary production systems, and when out-migration ceases to provide a sufficient outlet for "excess" population, the focus of employment generation in the rural areas shifts from the primary to the secondary production sector and we witness the development and proliferation of labour-absorbing small-scale rural industries.


In summary then, the most important lessons we can draw from the eucalyptus controversy for a constructive change in the way we design tree growing interventions would appear to be:

1) There is need for greater openness and imagination in the use of a systematic, client-oriented approach to the design of tree planting interventions based on a much expanded repertoire of tree growing practices and the recognition that what we are dealing with are always the attributes of a particular species in the context of a particular technology intended for a particular user within a particular socioeconomic setting in support of a particular development strategy. There is no use in blaming a tree for human errors at other levels of the decision making process.

2) In order to secure the benefits of tree growing to all potential beneficiaries it is crucial to transcend the narrow focus on primary production systems to discover and develop the full range of secondary processing, marketing, extension support and other infrastructural arrangements which collectively constitute the necessary and sufficient preconditions of rural development, particularly where landlessness is prevalent and population threatens to exceed the human carrying capacity of primary production systems.

1 A much longer earlier draft of this chapter did attempt to give a more detailed account of the arguments raised for and against eucalyptus planting in the media in India. However, passions still run so high in the eucalyptus debate that in spite of the intention of providing an objective, even-handed treatment of both sides of the issue, the mere recounting of the arguments provoked such a partisan response to the earlier draft that it threatened to undermine the main purpose of this study, i.e., to suggest a way of avoiding such controversies in future. Hence, in this final version detailed arguments and all references to controversial sources are omitted from the text, although the sources are acknowledged in the list of references consulted. Only the conclusions of the analysis are presented here, as required to bring out the main implications for the present study.

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