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INVASION OF THE ALIENS

Updated May 13, 2017

Pakistanis have the greatest knack for making the worst possible choices insofar as the natural environment is concerned. In 2016, motoring north on M-2, I was very pleased to see large scale destruction of the non-native, water-guzzling eucalyptus underway. On another trip shortly afterwards I was aghast to notice that the stumps, about a metre in height, were left standing. Today, one year on, every cut eucalyptus has transmogrified into 10 that stand about four metres tall and they are still growing. If the earlier trees were each consuming massive amounts of water per day, these new hydra growths are several times thirstier.

The eucalyptus is not invasive and it does not cause allergic reactions among humans. However, in the early 1990s, research by Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad, showed that a three-year-old eucalyptus can process upwards of 100 litres of ground water in a 24-hour cycle. In a water-scarce country such as Pakistan, threatened with a dreadful water shortage within the next half decade, eucalyptus should not be seen. Yet the provincial forest departments continue to encourage its plantation.

And this is just one case of officials being unable to see the forest for the trees. In fact, the rot is rooted in history.


Alien species of flora which suck up our water and pollute our air are gradually taking over the country, thanks to shortsighted and corrupt officials. A dedicated environmentalist tells the story of how foreign flora was brought to these shores and popularised in citizens’ imagination


In the early 1960s, a military dictator concerned about the low percentage of the country’s forest cover ordered the land to be greened. Our foresters went into high gear and misguided by one ‘expert’, Dr Prior from Australia, let this land be invaded by eucalyptus.

Meanwhile, the military dictator was building the new capital of Pakistan right next to his village and the blighted vision of our foresters once again came into play. This time the non-native paper mulberry was imported from China. The justification for choice of both this and eucalyptus was their rapid speed of growth.

Now every spring, hundreds of Islamabad residents nearly die of allergic rhinitis (hay fever). This is caused by the high level of allergens released by the paper mulberry. We now also know that rhinitis leads to asthma. The half-hearted attempts to eradicate the tree have failed because it is an invasive species.

EXPLAINING THE EUCALYPTUS’ POPULARITY

Behind the popularisation of eucalyptus there lurks a sordid tale of departmental corruption. Local species of flora needed to be protected from grazers and the forest department (in the days of One Unit there was a single entity) provided for a steel mesh fixture for the protection of saplings. According to an old forester who retired as chief conservator, each steel fixture cost six rupees in the early 1960s.

But when a eucalyptus was planted instead of, say, a pipal, mulberry, acacia or neem, the fixture was not required because no animal ever touches a eucalyptus. Forest officers continued to draw the sum for the steel mesh but no longer needed to put it in place. Consequently, for a few ill-earned rupees, unscrupulous foresters compromised the ecology of this sorry land.

If foresters grew fat on six rupees, crooks in irrigation departments did somewhat better. They sold old acacia and shisham trees planted on canal lands. To cover up their theft, these blackguards planted eucalyptus instead. It grew fast, especially along the canals where subsoil water was plentiful. Little did corrupt canal officers know that each eucalyptus was soaking up millions of litres of precious water every year.

Over the next two decades eucalyptus proliferated. Across the country, this alien species was planted until people began to believe that it was not an imported tree but a native to this land. I was told as much by a politician in 1996.

The tragedy is that even after NIAB research on eucalyptus hydrology became well known and the tree was banned in Punjab — not once but thrice — corrupt forest officers continued to plant it wholesale and foisted it upon ignorant people. Indeed, in 2004, after eucalyptus was banned for the third time, the Punjab Forest Department was still encouraging its plantations with huge nurseries across the province and a single colour brochure extolling the eucalyptus was freely handed out to anyone seeking advice on trees.

Over the past four decades and even today I see every new canal and irrigation channel lined by the ever-thirsty eucalyptus. The foolishness of this error is lost on all its perpetrators: a waterway is built to irrigate agriculture in this water-scarce land and with the eucalyptus planted along it, so that a large percentage of precious water is needlessly guzzled up by it.

Eucalyptus was one thing. In the early years of the past decade, one foolish Karachi politician, having seen it in Dubai, brought the blight of conocarpus to our unfortunate shores. In the past decade and a half, this tree has become the new darling for all. For city planners to foresters to defence housing officials, the tree to plant is conocarpus, a tree that is actually native to Central South America and Oceania.

This tree too grows swiftly. In fact, its growth is phenomenal: an 18-month-old conocarpus towers 10 metres tall, has a beautifully gnarled trunk and a luxurious canopy. Consequently, wherever city planners destroyed centuries-old native trees, they planted conocarpus. And because this blight tolerates all sorts of soil and water conditions, I have seen plantations — besides the rest of the country — in Rann of Kutch, Makran and the Thar Desert.

Unlike the eucalyptus which is not invasive, conocarpus with its wind-borne pollination is as invasive as the paper mulberry of Islamabad. The way we have been planting it, in another decade or so, there will be billions of these trees from Sost on the border with China to Jivani on the Balochistan seaboard.

But very much like the eucalyptus, conocarpus too is a water-guzzler. Its roots seek water and are known to burst through water and sewerage pipes. Indeed, Dubai, from where our ignorant politician got this tree, having learned this lesson soon enough, has already exterminated its vast plantations of conocarpus.

And so conocarpus in tandem with eucalyptus is drying up our aquifers. Soon there will be little for us to drink, wash and irrigate our fields with. As for the last, the way we are converting all our agricultural land into Bahria and Defence societies, there will anyway be little agriculture left in Pakistan. In all this there is one redeeming feature: sufferers of rhinitis will be happy they are dying better from asthma than a slow death from hunger, thirst and body odour!

THE (BABUS’) ARGUMENT AGAINST GOING NATIVE

Made over the past six decades, these wrong choices are the work of general duty bureaucrats ignorant of reality. In response to a letter I wrote recently on this subject to the Federal Secretary Climate Change (a friend of 34 years), I received a classic and lengthy masterpiece of bureaucratic obfuscation. Along with it came a link (that does not open) to some website explaining what the ministry cannot and will not do. The bottom line was: the Ministry of Climate Change and its Grade 21 secretary will not do anything other than push a few papers this way and that. And the slower they go the better.


Over the past four decades and even today I see every new canal and irrigation channel lined by the ever-thirsty eucalyptus. The foolishness of this error is lost on all its perpetrators: a waterway is built to irrigate agriculture in this water-scarce land and eucalyptus is planted along it so that a large percentage of precious water is needlessly guzzled up by it.


Since the secretary admitted he was unable to do anything, he made the absurd suggestion that I write to federal and all provincial forest and various other departments to educate them on the perils of official foolishness! One wonders how delusional he has become to believe that where he with his high grade job is incapable, lesser minions will scuttle to do the bidding of a common citizen.

About the time of this exchange, I also spoke to the recently appointed Advisor to Prime Minister on Climate Change (again a friend). To this man also I stressed the need to exterminate alien species and to return to native flora. My special emphasis was on the eradication of conocarpus. This man, who began as a forester before taking the exam to be a DMG (now PAS) officer, should have known better. But he responded in like manner. He said he would not advise against conocarpus because “it grows so fast.”

These bureaucrats typify the breed we know from the farcical ‘Yes, Minister’ television series. They are there for the fat salary and perks. They will never be proactive for fear of angering the semi-educated political master. Nor will they tell the ignorant master anything that might rock the boat — not even when it is right and of critical import. If the politician wishes this country to be turned into the Arabian desert with only palm trees, these file-pushers will only encourage palm trees. If the master wishes to see it green, the babus will give him conocarpus.

These men are unmindful of the fact that climate change can be arrested by sequestering carbon that we are pumping into the atmosphere by our use of fossil fuels. They are ignorant of the fact that trees with large biomass such as our indigenous pipal, banyan or the towering arjun capture far greater quantum of carbon than the puny palm trees or dwarf ornamental flora so favoured these days. These people are ignorant too of the fact that among all trees the magical pipal emits oxygen even during hours of darkness. If there was any sense anywhere, this country would be flooded with pipal trees in our national endeavour to arrest climate change.

Then again, Pakistan is a hot and arid country. We need shade here. Yet those in control are destroying all large shade trees most of which end up being burnt to release carbon into the atmosphere which, in turn, augments the greenhouse effect. Foolishly they replace large trees with tiny ornamental bushes and shade-less palm trees that sequester minimal carbon and give no shade. Little does it matter to our (mis)managers that this folly will only increase the ambient temperature of the land. And then we are surprised over April temperatures even in Punjab having risen to the mid-40s of the Celsius scale.

Top: Each eucalyptus trunk left in the ground next to the M-2 is sprouting with over a dozen new trees; right: the conocarpus in full bloom in Karachi | Photos by the writer and Tahir Jamal/White Star
Top: Each eucalyptus trunk left in the ground next to the M-2 is sprouting with over a dozen new trees; right: the conocarpus in full bloom in Karachi | Photos by the writer and Tahir Jamal/White Star

FOOL ME TWICE?

When it was completed in 1997, Motorway M-2 was lined by hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees. At that time the recent research by NIAB concerning the harmful hydrology of the eucalyptus should have been fresh in the mind of any dedicated forester or arboriculturist. It should have been known that eucalyptus was unsuitable for a country like Pakistan heading for water scarcity.

Sadly, that was not the only thing that foresters did not know or care about. What they also did not know was that eucalyptus is the hydra of the plant kingdom: a bole left in the ground sprouts up to 10 new trunks. In order to destroy a eucalyptus one has to take out the root or cut it repeatedly as soon as a single new leaf appears on a standing trunk.


With the cutting of eucalyptus, one would have prayed for native flora to be planted. Instead, the only tree that has come up is conocarpus. We now have virtually millions of conocarpus trees already several metres tall and giving a deceptively green aspect to the motorway. Conocarpus exudes a large quantum of pollen and its pollination is wind-borne. To make matters worse, it remains in flower the year round.


Ignorance and stupidity are one thing. We are masters at compounding stupidity. With the cutting of eucalyptus, one would have prayed for native flora to be planted. Instead, the only tree that has come up is conocarpus. We now have virtually millions of conocarpus trees already several metres tall and giving a deceptively green aspect to the motorway.

From past experience I know no one will own up to this folly. If I approach the National Highway Authority, they will point the finger at some other department. And so it will go on until I give up in exasperation. And I have given up since the NHA chairman (sadly, again a friend) never responded to a letter I wrote to him several weeks ago.

Conocarpus exudes a large quantum of pollen and its pollination is wind-borne. To make matters worse, it remains in flower the year round. Consequently, unlike paper mulberry that in spring makes rhinitis and asthma-suffering Islamabad residents wish there were dead, the entire conocarpus-rich country will yearn for early death all year round.

But there will be no reprieve for the tree is invasive and can only be destroyed by a very dedicated effort. Given our work ethic and utter lack of commitment, however, I can say that over the next decades we will only see conocarpus completely replace our indigenous flora.

How blissful the last croaking gasp of breath for us asthma-stricken Pakistanis will then be.

The writer is fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He tweets @odysseulahori

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017