Poisoning the earth

11 Feb 2018


Shabbir Ahmad Rana, the Central Zone chief conservator of forests, has got his facts all wrong. This is evident from a letter of October 2017 duly signed by him and sent to the Gymkhana Golf Club management committee in response to a letter written by the committee seeking his ‘expert’ advice on their proposed elimination of eucalyptus trees blighting the green.

Paragraph 2 of the letter reads: “I would also like to clarify that large sized trees do not eat up all water given to grassy lawns but they use only that which leaches down to the deep soil. Therefore, the hoax created by vested interests mafia or those with no scientific knowledge is baseless and highly detrimental to the environment. The reason for water level going down is not the trees but it is due to the shrinkage of water catchment areas in the uphills and foothills and resultantly depth of turbines in plans (sic) has to be increased throughout the province and removal of even all the trees from the province will not subside this problem. The recommendations of the Agriculture University are not, therefore, scientifically based.”

In the following paragraph Rana admits to being the author of the gross criminal error of preventing National Highways Authority from eliminating the thousands of eucalyptus planted alongside the highroad.

The gentleman is unaware of the seminal work done by Dr Khalid Mehmood and Dr Ashraf Bodla then of the Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad.

Executed in the mid-1990s, this research details the hydrological properties of the eucalyptus. It shows that a three to four-year-old eucalyptus deprives the water table to the tune of 100 litres in 24 hours. That is, every standing eucalyptus is a veritable tubewell sucking the aquifer dry.

Rana refers to this research as “hoax created by vested interests mafia” and dismisses it as not being “scientifically based”. In sad reality, the same allegations can be levelled against Rana himself.

This calls for a revisit of the history of Pakistani infatuation with eucalyptus. It began when the forest department was pressurised by dictator Ayub Khan to increase forest cover. Now, indigenous trees have a survival rate of just 15 per cent because of grazers. Consequently, on the advice of a eucalyptologist, Dr Prior from Australia, foresters began to plant this Australian tree wholesale. Within a year it was seen that immune from grazing, its survival rate was 100pc.

Another factor that went in favour of this tree imported from Australia was that local trees had to be protected from grazers by steel net that in the early 1960s cost Rs6. This amount was part of the forestation budget. But immunity of the eucalyptus made the net redundant. In 1987, a very senior retired forest officer confided that corrupt forest officials continued to receive and pocket the budget allocated for the net since the eucalyptus grew even without it.

So, the alien tree became the darling of foresters across the country. It meant a few extra rupees and easier work: stick a sapling in the ground and it will grow. From the arid wastes of Makran to the high country of Sost on the Karakoram Highway, everyone, especially officialdom, planted eucalyptus.

So rampant was this invasion that by the 1990s common folks did not see this tree as alien: it was taken as an indigenous species. During the opening of M-2 in late 1997, biologist Richard Garstang, then working with WWF-Pakistan, suggested to a minister attending the function that only indigenous trees be planted along the new highway. The minister responded, as reported to this scribe by Garstang, “only indigenous; only eucalyptus.”

To begin with, ignorant politicians had pressurised unscrupulous forest officers to favour this imported variety back in the ‘60s. Now the successors of those early foresters were ‘educating’ the ignorant progeny of early politicians that monoculture of an alien species was good enough. This was as criminal an act as could be especially when the NIAB research should have been fresh in the mind of any dedicated forester.

Even before the NIAB research revealed the relationship between eucalyptus and the aquifer, observation by common people showed that swamps would run dry if surrounded by a plantation of this tree. In the late 1990s, I knew of wells and springs drying up in Swat and Buner where they were shaded by eucalyptus. Only then did people begin to realise that the tree is very thirsty.

However, the eucalyptus was favoured because it required next to no work. And it showed results in the shape of greenery. Even as senior forest officials wallow in denial and mendacity or plain ignorance, the eucalyptus is famous for being a thirsty tree. Vast plantations of this species were eradicated from California over two decades ago. Today, several Indian states are removing the tree to protect their water table.

It is only in Pakistan that officials of the forest department continue to deny what is commonly known. In a country projected to face acute water scarcity by 2023, this is criminal. There are officials whose vested interest is biomass (number of trees) and they could not be bothered how their preferred biomass affects the overall ecology.

Repeated attempts to reach out to Shabbir Rana for his views remained futile.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2018