Eucalyptus replantation: Lack of Plan B for survival of labourers a vexed issue for KFDC

The labourers are Sri Lankan expatriates who came to Kerala in large numbers based on a pact signed in June 1974.
Eucalyptus Photo | Express

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The controversial move by the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC) to replant eucalyptus, though withdrawn under pressure, has shed light on another less-discussed aspect.

The KFDC had approached the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seeking approval to replant eucalyptus for one year at its plantations bypassing the forest department.

The KFDC’s move triggered speculations as the state government had taken a decision to phase out cultivation of eucalyptus, acacia, mangium and wattle on the basis of its eco restoration policy.

As per the 2021 policy, the cultivation of these trees is not suitable for the environment. Exotic monoculture plantations of eucalyptus, acacia and wattle, which are not suitable to the environment and habitats and have become irrelevant will be eradicated in a phased manner to facilitate restoration of these areas as natural forests. This mammoth programme, to be implemented in an area of about 27,000 hectares, will be completed over two decades, the policy said.

However, this raises an all-important question. When the state government decided to phase out exotic and invasive species, was there any Plan B for the KFDC for the survival of hundreds of labourers, many of who are descendants of Sri Lankan migrants? The answer is no.

Established in 1975, the KFDC’s main task was to supply raw materials to wood-based industries, particularly pulp and paper industries. KFDC supplied pulpwood in large quantities to industries like Western India Plywood Ltd, Punalur Paper Mills, Hindustan Newsprint Ltd and Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Ltd. Acacia and eucalyptus are the two pulpwood species cultivated and sold as pulpwood by KFDC. And there are cash crops like coffee and cardamom cultivated in its plantations in Munnar, Thrissur and Gavi. KFDC also runs eco-tourism packages in Gavi, Munnar, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur.

The labourers in cash crop plantations are Sri Lankan expatriates who came to Kerala in large numbers based on a pact signed in June 1974. The pact granted citizenship to around 3 lakh of Indian population in Sri Lanka while around 5.25 lakh returned to India. In 1975, there were thousands of people of Sri Lankan origin working in plantations on permanent and temporary basis. Now, there are over 400 permanent and temporary labourers working in cash crop plantations.

According to the KFDC, the cash crop plantations are now running in loss. “Only coffee plantations (606.167 hectares) are running without loss. Tea, cardamom, pepper, and cashew plantations are incurring loss. In the tea plantation at Meera Forest Estate, the KFDC has not taken up any cultivation. The plantation was handed over to KFDC to maintain it as it is. We use revenue from timber plantations to disburse salaries and allowances to labourers and employees,” a senior KFDC official told TNIE. KFDC owns 1,00,053.834 hectares of which approximately 7,000 hectares is timber plantations.

According to the data with the KFDC, eucalyptus grandis is still cultivated in its plantations and the corporation is waiting to reach rotation period of trees planted in Thiruvananthapuram (920.807 hectares), Punalur (451.3 hectares), Thrissur (76.812 hectares), Munnar (525.44 hectares) and Gavi (50.5 hectares). Acacia auriculiformis is cultivated in plantations in Thiruvananthapuram (866.129 hectares), Punalur (468.9 hectares), and Thrissur (339.125 hectares) while acacia mangium is cultivated in plantations of Thiruvananthapuram (43.96 hectares), Punalur (14.08 hectares), Thrissur (46.43 hectares) and acacia crassicarpa is cultivated in plantations in Thiruvananthapuram (28.903 hectares) and Punalur (11.48 hectares). After the eco restoration policy was introduced, it was decided these trees will be felled when they reach rotation period and native species planted. However, KFDC officials told TNIE that after 2014-15, the corporation stopped cultivating mangium. After 2017, it stopped cultivating acacia and after 2019, it stopped cultivating eucalyptus.

After 2019, the KFDC planted native species in about 250 hectares in various plantations. “We have planted melia dubia extensively in our plantations as part of promoting native species,” KFDC MD Georgi P Mathachan said. “We also planted teak. However, about 50% of melia dubia was eaten up by deer and several others were affected by pests,” he said. According to KFDC officials, there are limitations in promoting eco-tourism inside reserve forests and the revenue from these initiatives will not be helpful to sustain the corporation. “What we need is a transitional period. The government has decided not to cultivate invasive and exotic species in KFDC’s plantations. However, to shif to indigenous species, we should know which ones are suitable for which forest area. It will take time to identify the right species. Now, the labourers are anxiously asking us about their future as there is no alternative,” another official said.

KFDC officials, while admitting that acacia is most harmful to biodiversity, also point out that in the absence of an alternative, during the time of transition, the less-harmful eucalyptus should be replanted for another year, which might help sustain the corporation.

“Unlike acacia, eucalyptus does not spread through seeds and rhizomes. Many harmful characteristics that we attribute to eucalyptus are related to dry areas. One issue is that it extracts more groundwater. However, in Kerala we now have rain almost throughout the year and eucalyptus has a root depth of only 1.5-2m. Another issue is that its leaves suppress undergrowth and development of soil. However, it is an issue related to dry areas where rain is scarce. In Kerala, as we have abundant rainfall the leaves will leach rainwater. So, it’s less harmful. Unless the labourers are provided with other income-generating jobs, adequate time should be given to the KFDC to find alternatives,” a senior official of the corporation said.

Questions unanswered

On May 7, K R Jyothilal, additional chief secretary (forest), issued an order to replant eucalyptus for one more year. “It is conspicuous how the order was issued at a time when the government has already taken a stance against replanting of eucalyptus. In that order, there was mention of three letters written by the KFDC MD. And there was also another reference to a meeting held on September 19, 2023. This indicates a top government functionary might have attended the meeting and issued nod for replanting of eucalyptus,” said a top official at the government secretariat. After the order triggered a controversy, it was modified.

Meanwhile, KFDC chairperson Lathika Subash told TNIE that a board meeting will be held on May 29 to discuss the future course of action. “When KFDC was formed, its main source of income was timber. As per my estimate, there are roughly 600 labourers. We are of the view that every decision must be in accordance with the forest laws and government policies. The issue now plaguing the corporation is the scarcity of income. We will formulate steps to resolve the issue at the board meeting,” she said.

Environmental activists oppose move

Environmental activists oppose the claims of KFDC officials. “The forest department should cultivate indigenous species rather than exotic species. There is no logic in the claim that KFDC will be able to sustain through eucalyptus cultivation. Many newsprint industries which had once bought raw materials from the corporation are now on the verge of layoff. And, now newsprint is being imported at a cheaper rate. So, the corporation must take up actions which would enhance biodiversity”, T V Sajeevan, chief scientist, Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), told TNIE.

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