Eucalyptus – Additional note
During the past year there has been a barrage of propaganda in the Tamil and English press; piling up more hatred and misinformation about our old growth plantations of Eucalyptus and Wattle in particular.
It began in May 2013 with
“Invasive Tree Gets the Axe” The Hindu
then “Tackling the Demon Eucalyptus, at last” The Deccan Herald, April 9, 2014
“Bisons die of Malnutrition as Weeds Destroy Kodaikanal” Times of India, Dec 28, 2013
and statements like
“Foreign weeds like Wattle are blamed for choking the growth of grasslands on the hills” Times of India, Dec 28, 2013.
Firstly there is nothing inherently invasive about any species. Invasiveness has to have a context. Here it is just a term of abuse. These trees did not come as invaders, they were planted. They do not know they are “aliens”, nor do the natives that live quite happily alongside them. The grasslands are mostly gone, they will never come back. They were deliberately extirpated by human agency. The same agencies now blame the plants they used for their own actions. So what and where are they invading and how will logging help?
The Cult of Nativeness
Where did this cult of nativeness come from and the exaggerated fear of the “alien”? Unfortunately in recent decades it is a product of an environmentalism that has bent the stick far too far in its defense of a largely imaginary unaltered pristine nature, or wilderness, an idea of a fixed nature with everything in its right place. Our lives are too short to appreciate how rapidly eco-systems come and go and how they are constantly changing, becoming; for instance from one glacial period to another. “All eco-systems are novel” writes Ken Thompson in “Where do Camels Belong – the story and science of invasive species” (2014).
Most of the landscape in Europe has been massively altered by human agency over thousands of years along with widespread introduction of alien species. This does nothing to temper the current alien scare in the U.K. for example. Some of the “wildest” most treasured landscapes there, the highland moors, were created by deforestation. Other landscapes are dominated by agriculture and planted woods and hedgerows. These are landscapes in which much of the U.K. bio-diversity is embedded and are rightly cherished. Nevertheless the English countryside in particular has suffered in recent years from intensified agricultural practices that have benefited unpopular “weeds” of cultivation both native and non-native.
However in the context of Kodaikanal the emphasis put on native trees during the last 30 years has been warranted and understandable. Before nobody had bothered to cultivate the native trees and all the Sholas in the vicinity of the town were being exploited to the point of destruction. Since then thousands of native trees have been successfully planted and the Sholas are protected. It is time now to relax and enjoy our “heritage trees”irrespective of their place of origin.
Timescale seems to be important to how an alien species is regarded. Attractive non-offending plants become “native” in popular consciousness. People do not know of their foreignness or would rather forget. Recently environmental activists moved to save a 400 year old plantation of Sweet Chestnut in England which was originally introduced by the Romans. Unfortunately for the Eucalyptus they have only been around in the hills of South India for a few decades and were planted aggressively right up to 1993 on every last scrap of accessible grassland. Our defense of Eucalyptus now is no different to those who defend the Chestnuts.
Eucalyptus saligna Sm. To brand this magnificent plant a “weed” is the height of aesthetic and ecological ignorance. Kodaikanals trees are a highlight of her beauty – not least the “aliens” introduced in the 19th Century.
Ken Thompson relates an interesting tale of the alien Eucalyptus in California*. Here on Angel Island the park authorities ordered their eradication, but the loggers were held at bay as it came to light that:
Other less desirable “weeds’ would take their place like Broom.
Native birds enjoyed the presence of Eucalyptus, sometimes even more than the native Oak.
The Salamander population was three times higher in the Eucalyptus.
Three quarters of all Monarch butterflies roosts in California (including Angel Island) were in Eucalyptus.
A survey of visitors found 98% against the eradication because they “liked” the trees.
The last point demonstrates again that it is those who are most aware of things ecological and the agencies trusted with care of these ecologies who are the most vulnerable to falling into the trap of over dichotomizing nature into the alien and native.
Another point to be taken from California is there they bothered to look at what was really going on inside the Eucalyptus groves. Here in Tamil Nadu the promoters of impossible eradication have not shown any interest in taking a look, and have studiously ignored and repressed the findings of those few who have.
As for Bison dying of starvation, this is the most unpardonable of their black propaganda. During the 1960’s the Indian Bison population was decimated by Rinderpest. They more or less vanished from the 400 sq km of the Palni plateau. There followed the eradication of Rinderpest and by 1994 the Bison reappeared. Since then their population has exploded all over the plateau and famously within Kodaikanal itself. This explosion in numbers occurred after the destruction of the grasslands. Claims of starvation are even more incredulous as the bio-mass of available forage in the naturalized plantations is clearly increasing year on year in the form of native Shola tree regeneration and forest grasses. It is easy to ascertain their numbers are still growing and they are thriving on and within the “weeds” referred to.
Another accusation thrown at Eucalyptus and Wattle recently is that they are responsible for two consecutive failures of the NE monsoon in Kodaikanal. First of all this failure has hit all of Tamil Nadu irrespective of tree species present. Secondly why did having “the wrong kind of tree” have no effect on the perfectly normal rainfall of the previous 25 years?
There is something unnervingly chauvinistic in the language used by the exponents of “annihilation”. We have seen in 1930’s Europe how demonisation of the “other” led to unimaginable tragedy. We should not allow a similar process lead to a second ecological catastrophe in our hills.
This irrational hatred of the fact of the alien presence is saddening. It shuts out the possibility of loving the intrinsic beauty of a living entity or being or indeed the incredible vibrancy of this rapidly evolving novel of novel eco-system; it becomes a form of self harm.
The distress or even grief felt by people who knew the vast Palni grasslands is understandable but it is not acceptable for this distress to become a permanent feature of our collective psyche. It is as if the death of a first born must take a priority in a parents consciousness even after the birth of their second child. This analogy takes on an even darker tone when a chorus of voices claim killing the second born will bring back to life the first.
A note in defense of Kodai’s weeds
“Real weed” plants generally considered undesirable, emerging as thick carpets or thickets when for example cultivators turn their land or foresters log their planted forests, serve the ecological function of quickly stabilizing soils. That is they prevent soil erosion. In Kodaikanal “weeds” like Lantana, American Pokeweed, wild Raspberry (native) and Eupatorium perform another valuable function of covering up thousands of tons of rubble and garbage that are dumped along Kodai’s byways.
Upper Shola Road: Popular dumping ground extending into Bombay Shola
*W.E. Westman (1990) “Park management of exotic plant species; problems and issues”, Conservation Biology,4, 251-260.