Issue of October, 20, 2002
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Report
Eucalyptus Come What May
By Mario Osava

Despite criticisms from environmentalists, this exotic tree species in full expansion in Brazil, the pioneer in the region for genome research of the plant.

RIO DE JANEIRO, (Tierramérica).- Introduced in Brazil a century ago, the presence of the eucalyptus tree is expanding -- despite environmentalists' protests -- hand-in-hand with the most advanced genome studies in Latin America.

The number of plantations of this exotic species, native to Australia, has grown rapidly over the last three decades, and now these trees cover more than three million hectares.

Brazil has gone from being an importer to an exporter of cellulose, and is now the world's leading producer of eucalyptus-based fiber. Of the 6.3 million tons of cellulose produced here annually, the majority is extracted from this species.

Environmental groups have been insisting since the 1970s that the monoculture of eucalyptus is causing grave harm to Brazilian ecosystems, but the tree companies and scientists point to the species' high productivity, and even say it has environmental benefits.

To achieve a competitive edge on global cellulose markets, research has been of key importance, as has the abundance of land, water and cheap labor in this giant South American nation.

The eucalyptus genre, of the family of myrtaceae, has more than 600 species. Over recent decades, Brazil has accumulated a great deal of genetic material of the species with greatest potential, with sights on taking maximum economic advantage of the plantations and to adapt the species to this giant country's diverse regions.

Brazil is the most advanced of Latin American countries in genome research of the eucalyptus, on par with Australia and New Zealand, where the tree is native.

The Forests project, which wrapped up its first phase earlier this year, was able to produce a map of the 123,000 gene sequences of the eucalyptus. It is a relatively limited number, but marks the search for the genes most important for improving production.

An association of four companies, universities and the Sao Paulo state research foundation is the force behind the Forests initiative.

"Now we are traversing the second phase, which is the functional genome, that is, the study of how the genes operate and their codes. This will generate useful information for the eucalyptus growing industry," Carlos Alberto Labate, researcher at the Sao Paulo University's Agronomy School, told Tierramérica.

The study's conclusion could lead to trees that are more resistance to drought, freezing and disease, and that produce more cellulose or have improved wood quality.

Practical results from this sort of project generally require five to 10 years of work and research.

A more far-reaching project, Genolyptus, involves a national network of seven universities, 12 companies and the state-run Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA).

Beginning this year and lasting five more, Genolyptus is attempting to decipher the eucalyptus gene code and to compare the traits of various species, also using traditional techniques for genetic improvement, such as varietal crossbreeding.

Its objective is to identify areas of the genome related most closely with wood quality and pest resistance.

One aim, for example, is to prevent splits or clefts in the wood destined for lumber, as the demand for eucalyptus in the local furniture industry is on the rise. The supply of good eucalyptus wood helps to reduce pressure to cut down native forests, say company executives in defense of their tree plantations.

However, the enthusiasm surrounding the scientific advances involving the eucalyptus does not convince Brazilian environmentalists.

"Monoculture of extensive areas impoverishes the country's biodiversity, reduces the availability of surface water and causes social imbalances, the latter because it forces peasant farmers off the land," according to José Augusto Tosato, an agronomist with the Development Research Center of southern Bahía state, in northern Brazil.

This non-governmental organization has gathered numerous testimonies from farmers in Bahía about "the reduction of the water table" in areas surrounding the big plantations of the eucalyptus companies (Aracruz Celulosa and Bahía Sul) operating in the region, Tosato told Tierramérica.

In his opinion, plantations as large as 200,000 hectares should be banned and ecological zoning should be implemented to reduce the density and extension of these monoculture plantations. Tosato also endorses creating "biodiversity corridors", to ensure the interconnection of natural ecosystems, as well as projects to rejuvenate native forests.

Since the mid-1970s, the southern part of Bahía state and the northern region of the neighboring state of Espíritu Santo have become home to major paper and cellulose production projects based on the eucalyptus -- and triggering a reaction from environmentalists.

The region forms part of a long coastal strip along the Atlantic, ranging from the Brazilian northeast to the south, whose forests are known as the Mata Atlántica, and today have been reduced to just seven percent of their original coverage.

But in defense of the eucalyptus, Rubens Garlipp, head of the Brazilian Silviculture Association (encompassing 23 forestry companies), asserts that the species has been farmed in areas that were already degraded by over-logging of the forests, farming and ranching.

Scientific studies indicate that concern that the eucalyptus plantations "dry up the soil" is unfounded, at least with respect to the species grown in Brazil, said Garlipp.

Furthermore, he stated, Brazilian research has shown that the eucalyptus is more productive and balanced than other crops because it produces 2.9 grams of wood for every liter of water consumed, compared to 0.65 grams of potato or 1.8 grams of sugar per liter of water.

It also represents reforestation, albeit homogeneous, which poses environmental advantages over raising livestock because it protects the land from erosion and potentially regulates rainfall.

The eucalyptus companies have advanced a great deal in planning an integral production, seeking ecological balance because these plantations represent a long-term economic activity, thus requiring sustainability, argues Garlipp.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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