Issue of October, 20, 2002
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Eucalyptus Plantations Fail
By Néfer Muñoz

The commercial production of this exotic tree species has left a trail of economic losses in Costa Rica, say experts.

SAN JOSE, (Tierramérica).- The massive introduction of the eucalyptus tree, of the myrtacean family native to Australia, in Costa Rica has caused an economic and social drama over the past decade that left the government and dozens of farmers suffering major losses.

In the early 1990s, this tree species was touted as a great business deal, but now scientists are saying it was a mistake to begin planting this tree en masse without conducting more extensive research and experiments.

According to figures from the Ministry of Environment and Energy, 3,800 to 4,000 hectares planted with eucalyptus are now a complete loss. It is a crop foreign to the local tropical biodiversity and has left many families in ruin.

"Nature is wise and doesn't make mistakes," engineer Luis Quirós, a specialist with the ministry, told Tierramérica. "We can't force a species from other latitudes to adapt to our conditions."

Quirós, in charge of the San José subregion for the ministry, said Latin America has suffered over the past few decades the consequences of certain trends promoted by international experts.

"Many international organizations and agencies come here and recommend what we should plant, based on what has been successful in the countries of the North. But they fail to take into account the local pests, diseases and conditions of the tropics," he stated.

The eucalyptus, a tree of rapid growth and great capacity to absorb water, was promoted as a new forestry crop in the late 1980s and early 1990s in order to ease the deforestation pressure on native forests.

The government provided economic incentives for farmers to plant eucalyptus. The aim was to use the lumber for the manufacture of furniture and plywood panels.

Everything started out well, and optimism continued through the first three years, but by the fourth, the trees stopped growing and began to suffer what the locals refer to as "slow death".

"We dedicated a lot of effort to that project, but we lost everything," Ronald Rodríguez, 47, a farmer who planted 100 hectares with eucalyptus in 1990, told Tierramérica.

Costa Rican plant scientists found that local soils are not appropriate for the eucalyptus because the tree's root system cannot penetrate to the depths needed due to the high clay content in many areas.

This led to the emergence of fungus and later, termites, which slowly devastated the underside of the tree's bark, which then began to dry up.

"Overall, with what the government gave me and with what I invested, in my case alone nearly 500,000 dollars were lost. There are families that have been economically devastated because they had seen the eucalyptus as a lifetime project," Rodríguez said.

Now, scientists, farmers and environmentalists all agree on the moral of the story taught by the eucalyptus experience: prior research and experimentation are needed before massive promotion of an exotic species in Costa Rica's tropical environment.

"Extensive research is essential before embarking on these projects with farmers and peasants, who are the ones who suffer most when the initiatives fail," environmental geographer Alexander Bonilla said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Agronomists and forestry experts say the route that should be taken is to take better advantage of local species, otherwise there is the danger of falling into a sort of "ecological Malinchism" (a reference to the woman who is considered to have betrayed the Aztecs) in promoting species from other latitudes without first testing them.

* Néfer Muñoz is an IPS correspondent

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