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Tree plantations: A plea for a more balanced debate

By Vision Reporter

Added 2nd November 2009 03:00 AM

IN an article on pine trees published in The New Vision on October 26, a number of statements must have given readers’ considerable cause for concern. It seems that ‘exotic’ and ‘alien’ tree species are responsible for most of Uganda’s

By Paul Jacovelli

IN an article on pine trees published in The New Vision on October 26, a number of statements must have given readers’ considerable cause for concern. It seems that ‘exotic’ and ‘alien’ tree species are responsible for most of Uganda’s woes. If the ‘experts’ quoted in the story are to be believed then we must immediately stop all the tree planting efforts of the past few years at once.

That course of action though would stop overnight the huge private sector investment now underway in the sector: Investment that is already creating thousands of rural jobs, rapidly establishing the country’s future timber supply needs and even helping to mitigate climate change in the region.

So what is the average reader to decide when confronted with this dilemma? In order to gain a more balanced picture of the issues involved, let us look more closely at the ‘experts’ arguments to see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

By the way, I do not claim to be an expert, but I am still learning after working over 25 years in commercial forestry in numerous countries).

First of all, pine trees are accused of being alien to Uganda. This is correct: pines (and there are 111 recognised species) have a very large natural distribution range from North and Central America through to Asia. Maize, cassava and potatoes are also alien to Uganda, but have been found to be pretty useful species. To dismiss potentially useful species as alien is perhaps not constructive.

Next we read that “pines are unsuitable to the tropics and our ecosystem”. This is just plain wrong: there are some pine species that have proved eminently suitable for growing in the tropics and sub-tropics and there are millions of hectares out there to prove the fact.

In many such countries, pine plantations have formed the basis of highly commercial (and sustainable) forest industries. Pinus caribaea is one of these species and its performance (growth and health) in many parts of Uganda shows that is well suited to conditions here.

“Replacing natural forests with foreign trees is a bad idea” they go on to say. Absolutely right: I could not agree more, but does it make sense to ban all pine (or eucalypt) planting just because some people are doing the wrong thing by clearing intact natural forests? Of course not.

What we should be doing is ensuring compliance with the guidelines over what land should be used for tree plantations — as detailed in the Tree Planting Guidelines for Uganda (published in 2009 by the Ministry of Water and the Environment’s Sawlog Production Grant Scheme).
Careful planning can ensure that plantations are located only on degraded forest areas (or previously non-forested areas), which are highly unlikely to ever return to valuable natural forests.

The mistake that many people are making it seems is assuming that plantations are replacing natural forests. Plantations will never replace natural forests. It is, therefore, nonsensical to compare biodiversity in a pine plantation to a natural forest. Some of Uganda’s natural forests (like Budongo or Mabira) can have over 250 different species per hectare so how can this compare to having one pine or eucalypt species in a plantation? Maybe it would help if people thought of tree plantations as agricultural crops, where one or a few species are cultivated intensively.

Natural forests with their fantastic biodiversity (and many other benefits to peoples’ livelihoods) need conserving, but timber plantations are also crucial for their ability to produce high yields of utilisable products.

What is often not well understood is that a well managed tree plantation can yield up to 20 times the utilisable timber compared to a natural forest in Uganda.
Thus tree plantations and natural forests each have their own place and they should compliment each other in the wider picture. Again I repeat that careful planning and sound management can ensure that plantations do not replace valuable natural forests.
In fact without a complimentary and dedicated plantation resource (and using fast growing species like pines, eucalypts and the indigenous Musizi), Uganda’s natural forests will continue to decline because where else are people going to get their timber and fuelwood from?

“They suck a lot of water and nutrients” our ‘experts’ go on to say. This statement shows a poor understanding of obvious facts. Any intensively managed crop — whether it is a maize field or a tree plantation — requires water and nutrients to grow.

The key issue is to plan and manage these crops so that they are sustainable and do not compete with other land users. Thus land chosen for intensive farming (or intensive forestry) needs to be selected carefully and then managed professionally.

A scientific study carried out over the last 40 years in the 60,000 hectare Usutu pine plantation in Swaziland, has shown no widespread evidence of long-term yield decline over four successive rotations of pine. Interestingly, this ‘exotic’ and ‘alien’ pine plantation is now Swaziland’s biggest single employer and creates 15% of the country’s GDP.

It would appear that bad practices (for example, planting pines on cleared natural forest areas or planting eucalypts in water courses) are giving the commercial forestry sector a bad name and the public are being misinformed by people in positions who should know better.

Let us bring more informed reason into the debate and move away from ‘knee-jerk’ reactions caused by the poor practices of a few.

Tree plantations: A plea for a more balanced debate

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