By Gerald Tenywa
THE eucalyptus is an enigmatic tree. It grows faster than native trees. But some people have shunned cultivating it. Reason? It drains a lot of water from the soil.
Because eucalyptus trees mature in four years as opposed to native trees that take about two decades, they have been accepted, especially in areas with acute wood fuel shortage.
This is why the districts of Kabale, Tororo and Masaka, which have eucalyptus trees, are forming the â€œeucalyptus curtain.â€
The eucalyptus craze, fuelled by expectation of windfall profits, has also attracted the urban rich.
â€œIf you harvest one hectare of eucalyptus, you earn more than sh4m,â€ says Edward Mupada, manager of the Tree Seed Centre at the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
Mupada says Kampala, with a population of about two million people, has created a big market for poles and firewood.
He says urban people who are out to earn quick money are investing in tree planting. Land owners near Kampala find it more profitable to plant eucalyptus trees.
â€œIt is easy to access the market and transport costs are lower compared to upcountry areas,â€ Mupada says.
One eucalyptus pole goes for about sh1,750 around Kampala and in the outskirts, it goes for about half the amount.
â€œThe pharmaceutical industry uses the tree for making skin ointments and medicines for common cold,â€ says Dr Michael Buyinza of Makerere Universityâ€™s Faculty of Forestry and Nature Conservation.
However, some people despise the eucalyptus.
David Luyimbazi of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) in Rakai, says eucalyptus trees are shrouded in controversy.
â€œThere is a bitter conflict between eucalyptus tree farmers and their neighbours because the neighbours fear the trees may deprive the soil of water,â€ he says.
In Kapchworwa district, some farmers have petitioned LCs to stop eucalyptus tree farming because the trees will drain the village of water.
â€œThis is becoming a common concern,â€ Chemangei Awadh, says. â€œMost residents do not plant eucalyptus trees anyhow. Some of them plant the trees only to mark their land borders after consulting with their neighbours.â€
Derek Pomeroy of Makerere Universityâ€™s Institute of Environment and Natural Resources says the eucalyptus poses a threat to biological diversity.
He is against the rampant replacement of native trees with exotic species.
Pomeroy says animals and birds do not find shelter or food in these trees.
â€œThis is leading to the erosion of biological diversity because trees provide habitats for birds,â€ Pomeroy says.
Native trees can support more than 100 insects. Eucalyptus farming is a monoculture, which is less diverse as opposed to agro-forestry systems (intercropping of trees and crops).
According to conservationists at the World Conservation Union meeting at Hilton Hotel, Nairobi recently, some donors have restricted funding to NGOs promoting eucalyptus trees.
But Paul Jacovelli, an official of the bio-diversity programme at the National Forestry Authority (NFA), says eucalyptus trees thwart pressure, which would otherwise rest on the more treasured natural forests.
Gaster Kiyingi, NFA spokesperson, says the eucalyptus tree is a heavy feeder because it grows very fast. He adds that the eucalyptus camaldulensis, is suitable for dry areas, while eucalyptus grandis is suitable for wet areas.
â€œWe have been encouraging schools to plant eucalyptus trees to establish their own wood reserves,â€ Kiyingi says.
â€œBut we were concerned about haphazard planting because some people plant them in wetlands to drain them.â€
National Agriculture Research Organisationâ€™s Dr John Aluma says the controversy surrounding eucalypytus trees is a mere attempt by detractors to frustrate realistic ways of addressing community needs.
â€œThis controversy about eucalyptus was resolved more than a decade ago,â€ he adds.
Aluma accuses the media and environmentalists of stirring the eucalytus controversy.
The debate over eucalyptus trees is a matter, which cannot be put to rest because queries on the ugly side of the trees keep coming up.