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The El Dorado of Forestry: The Eucalyptus in India, South Africa, and Thailand, 1850–2000*

  • Brett M. Bennett (a1)

This article argues that because of the perceived and real biological characteristics of the different species of the genus Eucalyptus, imperialists and settlers, and later governments and the elites of developing nations, planted eucalypts widely and created new socio-ecological systems that encouraged and reinforced divergent patterns of economic, social, and ecological development. Planting eucalypts changed local ecologies and encouraged a movement towards market-based capitalism that benefited settlers, large landowners, urban elites and middle classes, and capital-intensive industries at the expense of indigenous groups living in and near forests. This article analyses the globalization of eucalypts in four broad phases: first, an enthusiastic expansion and planting from 1850–1900; secondly, failure in the tropics from 1850–1960; thirdly, increased planting and success rates in the tropics from 1960–2000, and fourthly, a growing criticism of eucalypts that began in the late nineteenth century and blossomed in the 1980s during an intense period of planting in India and Thailand.

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1. Historians are beginning to see the trend towards developmentalism as a more general feature of the modern world. See Pomeranz, Kenneth, “Introduction”, in Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz (eds), The Environment and World History (Berkeley, CA, 2008).

2. Donald Worster calls these new ecological patterns “agro-ecologies”; Worster, Donald, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History”, Journal of American History, 76 (1990), pp. 10871106.

3. Crosby, Alfred, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, 1986). In the second edition of Ecological Imperialism, Crosby cited the genus as the one example of species from the “Neo-Europes” that successfully spread and colonized Europe. This account places the ecological success of the tree in the context of its biological ability to flourish in a variety of locations and climates. See Prologue and p. 166.

4. For a discussion of the larger evolutionary history of Australia and its plants See Rolls, Eric, “The Nature of Australia”, pp. 35–45, and Tim Flannery, “The Fate of Empire in Low- and High-Energy Ecosystems”, pp. 46–59, in Griffiths, Tom and Robin, Libby (eds), Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Edinburgh, 1997).

5. Griffiths, Tom, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (Melbourne, 2001), pp. 3287; Dargavel, John, Fashioning Australia’s Forests (Melbourne, 1995), pp. 1659.

6. For Mueller see Lucas, A.M., “Baron von Mueller: Protege Turned Patron”, in R.W. Home (ed.), Australian Science in the Making (Sydney, 1988), pp. 133152. For Maiden See Frawley, Jodi, “Botanical Knowledges, Settling Australia: Sydney Botanical Gardens, 1896–1924” (unpublished Ph.D., University of Sydney, 2009).

7. See Doughty, Robin, The Eucalyptus: A Natural and Commercial History of the Gum Tree (Baltimore, MD, 2000), pp. 2459, 189–191. Key works on botanical gardens include Drayton, Richard, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the “Improvement” of the World (New Haven, CT, 2000); McCracken, Donal, Gardens of Empire (London, 1997); and Brockway, Lucile, Science and Colonial Expansion (New York, 1979).

8. Bryce, James, 1st Viscount Bryce, Impressions of South Africa (New York, 1897), pp. 2930.

9. See Noble, John, History, Productions, and Resources of the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town, 1886), p. 150.

10. Its first recorded entry into Natal was in 1846. See Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Gardens, Kew), vol. 1900, no. 157/168 (1900), pp. 12–15. Soon after, “[T]he growth of these exotics became a prominent feature in the Colony. Every farm had its plantation, which embraced numerous species”, pp. 13–14.

11. Grove, Richard, “Scottish Missionaries, Evangelical Discourses and the Origins of Conservation Thinking in Southern Africa 1820–1900”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 15 (1989), p. 184, as cited in Beinart, William and Coates, Peter, Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa (London, 2002), p. 41.

12. This belief continued in some circles until the end of the nineteenth century. Missionaries hoped eucalypts would render Mashonaland healthy. See Brown, William, On the South African Frontier: The Adventures and Observations of an American in Mashonaland and Matabeleland (New York, 1899), p. 309; Parr Greswell, William, Geography of Africa South of the Zambesi (Oxford, 1892), p. 363. For the Transvaal, see Carey-Hobson, M.A., At Home in the Transvaal (Aberdeen, 1896), p. 51.

13. The South African forest research officer R.J. Poynton suggested in the 1950s that the E. globulus “was at one time perhaps the most ubiquitous exotic tree in South Africa”. See his Notes on Exotic Forest Trees in South Africa (Pretoria, 1957), p. 35.

14. For a description of how desiccationist narratives helped create forestry legislation and state control in South Africa, See Barton, Gregory, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 99104; Beinart, William, The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770–1950 (New York, 2003), pp. 9598. For a discussion of early conservation efforts in the Cape Colony, See Grove, Richard, “Early Themes in African Conservation: The Cape in the Nineteenth Century”, in David Anderson and Richard Grove (eds), Conservation in Africa: Peoples, Policies and Practice (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 2138; Grove, Richard, “Scotland in South Africa: John Croumbie Brown and the Roots of Settler Environmentalism”, in Griffiths and Robin, Ecology and Empire, pp. 139153.

15. This process has been covered by a number of studies. For North Africa, See Davis, Diana, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa (Athens, OH, 2007); for west Africa, See Fairhead, James and Leach, Melissa, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic (Cambridge, 1996); for southern Africa, See Showers, Kate, Imperial Gullies: Soil Erosion and Conservation in Lesotho (Athens, OH, 2005).

16. See the argument of Showers, Imperial Gullies.

17. Beinart, , The Rise of Conservation, p. 96. For a description of how “noble” eucalypts lined the farms of Natal, See Brooks, Henry, Natal: A History and Description of the Colony (London, 1876), p. 278.

18. For example, see the romantic discussions of eucalypts and farming in Flemming, Leonard, “The Romance of a New South African Farm”, Journal of the Royal African Society, 21 (1922), pp. 115128, 123–124. Flemming said that on his farm alone he planted 40,000 trees.

19. See Bennett, Brett, “‘Fit the Tree to the Climate’: Australian-South African Botanical Exchange and the Origins of the Climatic School of Silviculture in South Africa c. 1880–1950”, in “Creating an Indian Ocean Rim Ecosystem: Forestry, Science and the British World 1864–1963” (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, 2010).

20. Sim, Thomas, Tree Planting in Natal (Pietermaritzburg, 1905), pp. 139140. For a discussion of exotics in Natal See Witt, Harald, “The Emergence of Privately Grown Industrial Tree Plantations”, in Stephen Dovers, Ruth Edgecombe, and Bill Guest (eds), South Africa’s Environmental History: Cases and Comparisons (Athens, OH, 2002), pp. 90112, 93.

21. Rachel Hance, Gertrude, The Zulu Yesterday and To-day: Twenty-Nine Years in South Africa (London, 1916), p. 78. Balfour, Alice, Twelve Hundred Miles in a Wagon (London, 1895), p. 46.

22. By 1941, around half of all afforestation projects in the Union were in the Transvaal. See Division of Forestry Annual Report for the Year Ended 31st March, 1941 (Pretoria, 1941), p. 11.

23. Tropp, Jacob, Natures of Colonial Change: Environmental Relations in the Making of the Transkei (Athens, OH, 2006).

24. Showers, , Imperial Gullies, pp. 60–61.

25. Hutchins, D.E., Transvaal Forestry Report (Pretoria, 1903).

26. See Statutes of the Union of South Africa (Pretoria, 1913).

27. Poynton, , Notes on Exotic Forest Trees in South Africa, p. 14.

28. Parker, R.N., Eucalyptus Trials in the Simla Hills (Calcutta, 1925), p. 1.

29. Hutchins, , Transvaal Forestry Report, pp. 6–7.

30. Ibid., p. 7.

31. See Tropp, Jacob, “Roots and Rights in the Transkei: Colonialism, Natural Resources, and Social Change, 1880–1940” (unpublished Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 2002), pp. 326–328. I would like to thank Jacob Tropp for this citation.

32. Republic of South Africa Department of Forestry, Investigation of the Forest and Timber Industry of South Africa: Report on South Africa’s Timber Resources, 1960 (Pretoria, 1964), p. 7.

33. Ibid., p. 27.

34. Fair, T. and Maasdorp, G., “Swaziland”, in Harm de Blij and Esmond Martin (eds), African Perspectives: An Exchange of Essays on the Economic Geography of Nine African States (London, 1981), pp. 115–135, 120.

35. See Jacobs, Nancy, Environment, Power, and Injustice: A South African History (Cambridge, 2003); Hoffman, Timm and Ashwell, Ally, Nature Divided: Land Degradation in South Africa (Cape Town, 2001).

36. There is a vast literature on the commodification of the South African economy and society. See Beinart, William and Dubow, Saul (eds), Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa (London, 2003).

37. The numbers of displaced people remain unknown owing to a lack of research. See Jacob Tropp’s pioneering study of the forced removal of around 1,900 people in Gqogqora in the Tsolo District in the Transkei during the late 1950s and early 1960s; Tropp, Jacob, “Displaced People, Replaced Narratives: Forest Conflicts and Historical Perspectives in the Tsolo District”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 29 (2003), pp. 207233.

38. Tropp, , Natures of Colonial Change, pp. 102–109.

39. Davy, Joseph, “Transvaal”, South African Association for the Advancement of Science/Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif Vir Wetenskap (Johannesburg, 1904), p. 275.

40. Fraser, Maryna (ed.), Johannesburg Pioneer Journals 1888–1909 (Cape Town, 1986), p. 80.

41. “Eucalyptus Screens as Fire Protection Belts”, Indian Forester, 31 (1905), p. 297.

42. Sim, , Tree Planting in Natal, pp. 10–11.

43. Crawshay, R., “Basutoland and the Basuto”, The Geographical Journal, 21 (1903), pp. 645655, 651.

44. See National Archives of South Africa Pretoria [hereafter, NASAP], CEN 151, E/5/3/10.

45. Hancock, W.K., Smuts: The Fields of Force, 1919–1950 (Cambridge, 1968), p. 411.

46. NASAP, FOR 336, A1054/7/18. See the final publication, Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Forests in Relation to Climate, Water Conservation and Erosion (Pretoria, 1935).

47. See, for example, the work of the forest researcher C.L. Wicht during the 1940s–1960s.

48. Argent, Sally and Loedolff, Jeanette, Discovering Indigenous Forests at Kirstenbosch (Cape Town, 1997), p. 8.

49. Rotberg, Robert, Suffer the Future: Policy Choices in Southern Africa (Cambridge, MA, 1980), p. 124.

50. Carrere, Ricardo and Lohmann, Larry, Pulping the South: Industrial Tree Plantations and the World Paper Economy (London, 1996), p. 145.

51. Waring, Edward, Pharmacopœia of India: Prepared Under the Authority of Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council (London, 1868), p. 71. See also the discussion of Lord Kerr’s ideas by Morton, Surgeon-Major E. in “Arboriculture in its Relation to Climate”, Indian Forester, 1 (1875), pp. 142155.

52. See Sykes Gamble, James, A Manual of Indian Timbers: An Account of the Structure, Growth, Distribution, and Qualities of Indian Woods (Calcutta, 1881), p. 189.

53. See Grove, Richard, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge, 1995), for colonial forestry before 1860, and Barton, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism for 1855 to the present.

54. For an overview of the capitalist policies of the British in India see Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G., British Imperialism 1688–2000 (London, 2001). State forestry, in many ways, arose as a reaction to gentleman capitalists. See Barton, Gregory and Bennett, Brett, “Environmental Conservation and Deforestation in India 1855–1947: A Reconsideration”, Itinerario: International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction, 38 (2008), pp. 83104, 83–89.

55. Balfour, Edward, The Timber Trees, Timber and Fancy Woods, as also, The Forests of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia (Madras, 1862), pp. 111, 179; Cleghorn, Hugh, Report upon the Forests of the Punjab and the Western Himalaya (Roorkee, 1864) p. 125; Francis, W., The Nilgiris (Madras, 1908), pp. 201221. For official discussions of eucalyptus plantings in Madras in the mid to late nineteenth century see Report of the Conservator of Forests for the Official Year 1860–61 (Madras, 1861), p. 8; Report of the Conservator of Forests for the Official Year 1862–63 (Madras, 1863), pp. 13, 25, 64–65; Report of the Conservator of Forests for the Official Year 1865–66 (Madras, 1867), pp. 3, 7–8, 65–68; Report of the Conservator of Forests for the Official Year 1868–69 (St George, 1870), p. 19; Annual Administration Report of the Forest Department. Madras Presidency for the 12 Months Ending 30th June 1898 (Madras, 1899), p. 33.

56. Francis, W., Madras District Gazetteers: The Nilgiris (Madras, 1908), pp. 215216. This figure does not include private plantations and plantings, which were also extensive.

57. Annual Administration Report of the Forest Department 1898, p. 33. Anthropologists tended to view the growth of eucalypts around the regions where hill tribes lived with approbation. Shortt, J., “An Account of the Tribes on the Neilgherries”, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 7 (1869), pp. 230290, 234.

58. Francis, , Madras District Gazetteers: The Nilgiris, p. 130.

59. Cleghorn, Hugh, The Forests and Gardens of South India (London, 1861), p. 177; Gadgil, Madhav and Guha, Ramachandra, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (Oxford, 1992), pp. 123134.

60. Phillip, Kativa, Civilizing Natures: Race, Resources and Modernity in Colonial South India (New Brunswick, NJ, 2003), pp. 9596.

61. Sutton, Deborah, Other Landscapes: Colonialism and the Predicament of Authority in Nineteenth-Century South India (Copenhagen, 2009), pp. 134135.

62. Ibid., pp. 94–96.

63. Ibid., pp. 101–105.

64. Sutton, Other Landscapes, pp. 138–139.

65. Part of the criticism of eucalypts was that they “overgrew” in Ootacamund and dominated the landscape. See Thurston, Edgar, The Madras Presidency with Mysore, Coorg and the Associated States (Cambridge, 1913), p. 266.

66. Parker, R.N., Eucalyptus in the Plains of North West India (Calcutta, 1925), pp. 45.

67. As cited in Gadgil and Guha, This Fissured Land, p. 194.

68. Ibid., pp. 183–189.

69. The most prominent work published by the FAO in the 1950s was Métro, André, Eucalypts for Planting (Rome, 1955). Australians also played a prominent role in increasing yields of eucalyptus in India. See Doughty, The Eucalyptus, pp. 163, 133.

70. Ibid., p. 134.

71. Gadgil, Madhav and Guha, Ramachandra, Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (London, 1995), pp. 5051.

72. George, S.J., Kumar, B., and Rajiv, G.R., “Nature of Secondary Succession in the Abandoned Eucalyptus Plantations of Neyyar (Kerala) in Peninsular India”, Journal of Tropical Forest Science, 5 (1993), pp. 372386, 377.

73. Doughty, , The Eucalyptus, p. 134.

74. Shiva, Vandana, Bandyopadhyay, J., and Jayal, N.D., “Afforestation in India: Problems and Strategies”, Ambio, 14 (1985), pp. 329333, 331.

75. In the 1980s, the Economic and Political Weekly hosted a number of articles debating the pros and cons of eucalyptus planting. For a sampling of these rich and spirited debates See Devi, Mahasveta, “Eucalyptus: Why?”, 18 (6 August 1983), pp. 1379–1381; Patel, V.J., “Rational Approach Towards Fuelwood Crisis in Rural India”, 20 (10 August 1985), pp. 1366–1368; Bandyopadhyay, J. and Shiva, Vandana, “Eucalyptus in Rainfed Farm Forestry: Prescription for Desertification”, 20 (5 October 1985); pp. 1687–1688; Chandrashekhar, D.M., Krishna Murti, B.V., and Ramaswamy, S.R., “Social Forestry in Karnataka: An Impact Analysis”, 22 (13 June 1987), pp. 935–941; and Sunder, Shyam and Parameswarappa, S., “Social Forestry and Eucalyptus”, 24 (7 January 1989), pp. 51–52.

76. For example, see the works of Jayanta Bandyopadhyay.

77. See Guha, Ramachandra, “Chipko: Social History of an ‘Environmental’ Movement”, in idem, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Oxford, 1989), pp. 152184.

78. See Barton, Gregory and Bennett, Brett M., “Forestry as Foreign Policy: Anglo-Siamese Relations and the Origins of Britain’s Informal Empire in the Teak Forests of Northern Siam, 1883–1925”, Itinerario: International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction, 34 (2010), pp. 6586. see also Vandergeest, Peter and Peluso, Nancy, “Empires of Forestry: Professional Forestry and State Power in Southeast Asia, Part 1”, Environment and History, 12 (2006), pp. 3164.

79. Doughty, , The Eucalyptus, p. 190.

80. See Ingram, James, Economic Change in Thailand (Stanford, CA, 1971).

81. Thirawat, Sukhum, The Eucalypts for Tropical Climates: Based on Experiences Gained from the FAO Eucalyptus Study Tour in Australia 1952 (Bangkok, 1952), p. 1.

82. Wacharakitti, Sathit, Pinyosorasak, Pairote, and Sanguantham, Prasong, Report on Forest Inventory of the Pilot Project Area for Development of Reforestation, Northeast Thailand (Bangkok, 1980), p. 12.

83. Forestry for Local Community Development, FAO Paper No. 7 (Rome, 1978), pp. 85–86.

84. For a discussion of “green capitalism” See Bryant, Raymond and Bailey, Sinéad, Third World Political Ecology (London, 1997), pp. 6162.

85. See the report by Narinchai Patanapongsa, Resources and Constraints of Forestry in Thailand: Guidelines for the Establishment of Forestry Extension in the Royal Forest Department, Thailand (Bangkok, 1987).

86. Ibid., p. 122.

87. Buddhists often spearheaded movements. See Tiyavanich, Kamala, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand (Honolulu, HI, 1997), pp. 245247; Tegbaru, Amare, “Local Environmentalism in Northeast Thailand”, in Arne Kalland and Gerard Persoon (eds), Environmental Movements in Asia (Padstow, 1998), pp. 151178. see also Carrere, and Lohmann, , Pulping the South, pp. 235–238.

88. Carrere, and Lohmann, , Pulping the South, p. 237.

89. Patricia Marchak, M., Logging the Globe (Quebec City, 1995), pp. 223225. see also Walker’s, Andrew discussion of the relationship between forestry tenure and agricultural tenure in “Seeing Farmers for the Trees: Community Forestry and the Arborealisation of Agriculture in Northern Thailand”, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 45 (2004), pp. 311324.

90. Wacharakitti, et al. , Report on Forest Inventory, p. 12.

91. This criticism is documented by Carrere, and Lohmann, , Pulping the South, pp. 231–235.

92. Barney, Keith, “Re-encountering Resistance: Plantation Activism and Smallholder Production in Thailand and Sarawak, Malaysia”, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 45 (2004), pp. 325339, 328–331.

93. Ibid., p. 330.

* I would like to thank the Social Science Research Council, the National Science Foundation (Grant 0924930), and the University of Texas at Austin for generously funding research on this topic. Peter Boomgaard provided invaluable editorial advice during the revising of this article.

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