Eucalyptus: an evil plot to destroy Guatemala, or just a good idea?

Eucalyptus has been used throughout the developing world as a quick solution to reforestation. It grows quickly and its wood is excellent for fuel. In Guatemala, the National Forest Institute (INAB), which is in charge of reforestation efforts in the country, is planting forests of eucalyptus with the sole intention of creating firewood. Like most developing countries, the primary source of cooking fuel is wood for 70% of Guatemalans. This demand has contributed to Guatemala’s deforestation which has accelerated in recent years (illegal logging, clearing land for cattle ranching especially in the Petén and urbanization are other larger factors). Between a quarter and a third of Guatemala remains forested, much more than its neighbor El Salvador which has been almost completely stripped bare, but it is disappearing quickly, and in recent years has accelerated (Guatemala lost 17% of total forest cover between 1990 and 2005).

Back to eucalyptus. During a tour of the Lake Amatitlan water treatment plant (yes, it exists and no it isn’t really doing its job), an employee pointed out that the surrounding hills had been reforested with pine trees and eucalyptus. This led to a somewhat heated discussion about eucalyptus. The tree, a native of Australia, is great for short-term goals: it grows fast which can quickly help to stabilize hills from landslides, and as mentioned above, the wood is great for firewood. But in the long-term, the tree is basically the worst solution to reforestation and one person even argued that it was better to do nothing than plant eucalyptus. The reason given was that eucalyptus uses a lot of water.  The tree is native to dry areas and a common belief is that it doesn’t use a lot of water. This may or may not be true (I know, that is a pretty bad answer but the research goes both ways. Some people argue that yes it uses a lot of water, but that is because it grows so fast, so it is all in proportion).

The other problem, which is pretty much agreed upon, is that eucalyptus inhibits other species from growing and contributes significantly to soil degradation. That is the opposite of what reforestation efforts usually hope to accomplish. In our discussion, many people had theories. One popular theory was that Cementos Progreso—the local cement manufacturer who funded this reforestation—purposely wanted to leave the area high and dry which would prevent people from attempting to farm in the areas. The company has faced resistance from local communities in building cement factories. Pretty conspiratorial and considering eucalyptus’s popularity throughout the world, I’m not sure I’d go that far.

Either way, in a country with as much plant diversity as Guatemala, it is likely that there are native species that could fill the role of eucalyptus in reforestation efforts, species that would be more beneficial to the soil, water table, and fauna.

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