World Rainforest Movement

Mounting pressure against eucalyptus in Kenya, described as the “water guzzler”

Something extremely interesting is currently happening in Kenya. On the one hand, the country’s Environment Minister, John Michuki, has ordered the uprooting of eucalyptus trees from wetlands and banned their planting along rivers and watersheds. At the same time, well known Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai is calling for a ban on planting alien species and particularly eucalyptus, while experts from the Kenyan-based International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) raise the alarm on the “thirsty” nature of eucalyptus.

When planting eucalyptus was good

The above would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when the government was actively promoting eucalyptus plantations throughout the country. For instance, in 2003 the Environment News Service reported that “a new variety of genetically superior eucalyptus trees” had been introduced in Kenya, and that this “could save Kenya’s forests from further depletion.” Based on the information provided by the promoters of this initiative, ENS stated that “For those in semi-arid areas the eucalyptus trees are being regarded as an opportunity to earn income from yet another source” adding that “researchers say the new genetically superior eucalyptus may be the future answer to afforestation in some of the arid Kenya zones and if well managed it could save the country’s forests from further decimation.”

The above assumptions were supported by a number of expert bodies and donors involved in the promotion of eucalyptus trees in arid and semi-arid areas in the country.

In the first place, the production of the “superior” trees was “spearheaded by the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Program – an extension initiative funded by the Swedish International Development Agency.” Additionally, the planting of the “genetically superior eucalyptus” was part of a National Agroforestry Research Project, a collaborative project jointly implemented by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF).

A similar initiative “to provide superior clonal material to rural Maasai communities” was launched through the Kajiado project -a partnership biotechnology transfer project between the Forest Department of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in collaboration with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute and Mondi Forests (a South African plantation and pulp corporation). The Gatsby Charitable Foundation of United Kingdom funded this project, while the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications –which includes Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science and CropLife International among its donors- facilitated the undertaking.

Following expert advice

Local people were made to believe that planting those “superior eucalyptus” would “contribute to the national goal of alleviating poverty among the resource-poor farming communities”, as expressed by Gabriel Ndungu, a National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Program (NALEP) officer in Kiambu.

The government took a very active role in their promotion and eucalyptus tree seedlings and clones were distributed by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute at Karura Forest near the city of Nairobi. The role of NALEP in the initiative was “to rally farmers groups to realize the potential of planting the genetically superior trees in their own farm plots”.

Farmers were told that they would be able to commercially exploit the trees after about six years but within two years the trees would be available for firewood and fencing uses. They were also informed that the trees had “superior grains that reduce splitting of sawn timber and grow uniformly thus reducing logging costs”.

How could local farmers not believe in the advice of all those expert bodies? How could rural women not be supportive to the initiative, when over the years they have experienced fuelwood scarcity for their domestic use and the solution of planting eucalyptus appeared to be reasonable for small farmers and particularly for women?

What none of these people were told was that though these trees could enable them to earn money, they would at the same time deplete the local water resources, thereby dividing the community between those negatively impacted by eucalyptus and those profiting from the sale of their wood.

Three years later: fast growing trees identified as problematic

In August 2006, a different picture began to be unveiled at the World Water Week meeting in Stockholm. At that meeting, researchers warned that although planting the right species in the right areas could improve water efficiency, other species –such as pines and eucalyptus- could make the problem much worse.

The warning came from the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) which announced its findings on water use by trees, based on 20 years of research in Kenya. As a result, ICRAF scientists advised against planting fast-growing evergreen trees such as eucalyptus and pines because of their high water consumption.

A video -“Thirsty Trees: And the Search for Better Alternatives”- was presented at a side event organized by ICRAF. ( The video shows that both government officials and local people agree that eucalyptus are impacting on water resources. A local person explains that the level of what used to be “a very big river” has “gone down” as a result of the eucalyptus trees planted along its margins. The video explains that, as usual in such cases, “women and children are the most affected by the reduction of water”, because they are “the providers of water for their families and it means more time fetching water from streams and lakes”.

The video provides figures on water usage, stating that one single 3-year old eucalyptus “drinks” 20 litres of water per day. During the following years, consumption exponentially increases and at age 20 the tree will “drink” 200 litres per day!

The myth about the lack of scientific evidence

Perhaps one of the most interesting conclusions from ICRAF’s findings is that it counters one of the main arguments used by promoters of fast-wood plantations, which says that there is “no scientific evidence” proving that such plantations deplete water resources.

After nearly two decades of research at its Machakos Research Station, ICRAF provides ample evidence on the issue and concludes that:

“Fast-growing evergreen species can quickly draw significant quantities of water from below-ground, raising serious concerns about their impact on landscapes. Tree species with water requirements that exceed available rainfall (as they draw upon other water sources), can produce large negative trade-offs for other local water uses and for downstream water users. This is an especially important finding for fledgling carbon sequestration programmes that tend to favour fast-growers such as Eucalyptus that can have severe impacts on river flow”.

Many species characterized by high water demand are favoured for their economic value, and are thus harvested and replaced on a rotational basis. These plantations of ‘thirsty’ species will only be viable in areas of high rainfall and run off, where water collects and where ground water is more readily available.

Average rainfall in East African catchments is between 1200-1800mm. Eucalyptus alone can consume most of this water. Therefore in watersheds with average rainfall below 1600mm, it is prudent not to plant evergreen species such as Eucalyptus or pines.”

Not only does ICRAF provide the evidence, but it has also invented a simple tool for measuring any tree’s water consumption, thus making scientific evidence easily available in any debate on plantations’ water consumption.

The equipment developed at ICRAF can measure sap flow using the heat pulse method to determine the velocity of water movement in tree trunks. From these simple measurements, it is possible to estimate a tree’s total water use on an hourly basis. (see at

The result in 2009: “Thirsty eucalyptus trees get the chop in Kenya”

An article published on 30 September 2009 informs that “farmers in central Kenya are cutting down water-hungry eucalyptus tree species growing near water sources as a government directive aiming to save water takes effect. Environment minister, John Michuki, issued the directive in an attempt to lessen the impact of the drought that is ravaging the country.

Eucalyptus has been popular with farmers because it grows fast and provides ample stocks of timber and firewood. But it is also a danger to water supplies.

Now, eucalyptus trees growing less than 30 metres from rivers, streams, wells and other water sources are being cut down. Already, farmers in central Kenya have felled virtually all trees growing near water sources.

“We agree that eucalyptus growing near water sources has contributed to water sources drying up and that is why we are removing the trees,” says Joseck Gatitu, a farmer in the Kamune area of central Kenya, who has cut down 15 trees near a stream that has nearly dried up.

James Gitonga, a senior officer at the Kenya Forest Service, says that although eucalyptus trees were a source of income to farmers, the recent rapid planting of Eucalyptus grandis and Eucalyptus camaldulensis, two fast growing species introduced to Kenya from South Africa seven years ago, was a threat to the environment.

“The trees have been planted in great numbers, including near rivers, swamps and other catchments, and being huge water consumers they have greatly contributed to depletion of water, particularly during the current drought,” he said.

A Nobel Prize laureate steps into the debate

Nobel Peace Prize winner and renowned Kenyan environmental campaigner Wangari Maathai is actively opposing “the aggressive push for exotic tree species”, “over-promoted for commercial reasons”, and calling “to focus on planting indigenous trees”, which are “best suited to regions where they are supposed to be.”

Professor Maathai has called for a ban on commercial eucalyptus tree plantations in the country. She says the tree is contributing to the depletion of water through its high rate of demand.

Maathai adds that apart from the negative impact on water systems, the eucalyptus, which is called the water drinker or guzzler (“munyua mai”) in her native Kikuyu, is also hostile to other species and almost the entire local biodiversity.

“When you go into these monoculture plantations, they look like dead forests because it’s only them. You don’t see birds, butterflies, other trees, animals —anything other than them because they don’t allow any other growth.”

During her key note speech at the 2nd World Agro Forestry Congress, held in Nairobi, Kenya in August, Maathai told the audience -“with respect to the Australians present”- that there are no kangaroos in Africa, and that, “we do not need eucalyptus.”

¿Eucalyptus under the shamba system?

It would be wrong to assume that the Kenyan government agrees with Maathai. The fact that the minister has banned eucalyptus trees in certain areas does not mean that commercial eucalyptus tree plantations have also been banned. In this respect, Maathai raises the alarm against “the idea of re-introducing the very destructive shamba system into our gazetted forests. This system, not withstanding claims that it is coming back in an improved format, is a system that destroys biodiversity and reduces the capacity of forests to harvest rain water, retain it and releases it gradually through rivers and streams”. She stresses that “it is suicidal to succumb to pressure from pulp and building industries and re-introduce a system that was largely responsible for the destruction of forests in the past. It is extremely unwise to use watershed areas as farmlands for commercial trees to keep private or unviable public companies in operation.”

Kenya’s “shamba” system implies that farmers are encouraged to cultivate primary crops (maize, bananas, beans and cassava) on previously clear cut public forest land on the condition that they replant trees. Since the mid 19th century, Kenya adopted this system to establish tree plantations by means of cheap or totally free labour, in order to meet the demand for timber.

Besides being open to abuse, the system results in the replacement of indigenous forests with exotic tree monocultures. The most common exotic species planted in public forests include pines and cypress. Those plantations established under a monoculture regime interfere with the forest dwindling its biodiversity, and reducing its water catchment qualities. ¿What would happen if eucalyptus were to be planted under the shamba system?

The FAO to the rescue

In the face of all the evidence about the impacts of fast growing tree species, the eucalyptus lobby is trying to downplay and to confuse the issue.

As could be expected, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has come to the rescue of its beloved tree. In a recent FAO report quoted in the Kenyan media, the organization has said that despite the controversy, because of its fast growing nature, eucalyptus could remain a viable alternative, especially in developing countries where population growth is matched with the demand for wood for fuel, shelter and other needs.

What the FAO does not say, is that most of the world’s fast-wood plantations are not aimed at providing “wood for fuel” or “shelter” and that the “other needs” are usually those of industrialized countries and/or their transnational corporations, unrelated with “population growth” but directly related to overconsumption growth in the North.

The FAO insists in equating native forests with plantations. In its report, the FAO estimates that in the tropics, only one hectare is planted for every 10 hectares of natural forests cleared and that to cope with this situation, the choice is to plant fast growing, adaptable and exotic species like eucalyptus that have a multiplicity of uses. Which means that for the FAO a hectare of eucalyptus monoculture is the same as a hectare of native forest!

The FAO of course forgets to mention that ICRAF has identified a number of native species that could be planted in Kenya instead of eucalyptus and that these trees have positive social, environmental and economic effects -while eucalyptus are impacting on the country’s biodiversity and scarce water resources.

More importantly, to say that one hectare of monoculture eucalyptus can compensate for the loss of one hectare of biodiverse tropical forest is an environmental absurdity, that plays to the hands or plantation companies eager to “green” their image and disguise their impacts.

Support from mainstream foresters

Dr. Robert Brook, of the School of Agricultural and Forest Sciences of the University of Wales in the UK, is a typical example of mainstream foresters’ reaction to the mounting evidence about the impacts of eucalyptus. According to a Kenyan press report, he “wonders why the spotlight is on the eucalyptus when there are so many other trees that extract large amounts of water from the soil.”

“I think the criticism has been overdone,” he says. “From my personal observation, teak, an exotic tree, extracts more water.”

Although the above statement is questionable, does that mean –in case that it were true- that because teak is worse, eucalyptus is good?

Dr. Brook even goes as far as to acknowledge impacts: “I’ve seen it planted in solid blocs in India. Nothing grows underneath, and when the heavy monsoon rain comes, the soil is washed off, and that leads to the silting of dams.”

In spite of the above, he does his best to defend eucalyptus, saying that “When planted in singles, twos, threes, or in rows, it should not be a problem.”

Of course no-one is arguing against the planting of a few trees –and he surely knows it- but with the above argument Dr. Brook aims at providing whatever support possible to the embattled eucalyptus.

In a less open manner, even the Director General of ICRAF (Dr. Dennis Garrity), appears to downplay the findings of his own organization. He admits that eucalyptus can have destructive effects on the environment because of its high water needs, and says that its widespread adoption across Africa had reduced the water table. But he argued that eucalyptus trees have been widely adopted across Africa for their unique characteristics as fast growers and a good source of timber and fuel.

Does that mean that he supports or that he opposes further eucalyptus plantations in Africa?

An anonymous “tree specialist” from an unnamed “Kenyan non-governmental organization” exemplifies the more radical pro-eucalyptus lobby. According to the media, he “disagrees vehemently with Professor Maathai’s call, and says the benefits of the tree far outweigh its detrimental aspects. He says it poses no threat to the environment if planted in the right place.

His argument is that “It’s all about site matching, because different species are suited to different places”, and he actually advocates the planting of more eucalyptus in the country.

He of course does not provide any guidance about which eucalyptus should be planted in which sites in Kenya to prevent their “detrimental aspects”. He does say however, that “there are only 100,000 hectares of eucalyptus” in Kenya and that “we need more trees”.

Apparently, the only “tree” that he considers worthy of such name is eucalyptus.

The case for native tree species

However, the fact is that there are of course native trees in Kenya that conserve -instead of “guzzling”- water and that can provide multiple benefits –including fuelwood- to people and the economy. In this respect, ICRAF scientists recommend planting deciduous trees in integrated “tree-crop” systems, in which agriculture and forestry are practised on a single piece of land.

Such trees shed their leaves for up to six months of the year, nearly halving the amount of water they need. This enables them to cope with long dry spells and also means they won’t compete with crops for water.

ICRAF recommends tree species for specific regions. They say that a relative of mahogany called Melia volkensii, which produces high-value timber, would benefit semi-arid areas such as those in East Africa, for example.

Water-catchment areas in Central and West Africa, meanwhile, would suit Cordia africana, which is at the same time useful for small-scale honey producers because its flowers are highly attractive to honey bees.

Another interesting species is bamboo. According to Dr Chin Ong, a plant physiologist at ICRAF, “Kenya’s water catchments were once covered in bamboo” but, “most of these forests have since been cleared.” Arundinaria alpina, a species of bamboo native to Kenya, can yield as many as 20 000 culms per hectare per year, with each culm growing to a height of 12 metres. This scale of production could mean big business for Kenya. In 2002, the global trade in bamboo reached USD 2 billion. Bamboo is posed to make a major come back in Kenya, much to the excitement of local communities who look forward to the twin benefits of this environmentally-friendly cash crop.

ICRAF is trying to encourage policymakers and communities who continue to plant evergreen trees — as sources of pine resin or pulp for paper production, for example — to change their practices.

In line with the above, Wangari Maathai says that “We have especially learnt to recognize and respect rural livelihood priorities and focus on providing not just a scientific solution but a stream of benefits, one of which is Agroforestry tree planting. This especially with fertilizer trees, which improve the soil, provide fruits, medicines, fodder, timber, shade and beauty, not to mention the benefit to the ecosystem, pollination, biodiversity, and protection of watersheds, rivers and wetlands.”

She stresses the need to “expand existing proven and integrated tree-based practices such as combining conservation agriculture with agro forestry — what we might call “evergreen agriculture”. This would make it possible to achieve environmental benefits and sustainable food security and livelihoods. To achieve this will need sound decision support mechanisms from researchers — supported by policymakers for effective implementation — that builds on knowledge, partnerships and capacity.”

The tea lobby

A very powerful actor in the promotion of eucalyptus for fuelwood in Kenya is the tea industry, that burns wood from this species to dry the tea before packaging. Fast-growing eucalyptus trees provide them with a cheap source of energy for this operation. According to a local forestry expert who has managed eucalyptus plantations for a tea company (Julius Kamau, personal communication 2009), “the current annual eucalyptus wood consumption in the tea industry is estimated to be 5 million cubic metres.”

Unilever is one of the several big corporations that own tea plantations in Kenya. In its website, the company says that it “has reviewed the way it produces and uses its fuel wood, as the growing demand for tea threatens to outstrip supply from its eucalyptus tree plantations.” In this respects, Unilever “is working in partnership with the Kenyan Forestry Research Institute” and has “also consulted experts in South Africa to establish best practice in optimising the use of fuel wood.” The company “continues to look for ways to improve efficiency further, for example by exploring new high-yield tree varieties,” that would “increase eucalyptus plantation yields by an estimated 15%.”

The above would of course result in an additional increase of the tree’s water consumption and the further depletion of local water resources.

This company, as well as others, must be therefore quite concerned about the recent government’s decision (August 2009) ordering the Nyayo Tea Zone Development Corporation (NTZDC) to stop planting eucalyptus trees in the 11,000 hectares zone. Agriculture Permanent Secretary Romano Kiome has said that the corporation had until June next year to uproot all the eucalyptus trees it had planted in a bid to conserve water catchment areas. “We have asked them (NTZDC) not to plant eucalyptus but instead plant indigenous trees”, he said.

Given the importance of the tea industry in Kenya –which produces and exports the famous Lipton tea- it is clear that it will need to find an adequate alternative to eucalyptus as fuel. The impacts of this species on water are now so obvious that the industry will either need to identify native tree candidates for producing fuelwood or switch to other less damaging energy sources.

To ignore or to acknowledge facts: that is the question

In Kenya there is more than sufficient evidence proving that eucalyptus plantations, even on a relatively small scale, impact heavily on water resources. Based on such evidence, the government of Kenya has imposed a ban on planting this species in wetlands and water catchment areas. The next step should be to follow Wangari Maathai’s call for entirely banning alien trees and to resort to native species in the country’s reforestation plans.

The above implies that other countries facing water scarcity problems should take stock from the Kenyan findings and must cease to promote the plantation of eucalyptus or other fast-growing alien species and switch to the planting of native trees. Given that climate change may result in more prolonged droughts in Africa and other continents, such switch in plantation species should be urgently implemented. 

In spite of all the evidence, organizations such as the FAO and some mainstream foresters appear to be more eager to protect the interests of corporations than to acknowledge that the environmental impacts of fast-growing species –particularly eucalyptus- far outweigh their economic advantages.

The only thing that the plantation lobby can do is to try to downplay the evidence, but they can no longer say that it does not exist. Fast-growing species impact on water and this is a well proven fact.

Within such context, local communities and civil society organizations have a major role to play in generating awareness on the impacts of plantations of those species and in putting pressure on governments for introducing changes in their reforestation plans. These should be based on native species -naturally adapted to the local environment- able to improve water harvesting and soil conservation, as well as in bringing back biodiversity. The species selected for plantation should provide local people with useful goods and services including food, medicines, firewood, fibers, etc.

If successful, such civil society pressure will not only serve Kenya’s environment and its peoples, but can also assist many other peoples around the world struggling against the expansion of the same type of destructive alien tree monocultures that are being curtailed in Kenya.

By Ricardo Carrere, WRM International Coordinator


The author would like to thank the following people, who sent us feedback for improving the original draft: Julius Kamau, Gathuru Mburu, Nicholas Ngece

Article based on information from:

– water-in-dry-ar.html