As experts like geographer Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves have repeatedly stressed, economic models based on monoculture plantation activities will always be incompatible with a healthy, balanced environment. Any industrial-scale monoculture activity, and especially plantations of millions of cloned eucalyptus trees, cannot contribute to the goal of so-called sustainable development.
The dramatic impacts suffered by local peasant communities offer clear proof that the “eucalyptization” of the Paraíba Valley has unleashed an unprecedented sequence of environmental devastation. Owing to a total lack of government monitoring, the corporations responsible for the overwhelming upsurge in eucalyptus in the region show a total disregard for any environmental rules or regulations. Despite their harmful effects, companies continue to plant these trees on the peaks of mountains, around water sources, and in areas formerly occupied by native gallery forests. In the municipality of Taubaté, in particular, plantations have even spread to the basin of the Una River, the source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Taubaté and neighbouring Tremembé. Despite the fact that the river basin has been officially declared a protected area by the municipality of Taubaté – due to its crucial role as a supply of water, its natural beauty and its contribution to ecological preservation – it has nonetheless been occupied by large eucalyptus plantations, in a flagrant and unchecked violation of environmental laws that expressly prohibit forestry activities in environmental conservation areas, such as the now ravaged Una River basin.
Moreover, these monoculture eucalyptus plantations cannot be considered forests, because they do not fulfil the functions of genuine native forests in the cycle of returning nutrients to the soil, and are furthermore incompatible with biodiversity.
Cloned eucalyptus trees lack the dense foliage needed to capture rainwater, which instead falls directly onto the soil beneath. When these trees are planted on the peaks of mountains, rainwater washes downhill along the exposed, dry land surface, carrying away the minute amounts of nutrients in the soil and thus contributing to both the desertification of plantation areas and sedimentation of bodies of water in the surrounding lowlands.
At the same time, given the rapid growth rate of cloned eucalyptus trees (which can be harvested as little as six years after planting), any nutrients absorbed from the impoverished soil of the plantations are ultimately destroyed when the trees are cut down and processed for industrial pulp production. The result is total devastation of the land, with massive areas that resemble moonscapes more than landscapes, populated only by row upon row of dead stumps: the final legacy of the unbridled expansion of eucalyptus.
Further adding to the harmful impacts on the environment is the indisputable fact that monoculture eucalyptus plantations rely heavily on the use of tons and tons of glyphosate-based herbicides, which are not only a danger to the environment, but also a carcinogen. Because these toxic substances are frequently applied to trees on the tops of mountains, the effects of gravity and rainfall carry them down to the surrounding lowlands, where they contaminate rivers, streams and springs, resulting in devastating impacts that have yet to be fully measured. One particularly dramatic example is a recent case in the town of Piquete, where glyphosate poisoning led to the death of over 8,000 kilos of fish, hundreds of pigs, wild birds, amphibians and fruit trees, not to mention the impacts on the health of the people living around the vast eucalyptus plantation where this hazardous agrochemical was recklessly used.
In a study considered a key reference work on the subject, scientist Augusto Ruschi maintains that the overwhelming consumption of water by plantations of fast-growing eucalyptus trees is responsible for the water shortage recorded in the already devastated northern region of the state of Espíritu Santo.
At the same time, the establishment of massive landholdings covered entirely with this alien tree species has destroyed the former cultural diversity in rural areas. Family farming and small-scale livestock raising, activities pursued for centuries by the region’s inhabitants, have become unviable in the face of the uncontrolled expansion of monoculture eucalyptus plantations. This has led to the disappearance of traditional cultural expressions like local festivals and religious ceremonies that developed around sites considered sacred by the local population, now rendered impossible by the huge expanses of eucalyptus holdings that continue to provoke almost unimaginable hardships in a region already ravaged by the advance of large-scale monoculture production.
The “green” image put forward by agroindustry is clearly deceitful. Vast plantations of eucalyptus trees are not forests, and they do not create even one tenth of the jobs claimed by the companies that own them. The dramatic socio-environmental impacts of these plantations have spurred the Ombudsman’s Office of the State of São Paulo to take legal action, with significant success. In three public civil suits filed in São Luiz do Paraitinga, the District of Catuçaba and Piquete, the courts have ordered the suspension of further monoculture plantation projects until the companies responsible for this unbridled exploitation of natural resources have carried out the environmental impact assessments duly required for each plantation, accompanied by public hearings before the populations affected by them.
Source: Summary of the article “Eucalipto, monocultura e insustentabilidade ambiental”, by Wagner Giron de la Torre, Ombudsman of the State of São Paulo and Coordinator of the Regional Ombudsman’s Office of Taubaté. The full text of the article was published in a special edition of Diario Contato (issue no. 438) commemorating the 364th anniversary of Taubaté, São Paulo.