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Tuesday May 27, 2008

Harvesting the eucalyptus

All across the fertile farmland of Thailand, a new crop is sprouting amidst traditional ones such as rice and cassava.

Stories by TAN CHENG LI

A LINE of soaring trees fringes the plot of rice field, breaking the monotony of the green, grassy sprawl. Though not a scene typical of rural padi farms in Thailand, it nevertheless is becoming commonplace as more of such trees are sprouting up in the country’s agriculture sites.

Some 1.5 million Thai farmers are growing eucalyptus trees on empty spaces around their crops, under contract with Advance Agro Public Company, maker of the Double A brand of office paper and Thailand’s biggest pulp and paper manufacturer.

The eucalyptus planted by Advance Agro Public Company is a hybrid of the Australian species, and were developed over 25 years to best suit Thai soil and climate. The fast-growing trees can be harvested in three years compared with seven to eight years for other eucalyptus breeds.

The farmers, scattered over the central plains, south, north and north-east of the country, nurture some 300 million eucalyptus trees to be used for paper-making.

In the village of Chiangtai in Chachoengsao province in eastern Thailand, farmer Patchai Kanpawa first planted eucalyptus on unused land in his 9ha rice fields four years ago and has since harvested 3,000 trees.

“It is easy to grow these trees. Apart from the occasional pruning, they need little attention. If I plant during the dry season, I need to water only when I plant the seedlings. During the wet season, I don’t even have to water them,” he says.

While Kanpawa, 67, utilises rice field embankments for his eucalyptus trees, other farmers grow them in bigger parcels of land among their plots of rice, sugarcane, cassava, corn and other crops. Such small-scale tree-farming is said to be less ecologically damaging than vast industrial tree plantations.

Kanpawa says eucalyptus cultivation has not adversely affected his rice yields. He cuts the trees when they reach a diameter of 6.5cm – the minimum for pulp production. The first 1,000 trees felled earned him 100,000 bahts (RM10,000). That drew the attention of other villagers and now, half of the 150 families in Chiangtai, about an hour’s drive from Bangkok, are cultivating eucalyptus trees.

Advance Agro senior executive vice-president Thirawit Leetavorn says by engaging farmers to plant the trees, the company need not set up industrial tree plantations, which are beset with a host of ecological and social woes.

“We avoid cutting down natural rainforests and there are no displacement of farming communities. In plantations of thousands of hectares, there is only one species of trees. This affects biodiversity and the soil of the area,” he explains.

Advance Agro processes the logs at its two pulp and two paper mills in Thatoom in Prachinburi province, east of Bangkok. Leetavorn says the company buys the logs based on world market price but does not pay less than a base of 1,200 bahts (RM120) per tonne. He says a farmer can earn 8,000 bahts (RM800) a year for every 100 trees harvested. The farmers produce more logs than Advance Agro can process, so they sell them to the pole and fibreboard industries.

To assist farmers with planting advice, Advance Agro has 500 branches nationwide. It sells the seedlings at 5 bahts (50 sen) each, but often donates them. A hybrid of the Australian eucalyptus, they were developed over 25 years to best suit Thai soil and climate. The fast-growing trees can be harvested in three years compared with seven to eight for other eucalyptus breeds.

The eucalyptus-farming scheme has proven so successful that the company contracted an additional 500,000 farmers since 2005. Some 300 schools have also joined in, growing seedlings donated by Advance Agro in school compounds and selling the trees when they mature.

Protests over pulp

But things were not always so green for eucalyptus farming and the pulp and paper industry in Thailand, which have had a troubled history. In the late 80s and through the 90s, Thai villagers and activitists marched against expanding eucalyptus plantations which have taken over natural forests, farms and settlements.

Advance Agro emerged from this tumultuous past; its parent company Soon Hua Seng Group (SHS), which started planting eucalyptus commercially in 1986, was previously mired in controversy. In 1990, over 150 employees of SHS subsidiary Suan Kitti Company were arrested for illegally logging a forest reserve in Chachoengsao province to make way for a plantation.

Suan Kitti Reforestation faced a similar charge in the neighbouring Prachinburi province. Allegations over the use of intimidation in the sale of farmland trailed Suan Kitti’s plantation programme in eastern Thailand through the 90s.

Thirawit Leetavorn: ‘We avoid cutting down natural rainforests and there are no displacement of farming communities.’

Reports say the SHS mill which came up in 1989, was originally to be the Suan Kitti Pulp Mill but was renamed Advance Agro in order to detract from the critical public sentiment towards Suan Kitti.

Green groups, including the World Rainforest Movement, claim that Advance Agro still relies on industrial tree farms for its pulp. They say while the company owns no tree farms, it sources wood from SHS subsidiary Agro Line, which gets supplies from its own extensive industrial plantations, SHS-owned plantations and farmers.

Leetavorn asserts that the company has always sourced for logs from contract farmers and “did not want to do industrial plantation because of environmental concerns.” He says the parent company of Advance Agro had tree plantations earlier on but they were for trials to find trees suitable for Thailand, and were not commercially viable for pulp and paper production.

Leetavorn says 90% of the pulp used in the company’s paper production came from logs harvested by farmers. Eucalyptus, like another fast-growing tree, acacia, produces only short fibre pulp. This is mixed with long fibre pulp (processed from temperate trees such as birch and pine) imported from New Zealand and Scandinavian forest plantations that have been certified as sustainably managed.

Advance Agro currently produces more pulp than its paper mills can handle, thus the excess is sold. Its new US$200mil (RM620mil) paper mill with a 200,000-tonne capacity that will come up in 2009 is expected to absorb the surplus pulp.

As for the use of recycled and alternative fibres, Advance Agro has not pursued this course like some other paper producers as such fibres do not produce good quality paper, says Leetavorn. He says globally, pulp is now mostly sourced from farmed trees, with Indonesia and Brazil being the major producers.

Despite concerns over deforestation and the ecological hazards posed by commercial tree plantations as well as pulp and paper mills, global demand for paper continues to soar, particularly in China, eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific. Each Malaysian and Thai now consumes 3kg of paper annually, compared with 400g for a Chinese, 6kg for a Singaporean, and 80kg for an American.

The growing demand for pulp compels the industry to look for sustainable options and fortunately, there is a source of raw material that meets this criterion – trees grown by farmers.

Related Story:
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