The Third Wattle War: environment versus development?

Are Australian acacias planted overseas miracle plants for rural development, or are they the worst kind of environmental weeds?  The battle lines appear rather stark at times.  At least when one reads environmentalist Tim Low’s rebuttal to a critique that Jacques Tassin and I wrote of his views.  We thought our statement to be tempered and tried to build a reasonable case for responsible use of exotic agroforestry trees (see also previous blog).  But Low calls us “in denial about dangerous aid”, flogs a misplaced example about mesquite in an argument about acacia, all the time preaching his argument to the converted in the journal Biological Invasions.  Low has even taken his views to an online editorial on the Australian Broadcasting Corp website and has promoted his views to the Herald Sun (link).

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, an entirely different story is developing.  On 2 November, there was a small seminar and dinner in Hanoi celebrating the contributions of Australian and Vietnamese scientists to the forestry sector, primarily through the promotion of Australian acacia species.  The Vietnamese Government awarded medals to Sadanandan Nambiar, Chris Harwood, Khongsak Pinyopusarerk, Rod Griffin and Stephen Midgley for “contributions to Vietnam’s forest development.”  Australian acacias are now a common part of Vietnam’s rural landscape, rehabilitating denuded landscapes, and providing wood for industry and fuel.  Australian aid (via CSIRO, AusAID, and ACIAR) played a role in supporting such initiatives since 1987, working together with Vietnamese partners like the Research Centre of Forest Tree Improvement and the Forest Science Institute of Vietnam.

According to Stephen Midgley, there are now about 900,000 ha of Australian acacia plantations in Vietnam (about the same area as the Californian Pinus radiata in Australia).  Just last year, an estimated 120 000 ha of acacias were planted in Vietnam – some 70% by smallholders.  Acacias have been used as nurse crops to rehabilitate native forest areas; examples include the protection forests of Hai Van Pass and the Perfumed River catchment behind Hue.  Acacias are now a valuable commercial asset, as hardwood woodchips and as furniture wood.  Product value exceeded US$1.5 billion in 2011, with some US$400 million returning directly to the pockets of the growers, leading to improvement to livelihoods among acacia-growing communities.

An ecologist may look at this situation and worry that the acacias in Vietnam are going to ‘explode’ in the future, becoming problematic pests or replacing ‘natural’ forest.  That is, they will become too successful for their own good.  Indeed, apparently the weediness of acacias will be addressed to some extent at the upcoming IUFRO acacia sylviculture working party meeting in Vietnam.  Chris Harwood, of Australia’s research agency CSIRO, wrote to me:

“One my just-completed trip to Vietnam I had a careful look (as I always do) in the farming landscapes of northern, central and southern Vietnam for signs of acacias spreading as weeds.  There are no such signs.  All the farming land is too intensively cultivated (Vietnam has a land area of 33m ha and a population of 87m), and  all the acacias in the landscape are planted rather than naturally regenerated, except for very occasional patches of vacant ground which may have a few ‘volunteer’ acacia seedlings but which will soon go under cultivation.  Quite large areas formerly under acacia plantations in southern Vietnam have been converted to rubber plantations during the last 5 years, with no evident difficulty.  In the north, tea is successfully grown under Acacia mangium.  The only caveat regarding weediness in Vietnam is that care must be taken when planting adjacent to native ecosystems to ensure that acacias  do not spread into them.  But this is a manageable potential problem and is just not an issue for the vast majority of acacia plantations that do not abut natural ecosystems.”

In addition to ecological questions about invasion potential, social scientists may ask about how access to land and other rural power relations are altered by such forestry development.  Indeed they have already (link).  But the point here might be that shouting from diametrically opposed ideological camps is probably not the best way to move forward.  In this case, there is a will to plant acacias (what combination of government diktat and social consensus I don’t know) and they are already deeply incorporated into the physical and socio-economic landscape.  In addition to shaping the already very anthropogenic landscape by farming rice, other crops, and tree crops like rubber (over 1 milliion ha), the Vietnamese are farming acacias.  The question then, instead of “go acacia go” or “doom is coming”, is how farmers, foresters, villager leaders, government agents, and scientists might each in their own way address the questions of the future of Vietnam’s regional landscapes – what values are important, what are the options, what are the constraints and potential problems, what does the evidence show.  It is this kind of measured approach Jacques Tassin and I tried to make in our response to Tim Low.

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Ps.   In case you are wondering why the blog’s title, the “Third Wattle War”?  Yes, it is a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m building on what historian Libby Robin has already referred to as the Wattle Wars or Battles for Acacia.  The First Wattle War was a diplomatic spat between South Africa and Australia over the use of acacia flowers as a national symbol one hundred years ago (see Carruthers et al. 2011).  The Second Wattle War was the highly contested debate that took place over the last decade on whether Africa or Australia would keep the botanic name Acacia for its native trees (see several earlier blogs, and Kull & Rangan 2012).

2 Responses to The Third Wattle War: environment versus development?

  1. Million Trees says:

    The debate that Drs. Kull and Tassin have been having with critics of acacia is very familiar with the Million Trees blog. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, native plant advocates have turned what should be a land-use decision into a moral imperative.

    Native plant advocates in the Bay Area demand that non-native trees and vegetation be destroyed so they can plant the native plants they prefer. Those who oppose this destruction do not accept the claim that native plants are somehow superior to non-natives as well as the corollary argument that non-natives are harmful.

    In a democratic society, these decisions should be treated as land-use decisions. Since there is no evidence that non-native trees and plants harm the environment, the demand to destroy them is merely an ideological gardening preference. If the majority of the public objects to the destruction of the trees that have thrived here for nearly 200 years, they should not be destroyed to satisfy the preferences of a small minority.

    Granted, Vietnam can’t presently be described as a democracy. In that case, the leadership will simply weigh the benefit of one option against another. Acacias are obviously performing a valuable function by providing a timber resource. They are probably preventing the destruction of the remaining native forest.

    We would like a civil debate, but native plant advocates have turned it into a frontal assault, just as Drs. Kull and Tassin have experienced. There is a lesson here, for those who choose to see that the tactics used by native plant advocates are inconsistent with their claim of moral high-ground.

  2. […] There are also the vast plantations of exotic acacias growing wood for industry, as I detailed in a previous blog entry. And these forests have changed rapidly in the past few decades in step with the country’s […]

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