By: Ayaan Sagar, Dipanita Malik, Niyati Pendekanti, Rajvardhan Ghorpade
Eucalyptus trees tower over native shrubbery in the Western Ghats. The image above captures the serenity of its landscape, where a path leads through a forest of soaring trees. A closer look at the image, however, reveals the long shadow of violence left behind by imperialism in postcolonial states. This paper explores the invasive species of Eucalyptus in the Western Ghats to understand the implications of imperial beautification and commercialisation on native land and species.
Reading the Image
In the frame, the Eucalyptus trees represent the imperial past of Ooty. The seeds, sown into the ground years ago, mark the beginning of colonial influence in the region. The very act of commercialising barren land has its foundations in British imperial thinking. Their exploitative efforts pierced into not only the social and political realms of India, but also its ecology. Though they were planted by the colonisers, they continue to dominate the Indian landscape in the Western Ghats. The damage done to native shrubs and species cannot be replaced, and the symbols of exploitation form a crucial part of this new ecosystem, one that blurs the lines between the past and the present.
As a result, this image represents the dilemma of postcolonial states, where the path to a national identity is only through the networks of colonialism that are embedded in society. The light that filters through the barks of Eucalyptus is a euphemism for the survival of such national identities. It flows through the forest, marking a sense of universality, but remains scattered and incoherent due to the presence of Eucalyptus. The soil gives life to native shrubberies that survive within the complex ecosystems of the forest. In other words, these native species have no alternative but to coexist with colonial structures.
The Violence of Colonialism
British colonialism, inspired by the ideas of ‘modernity’ and the ‘enlightenment,’ sought to impose their worldview upon the colonised. This was a process accompanied by violence – both physical and epistemic. The aftermath of the violence may not be apparent for it is concealed by decades of collective amnesia and an ‘aesthetic’ appreciation shaped by the West that influences people to be content instead of critiquing what is thought to be the ‘common sense.’ The introduction of Eucalyptus and Wattle (Acacia), both of which are ‘exotic’ and ‘invasive’ species, led to the systemic destruction of the indigenous flora and fauna of the Western Ghats region. An invasive species is one which is non-native, dominates the native species and causes damage to the ecosystem. They tend to show a great many characteristics quite similar to the violent and exploitative nature of British rule in India, as further discussed later in the paper.
The Ghats, therefore, became ‘Western’ in the sense of being subject to and appropriated by the violence propagated by British colonialism. The indigenous Shola trees were felled to make way for these invasive species. This is similar to, and even a result of, the colonisers’ disregard for indigenous culture and ways of life, and the curbing of their freedoms through exploitation and violence. Also, the grasslands of the Western Ghats were sought to be transformed by the colonial encounter which propagated the myth that these grasslands were in fact ‘barren landscapes.’ Quite the ‘benevolent’ civilising mission of the British, which claimed to alleviate the ignorance and suffering of the peoples of the colonised world, by enlightening them; in effect fructifying their ‘barren’ minds. The inconsistency and lack of scientific planning in conducting these environmental operations is also emblematic of the arbitrariness of British rule in India. An arbitrariness that exacerbated its violence.
Unceasing commercialisation of Eucalyptus
The commercial value of the species of Eucalyptus continues to encourage their persistence and plantation. Scholars find that the species travelled from the botanical gardens of Australia to the forests in southern Africa, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and other developing nations during the global expansion of the British Empire, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to the perception of bringing health and medicinal benefits to the colonisers in the Indian subcontinent, the ‘desirable species’ of eucalyptus became a mode of consolidating the interest in ‘profit-oriented management practices.’ This increased the export of industrial and commercial wood, good quality firewood, and timber to the West for further expansion. This ‘wonder wood’ possessed attractive characteristics of quick growth, hardwood, and biological resilience, thus becoming a project of market-based capitalism for large landowners, local elites, and settler populations. Therefore, large-scale deforestation for the plantation of eucalyptus took place, even with its water-intensive requirements which posed a danger to water reservoirs and the quality of the soil.
Despite incurring economic losses, this project of forestlands as sites for colonial experimentation was carried forward by Independent India. The commercial interest in growing eucalyptus found state signature in the initial development plans, such as the Five Year Plans, that aimed at overcoming the impoverished and developing status of the newly independent country which was now on a path to modernity and technological advancement. Several scholars argue that colonial modes of forest management remain dominant even today, in consultation with and support from international organisations such as the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organisation. For instance, forest departments provided free seedlings of the species to Karnataka in the 1980s, with the objective of generating foreign exchange through the commercial value of eucalyptus only becoming powerful. The post-Independence India further encouraged the plantation of eucalyptus on private landholdings that were earlier utilized for food crops, and thus, community dependence and farming became more and more sidelined. Local Indian elites became the new colonisers.
Negative Effects on the Ecosystem
Coming back to the colonial roots, the British, when introducing these new species, did not pay much attention to the existing plants, ecosystems, soil patterns and requirements and in doing so, planted the seeds of a dire threat to native biodiversity. The invasive species occupy, compete for, and steal space that is not originally theirs, essentially taking over native plants and driving out native animals such as the Nilgiri Tahr and gaurs. In this case, the Eucalyptus, Wattle, and Pine release a resin-like substance that makes the soil acidic and thus, hinders the growth of other plants. This, in turn, leads to a decrease in food for not only herbivores but also carnivores by extension, forcing them to wander into neighbouring towns, which often lead to conflicts with humans; again, over resources and space.
With reports detailing the damage caused by these species, there was pressure on the Tamil Nadu government to resolve the situation, but the issue then arose of how. The obvious response would have been to fell the exotic trees, replacing them with native ones (sholas) and setting the ground for the grasslands to grow back. However, studies revealed that other invasive weeds and saplings simply took over the spaces created, forming dense layers. Furthermore, the eucalyptus must be fully uprooted to prevent it from re-sprouting, which is an intensive, time-consuming task; a parallel can be drawn here to how deep-rooted colonialism itself and its traces are. Undoing what has been done and uprooting the violent legacy that imperialism has left behind is far from easy.
The serenity of the image lies in contrast with the violence that is embedded in the plantation of these invasive species. As a result, a parallel is drawn between the hostile takeover of native species, and the theft of Indian land and resources by the British.