Kenya: Biotechnology, eucalyptus but no GM trees

29 Nov

A project to plant hi-tech hybrid eucalyptus in Kenya runs into problems.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 88, November 2004.

Wangari Maathai and Florence Wambugu have dramatically opposing approaches to tree planting in Kenya. Maathai’s approach is anti-colonialist and empowers the people planting trees. Wambugu’s is neo-colonialist and makes the people planting trees dependent on biotechnology.

Wangari Maathai is this year’s Nobel Prize winner. Her Green Belt Movement trains women to set up their own tree nurseries. “We make them independent people who can take care of their environment by themselves,” says Maathai. As well as tree planting, Maathai is African Co-President of Jubilee 2000 and is campaigning for the cancellation of Third World Debt.

Florence Wambugu is the founder of A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International. Until 2002, she was the director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

In 1997, ISAAA started a “Tree Biotechnology Project”. The project is a partnership between the Kenyan Forest Department, the Kenyan Forestry Research Institute and Mondi Forests, South Africa’s pulp and paper giant. Funding for the project comes from the UK’s Gatsby Foundation.

Mondi supplied hybrid clonal eucalyptus trees for the project, a cross between Eucalyptus grandis and Eucalyptus camaldulensis. The Tree Biotechnology Project planted the clonal trees in trial plots to see which grew best in Kenya’s soils and climate. The project set up a nursery at Karura, near Nairobi, which now produces more than one million tree cuttings a year to be delivered to farmers.

ISAAA is pro-genetic modification. “Commercialized GM crops continue to deliver significant economic, environmental, and social benefits to both small and large farmers in developing and industrial countries,” writes ISAAA’s chair Clive James. Florence Wambugu previously worked for Monsanto on a GM virus-resistant sweet potato project. ISAAA’s funders include Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Past and present board members include representatives from Monsanto, Syngenta and the AusBiotech Alliance.

ISAAA’s statements about its tree planting project (as well as the word “Biotechnology” in the project’s title) hint at genetic modification. ISAAA states that Mondi’s “genetically superior Eucalyptus” grows faster and “the hybrid is drought- and cold-tolerant.” The project “aims to provide superior clonal material to both rural and urban communities in Kenya”.

In a July 2004 article, EcoTerra accused Florence Wambugu of using the project to import genetically modified trees from South Africa into Kenya. In the UK, the Guardian reported that “GM eucalyptus is to replace the country’s forest cover.”

ISAAA denies that the trees are genetically modified. “The project does not involve transgenic trees, it involves genetically enhanced trees, which are the result of traditional breeding programmes at Mondi Forests,” ISAAA’s Catherine Ngamau told me.

Peter Gardiner, Mondi Forests’ Natural Resource Manager denies that Mondi has ever produced GM trees. “We don’t deploy any GMO material in the research, on a research plot or commercially anywhere. We haven’t done it anywhere. There’s no intention to do that,” Gardiner told me.

Flic Blakeway was one of Mondi’s forestry scientists that Florence Wambugu met when she visited Mondi’s nurseries in South Africa. Blakeway co-authored a paper presented at the 1997 World Forestry Congress in Turkey, which describes how scientists in Mondi’s laboratories had started “preliminary work” on GM trees, including “the transformation of eucalyptus leaf and cell cultures using Agrobacterium mediated procedures.” Blakeway’s paper reported that the experiments did not produce any GM trees.

Although I’ve found no evidence to back EcoTerra’s claim that Mondi and Florence Wambugu have sneaked GM eucalyptus trees into Kenya, ISAAA’s Tree Biotechnology Project is not immune to problems.

Fast growing eucalyptus trees cause streams and ponds to dry up and the water table to drop in the areas they are planted. One of the Kikuyu names for eucalyptus is munyua maai, which means the “drinker of water”. Little or nothing will grow under the trees.

In 1995 in a presentation at the UN Women’s conference in Beijing, Wangari Maathai explained that during the colonial era, “species of trees like the eucalyptus, black wattle and conifer trees replaced indigenous species not only on farmlands but also in forest areas.” As a result, she continued, “farmlands have lost water and certain crops like bananas, sugarcanes and local species of arrow roots no longer thrive on the drier farmlands to give food security to the local communities.”

Then there’s the Blue Gum Chalcid, a tiny black insect which is threatening Kenya’s eucalyptus trees. Affected trees are useless for timber or poles. In November 2004, the Daily Nation reported that the pest could threaten up to 40 per cent of Kenya’s plantations. Eston Mutitu of the Kenya Forestry Research Institute commented that the worst affected trees are those produced though biotechnology such as through ISAAA’s project.

“We are now experiencing exotic pests attacking exotic trees. It seems we are getting the bad side of incorporating the exotic trees,” Mutitu told Biosafety News in April 2004.

Three years ago, at a conference in South Africa, Wangari Maathai said, “We are trying to stop the current government from expanding the plantations. The government sees indigenous forests as useless.” It seems that no one from the Kenyan government, ISAAA or Mondi was listening. Perhaps they will pay attention now that the problems caused by planting eucalyptus trees are becoming all too apparent.

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