With its unique characteristics, eucalyptus is one of the world’s most widely grown forest plants, meeting the demand for both forestry products and industrial use. A tree with a high growth rate and a natural adaptability that allows for sustainable management of its plantations, eucalyptus wood and biomass serve as the raw material inputs for paper and pulp production (with applications in sectors ranging from automotive to textiles to food), renewable energy, and other bioproducts used in medicine and cosmetics.
Introduced into Portugal almost 200 years ago, eucalyptus began its naturalization process as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens, simultaneously to its domestic use (wood and energy); it helped in the development of the railroad and mining industries and became an important source of raw material for the production of pulp, which now contributes to the Portuguese industry´s prominence on the world stage.
In addition to its economic and social impact on communities, the use of the eucalyptus extends to environmental preservation, specifically, in maintaining ecosystem services represented by forests and air quality. More impressively, the species is the largest contributor to the capture of CO2 in the atmosphere – with over 50% of the Portuguese forests’ emission removal coming from eucalyptus alone. It also boasts a higher capacity to produce oxygen, producing over three times more than native cork oak forests.
The eucalyptus industry (pulp and paper) represents over 2.9 billion euros (1.5%) of Portugal’s GDP, 5% of national exports, and tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs.
The growth of economic activity surrounding eucalyptus has increased the world’s knowledge about this tree and best practices to foster its cultivation, while debunking several pre-thought-of misconceptions.
Around 80% of eucalyptus roots are fertile and found in the superficial layer of the soil (just 40-60 centimeters deep), constituting a root system that improves soil structure and aggregation, while preventing erosion processes.
The contributions of eucalyptus towards improved soil quality has been documented since the 1980s and is explained by its decomposition and integration of its leaves, branches, bark and roots where about 70% of the tree’s nutrients are concentrated, into the soil, as organic matter.
Eucalyptus regulates its water consumption based on the water availability in its surrounding soil, temperature, and air humidity, allowing it to survive long periods in near-drought conditions or other climatic extremes, as explained in initial FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) studies on this species. Only 0.3% of the water used by the eucalyptus is retained in the wood, while the rest is released by transpiration into the atmosphere, where it resumes its role in the atmospheric cycle.
Sustainable eucalyptus forests, such as those managed by the paper industry, contribute vastly towards the reduction in risks for forests. In its proposal for the prevention of rural fires in the Mediterranean region, WWF points to the example of “production eucalyptus plantations, which, by having well-maintained undergrowth and protection nets, are not as flammable as abandoned forests”.