Trees and GDP

January 3, 2010

21 June 2009

Trees and GDP


Alfred E. Baldacchino

Some people might think that tree planting is just putting the potted tree into a hole in the ground, and perhaps watering it. Tree planting however involves much more than this and requires a plan of action, unless of course such tree planting is done for convenience rather than conviction. When planting a tree, one has also to take into consideration the economic, ecological and social aspects.

Ecologic aspects

There are trees and trees. Different trees grow in different types of habitats. One would not, for example, plant a tree, which grows along watercourses, such as a poplar or a willow tree, in a salt marsh. Neither should trees be planted on garigue, the richest habitat, as unfortunately happened in both cases. Similarly, no one would plant a salt loving tree, like the tamarix, in a valley. These would jar with the environment, as much as a girl in bikini would be out of place in church. These are but some elementary points with regard to the planting of indigenous tress propagated from local stock.

Imported alien species of trees should be handled with the utmost attention and planning. Some of these imported alien species can, and have, become invasive because of lack of planning. As examples one can mention the eucalyptus, the  acacia, the castor oil tree, the tree-of-heaven and the Brazilian pepper, among others. The application of precautionary principle is of utmost importance when it comes to importing living species, not excluding trees, be they exotic or  indigenous. Such imported species also carry with them the possibility of giving a free ride to other species, which can have a very negative ecological, economical and social impact. The recent introduction of the red palm weevil, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the citrus white fly, the Geranium Bronze Butterfly, and a number of other species including molluscs, flies, wasps, are all taking a stronger hold and impacting the Maltese ecosystem.

Social aspects

Planting trees without any plan of action can also have a social impact, both if the trees are planted in the wild and also if they are planted in urban areas. As an example, take the number of imported Australian eucalyptus trees planted both in the rural and urban environment. Besides the negative aesthetic impact they have, eucalyptus trees rely heavily on underground water; in fact, they are used to dry marshes. The number of eucalyptus groves growing in rural areas, notably in Gozo, without doubt are affecting the supply of underground water in the island, particularly the surrounding fields, to the extent that farmers have to look for alternative sources of water, either from ‘new’ boreholes, or by obtaining water from other sources. The domino effect of having eucalyptus trees growing next to farmers’ fields, are making it more difficult and problematic for farmers to cultivate their fields, with the result that there is a possible smaller output from the cultivated fields, and more expensive produce. Naturally, the unnecessary waste of this natural resource – ground water – cannot be ignored.

Economic aspect

The more the social and ecologic considerations are ignored, the more negative the economic impacts are. Without a proper plan of action, society is burdened with cost externalities, that is, costs which are not borne by those involved in tree planting – mainly the importers of trees, or landscapers.

As an example, one can refer to the now established invasive alien species, the red palm weevil (RPW), which was imported with palm trees. The RPW is devastating palm trees in the Maltese Islands, be they historic, aesthetic, indigenous, public, or private. Many are spraying living palm trees in the hope of saving them, or cutting and transporting dead trees, naturally personally paying for such unforeseen and unwanted costs. These are some of the externalities being paid by society due to the lack of an official policy and lack of foresight and planning by those who were involved in the introduction, naturally unintentionally, of the RPW, but who, notwithstanding, pocketed the profits from such commercial activities.

Growing indigenous trees locally

The Gross Domestic Product is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders and sold on the market in a specific time period, usually one year. Tree planting can contribute to the GDP of the country, if there is a proper plan of action.

In another section of the press, it was officially stated that seeds from local indigenous trees are being sent to Italy so that they can be propagated there, and then re-imported as potted plants. This is indeed unbelievable in this day and age when Malta is party to a number of international biodiversity conventions, all of which highlight the need to protect indigenous biodiversity. This might also give the impression that Maltese gardeners, who have been handling seeds ever since man set foot on these islands, are today incapable of propagating indigenous trees. It can also give the impression that there is some sort of Midas magic touch in this policy.

A proper plan of action for the planting of indigenous trees, besides contributing to the Maltese GDP, can also contribute to the balance of payments. This can be achieved if indigenous seeds are collected, sown, cared for, distributed, sold, planted and distributed locally. This creates a number of different unlimited green jobs, besides completely eliminating the possibility of importing any IAS, diseases or viruses, which are all possible under the present policy of importing plants and trees, and which has happened in some cases. It would also ensure that the local gene pool of indigenous trees is not polluted. Besides, it contributes to the better balance of payments, less money going overseas for something that can be done much better and more efficiently locally. Furthermore, money, which is being uselessly spent overseas, can have a much needed multiplier effect if it is spent locally. New green jobs for locals will be created, the ecosystem will benefit, and society will not be asked to pay, in cash or in kind, for externalities, as it is doing at present. The value of such goods and services would also be reflected in the local GDP.

An official urgent policy in this field is urgently needed if, IF, what is officially said and written on the protection of biodiversity, is to be taken seriously.

Mr Baldacchino is a Planning and Environmental manager