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Wood energy from Australian seeds

How the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra is collecting and distributing tree seeds requested throughout the world, particularly acacias, casuarinas and eucalypts.

Warwick Cooper

WARWICK COOPER IS an Australian journalist. This article is a condensed version of one which appeared in Australia Now.

Three major groups of Australian native trees are gaining a new international status as a prime energy source in an energy-hungry world. Acacias, casuarinas and eucalypts are providing timber and fuel in many countries on most continents. They are in demand because they are disease-free, fast-growing and thrive in infertile soils where many other forest trees would not grow.

Acacias, or wattles, whose fluffy yellow flowers are seen in the Australian bush, are reclaiming the edges of the world's great deserts, revitalizing the leached soils of Asia, feeding stock and supplying vital fuel for people in developing countries.

The graceful casuarinas of rivers and coast, called she-oaks by the Australians, are appearing in China, Malaysia, the Mediterranean, the Americas and Africa. Their timber is recognized as one of the best fuels in the world. Like acacias, they can fix nitrogen and improve and stabilize soils. There are millions of eucalypts - the Australian gum trees - growing in more than 100 countries. The four million ha of planted eucalypt forests around the world produce more wood than that harvested each year in Australia and make eucalypts the world's favourite broad-leaved plantation trees.

These eucalypts, together with acacias and casuarinas, are making an impact as a basic energy source in the rapidly increasing number of countries developing major reforestation programmes.

Many commercial forests overseas are the result of a seed export programme initiated by the Australian Government and backed by FAO and other development agencies.

In the past five years, Australia has responded to an upsurge in world demand for seeds for firewood crops, and millions of seeds are being planted in Third World countries. The seed packages sent abroad are the result of intensive laboratory and field research by a small number of scientists and foresters in the Seed Section of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Division of Forest Research based in the tree-lined Canberra suburb of Yarralumla.

The researchers combine the knowledge of soil and climate in countries from the United Kingdom to Zimbabwe with the growth rates and adaptability of the types of eucalypts, acacias or casuarinas which the countries have requested. Teams of foresters then fan out across Australia to collect seeds from suitable trees growing in appropriate environments. The search can be difficult and may mean weeks of camping out in rough conditions and travelling long distances in four-wheel-drive vehicles across the Australian inland. The foresters use rifles, saws, and ropes to bring down the seed-laden boughs. The seeds they collect are shipped back to Canberra for drying, processing and packaging, and sent across the world to start a new forest project. Seeds are sent in packages weighing between 5 g and 1 kilogram. Eucalypt seeds, in particular, are very small and a packet may contain as many as 500000 seeds.

The CSIRO Division of Forest Research began in 1921 as the Australian Government's Commonwealth Forestry Bureau and was incorporated with CSIRO in 1975. The Bureau, and later the Division, exported seed in relatively small quantities until the 1960s, when the UN asked Australia to intensify seed collection of eucalypts for developing countries.

The Federal Government's research and development programme is complemented by a commercial export industry which also supplies seeds to developers and governments, making Australia a world supplier of forest trees. Host countries are now taking seeds from trees introduced through the CSIRO programme for larger forest plantations even better adapted to local conditions.

Australian eucalypts are used throughout the world because of their significant advantages over other forest species. They are relatively pest-free and are capable of high growth rates in infertile soils and with a fluctuating moisture supply - characteristics of the Australian bush - and many of them are fire tolerant. When they are cut down, they will reshoot without having to be replanted, an important advantage in drier areas where forests are needed for pulp and fuelwood. CSIRO researchers say that about 85 percent of eucalypts planted outside Australia are used for either fuelwood or pulpwood and that an increasing amount of the fuelwood is being used for domestic cooking. The remaining 15 percent is used for sawn timber or for roundwood products such as telephone poles.

CONTROLLED POLLINATION IN - Eucalyptus grandis a fast-growing species on the right site

PLANTING Casuarina equisetifolia IN VIET NAM - the world's most sought-after tree

Acacia peuce - SEED COLLECTION - millions of seeds per year for Third-World forest projects

Because of CSIRO research, Australian acacias have uses ranging from timber, pulpwood and stock feeding in Asia, sand binding in the deserts of the Near East and Africa, to being an important source of tan bark in southern Africa and India. Australia has more than 600 of the world's 900 types of acacias, and their seeds have been exported in increasing quantities since the 1960s.

An increasing number of countries are growing mulga, the acacia which in Australia is a stunted, gnarled inhabitant of the fringes of the arid inland, as stock food. Mulgas have long been considered a stand-by as food for sheep by graziers facing the Australian droughts, but now they are taking on a triple role in the Near East and Africa. In the arid areas on the edge of the Sahara Desert, where there is much grazing pressure, acacias, particularly mulgas, are providing stability to the soil, as well as fuelwood and fodder for the stock.

The tree which is gaining the most interest around the world, however, is the casuarina, noted for its wood, sand-binding ability and wind tolerance. About 20 countries - mainly in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean - have expressed a serious interest in growing casuarinas. The Egyptians feel they have a strong potential in the Near East, and the countries of West Africa and the Mediterranean are similarly interested. Australia has about 40 of the world's 67 types of casuarina and, as seed exports increase, is moving to supply about 15 species on a regular basis. There are already large plantations of casuarinas in Argentina, and other South American countries have requested seed supplies from Australia under the export programme. Casuarinas are mainly used for fuel. In fact, they were used in Australian bakers' ovens until the 1950s because they burn to a fine white ash while producing a great deal of heat.

Casuarinas make good wind-breaks as they arc very tolerant of driving sand and other conditions that would kill many other species. The leaves of eucalypts would be ripped to shreds in such conditions, but the pine-needle-type leaves of the casuarinas are much more resistant. They have been planted along the edges of canals in Egypt to stop sand drifting, and with similar success in other parts of Africa.

CSIRO researchers contend that the seed export programme is providing real and lasting benefit as an alternative fuel source, especially for the people of developing countries.

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