Australian plantation species are farmed extensively throughout the world, especially in developing countries where they are preferred to local forest species for fuelwood and manufacturing owing to their rapid growth and adaptability to harsh environments. ACIAR has long invested in the forestry sector of developing countries, brokering research that improves the domestication of Australian trees as a significant component of sustainable forest production systems in Asian economies.
Plantations of fast-growing eucalypt and acacia species produce much of the world’s growing demand for wood. On recent estimates, eucalypts alone will provide half the global demand for commercial hardwood timber by 2030. Smallholder growers in the tropics contribute strongly to wood production and enjoy improved livelihoods through wood sales. For example, Vietnamese smallholders own and manage half that country’s two million hectares of acacia plantations, and earn an estimated $300 million (USD) annually. ACIAR’s recent project in Vietnam on advanced breeding and deployment methods for tropical acacias (FST/2008/007) contributes to the ongoing evolution of this economy.
Forest economist Neil Byron identifies four ‘keys’, essential for successful smallholder tree farming: secure land access, a viable production technology, acceptably low risk and effective market demand for the wood. Tree domestication, which combines genetic improvement with mass production of improved planting stock for growers, is a vital part of the second key, and market demand for pulpwood, veneer and sawn timber from Asia’s burgeoning economies underpins the growth of eucalypts and acacias by smallholders on short four to eight year rotations.
RESEARCH TAKES ROOT
Two ACIAR projects, the ‘SAT’ (‘Seeds of Australian trees’, FST/1993/118) and ‘DAT’ (‘Domestication of Australian trees for reforestation and agroforestry systems in developing countries’, FST1998/096) enabled CSIRO’s Australian Tree Seed Centre to establish long-lasting partnerships with scientists in country research agencies. When the SAT project commenced, we already had a good idea from previous studies which species and provenances (geographic varieties within each species) were best for wood production in different countries’.
The challenge was to help country tree breeders to set up genetically diverse breeding populations for long-term tree improvement, and seed orchards to mass-produce planting stock for growers. CSIRO teams travelled to remote regions of northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia to assemble the large, diverse seed collections that form the starting point for breeding, and progeny trials testing hundreds of seed families were established in many countries.
Capacity building was a vital component of the SAT and DAT projects, with frequent advisory visits to countries to provide training in seed collection, handling and seed orchard technology; tree breeding; and co-supervision of postgraduate research. In addition, over 200 trainees attended short-term courses on the science of tree domestication. At least 20 former trainees now hold key positions in national agencies concerned with forest genetics and tree breeding. Through the personal relationships that were established, research collaboration set up under SAT and DAT continues today.
The progeny trials set up in the 1990s in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam form the backbone of today’s advanced breeding programs. Now, some countries are in their third generation of breeding these important tree species. Breeding trials identify the best trees, which are then used in seed orchards, and also for controlled pollination to produce inter-specific hybrid varieties. These hybrids must be clonally propagated to produce planting stock for plantations.
With ever-growing attention to disease tolerance, Vietnam’s Academy of Forest Sciences has developed outstanding acacia and eucalypt hybrid varieties and the technical infrastructure that gives growers throughout the country clonal planting stock at low cost. As with food crop breeding, tree breeding never stops and must continually address new challenges.
Stephen Midgley, the project leader for SAT and DAT, says: ‘The projects provided the genetic foundations for thriving modern plantation industries which now offer livelihoods and employment to millions of people and products needed by today’s changing society. I am fortunate to enjoy a great many friendships within the global plantation sector based upon a mutual, longterm interest in the role of Australian species. I derive a great deal of pride from the useful contribution eucalypts, acacias and casuarinas make to local livelihoods and industry. This represents a uniquely Australian contribution to local development and a lasting, meaningful legacy for projects such as ACIAR’s SAT and DAT.’