What is crippling India’s valuable teak plantations?

Instead of simply advocating for teak plantations, farmers should be sensitised to holistic packages encompassing not only cultivation techniques but also comprehensive best practices

Teak (Tectona grandis) is one of the premier hardwood timber species in the world and a symbol of prosperity. But in India, teak planting, characterised by its high costs and relatively meager returns, has contributed to a sense of reluctance among farmers to engage in tree plantation initiatives. In addressing this challenge, a shift in strategy is warranted.

Teak is naturally distributed over nine million hectares in the country and 2-3 million ha have been planted. In fact, the world’s first ever plantation of teak was set up in Nilambur, Kerala, India by Conolly and Chotu Menon in 1842. Later, the cash crop was widely planted by the forest department to improve degraded forests. 

The Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and National Forest Policy, 1988 imposed a ban on green felling of timber from government-owned forests. The policy recommended meeting timber demand from private lands. 

This paradigm shift for private plantation of timber species in India pushed prices for teak logs above 500 per cent over normal. To encash this opportunity, many nursery owners and private plantation agencies came up with teak planting schemes to earn higher profits. 

Records indicate that thousands of companies operated in the market to promote such schemes in India. Private nurseries and companies promote tissue culture teak plants, saying it increases gain three to five times over traditional planting (seed and stump planting) in the shortest time (8-12 years from planting). Such promises attracted thousands of farmers to adopt teak plantations. 

Farmers in the rural regions of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh were significantly impacted by numerous advertisements featuring loud claims. For example, some companies sold teak seedlings at Rs 400-2,500 per plant and promised returns of Rs 50,000-100,000 per tree after a span of 20 years. Even today, in the name of tissue culture, seed-originated teak plants are sold at Rs 100-250 and claimed to provide a yield of 1 cubic metre of wood per tree in 8-12 years, at a density of 2,500-4,000 trees per hectare.

Some state governments also rolled out tree plantation subsidies, leading to many farmers planting teak in high density. 

But many years later, farmers feel cheated due to underdeveloped and poor growth of teak plantations. This is not only due to planting stock, but the absence of a proper package of practices for raising and managing teak plantations. 

Teak provenance or variety?

Many nursery owners and private companies sell teak seedlings claiming they are from Burma, which supposedly grows rapidly and can be harvested in eight years. Even online shopping sites like Amazon and Flipkart sell ‘Burma teak’ seeds. 

Three primary teak provenances exist worldwide: The Indian Peninsular, the Burmese-Thai-Laos, and the Insular (Indonesian) populations. These provenances are chosen based on various factors such as wood quality, growth rate, stem form, seed characteristics and response to climate and soil conditions. Using seeds or planting material from these provenances in their respective regions is crucial. 

In India, teak displays distinct traits influenced by local climates and soil conditions. For example, along the Malabar coast in the Western Ghats, teak thrives due to ample rainfall, ideal for ship and boat construction. 

In Central India, teak is prized for specific qualities suitable for furniture and aesthetics. Teak wood from Seoni in Madhya Pradesh boasts a golden yellow hue blending heartwood and sapwood. Chandrapur in Maharashtra produces exceptional teak renowned for its color and texture owing to distinct growth rings. The Godavari valley in Andhra Pradesh offers teak suitable for decorative furniture and cabinet making. Similarly, teak from Rajulmadugu, also in Andhra Pradesh, is valued for its valuable pink-colored heartwood. 

Absence of standards package, practices 

The concept of commercial tree planting in India was introduced by the British and later disseminated to the grassroots levels by the forest department. Typically, teak was planted at a density of 2m x 2m, around 2,500 trees per hectare, followed by a prescribed thinning protocol.

Thinning involves selective removal of teak saplings, with 50 per cent harvested after 4-5 years and the remaining 50 per cent after 8-10 years, resulting in half of the leftover from the initial thinning process. 

Silvicultural thinning then targeted poorly shaped, forked, dead, broken and diseased trees, leaving around 100-150 trees with straight boles, knot-free and high economic value, yielding 1 to 2 cubic metres of wood volume.

Farmers, however, often lack the education on employing thinning practices. The absence of thinning results in underdeveloped teak stands after 15 years, with girths of 10-15 cm. It also leads to unsatisfactory diameter growth in highly dense plantations. 

Nowadays, irrigation, soil management and additional inputs enhance tree growth. But due to delay in thinning, the girth increment commensurate with the input could not be achieved in some of the plantations.

In fact, the principal reason for failing teak plantations is closer spacing without prescribed thinning practices.

During a 2019 visit to teak plantations in Madhya Pradesh, our team of experts observed several closely spaced teak blocks with poor growth. The farmers also expressed disappointment with the size of their teak plants even after a decade. Similar issues were observed in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Chhattisgarh, indicating widespread challenges in growth. 

In India, only a few institutions have developed teak-based agroforestry systems, prescribing varied spacing and pruning techniques for optimal growth. Scientific management practices highlight the importance of pruning and thinning to enhance growth and quality. However, farmers frequently neglect these measures, leading to reduced tree volume and prolonged growth periods.

The misconception that removing leaves from the bole aids in straight and clear bole formation leads to improper pruning, causing injuries, galls, knots and vulnerability to pathogens. Additionally, high-density planting without thinning negatively impacts teak growth in farmers’ fields. 

Productivity puzzle 

Despite numerous schemes, there’s a lack of comprehensive manuals on successful teak cultivation in farmer’s fields. Farmers often fall victim to deceptive claims made by private entities, roping them into fraudulent schemes. This situation underscores the significance of addressing misinformation and fraudulent practices within the agricultural sector. 

The private nursery and tissue culture laboratory stakeholders give projections that maintain tree density of 800-1,000 trees per ha up to 12-15 years of rotation and produce 0.8 to 1 m3 of wood volume per tree, so about 700-1,000 m3 of wood per hectare can be realised.

Teak forests in India have an average yield of 2-5 m3 per hectare and potential yield of about 10 m3 per ha. For best growth, teak needs deep, well-drained and fertile soils with an optimum pH of 6.5 to 7.5. Prime-quality teak, found in Myanmar and Kerala, is obtained after at least 50-60 years under ideal conditions and can produce 1 m3 wood per tree. This high yield can be obtained only if best climatic and edaphic conditions are provided. 

In the Asia-Pacific region, teak is typically cultivated with extended rotation periods spanning 35 to 80 years, yielding annual productivity between 5 and 20 cubic metres per hectare. Meanwhile, teak plantations in Africa commonly undergo shorter rotations of approximately 20 years, resulting in lower productivity ranging from 4-13 cubic metres per hectare annually. 

Teak experts from Malaysia suggested that by carefully selecting sites and using appropriate technologies and practices, the annual yield could reach 8-12 m3 per hectare. They cautioned against claims of yields higher than 15 to 20 m3 per hectare within 20 years using current methods. 

In 2019, my team harvested 32 trees from a managed teak plantation in Raisen Division of Madhya Pradesh after 25-30 years of planting and the volume varied from 0.26-0.36 m3 per tree.  Another plantation harvested from farmers field at Baramati after 25 years of planting also gave commercial tree volume of 0.15-0.30 m3 per tree. A 2021 showed that a well-managed teak agroforestry (2×2 m planted at trees thinned at four years) produced commercial volume of 0.96 m3 per tree after 25 years. Based on this, it can be concluded that with appropriate spacing, tree density, pruning, thinning and plant protection, a teak tree of 25 years can yield a volume of 0.25-0.30 m3

Apart from growing teak, marketing is a crucial issue for the farmers. Despite being the largest teak-growing country, India imports 60 per cent of teak logs to fulfill the local demand. The market rate of one cubic feet of teak timber is Rs 700-4,000 based on grades and quality. 

Even today, many government teak depots sell teak wood at Rs 30,000-60,000 cubic metres, depending on length and girth of a log. But on private lands, teak harvesting faces stringent rules, even after many simplifications

This situation favours private sawmill owners or middlemen who to quote the lowest rates to teak cultivators. In Maharashtra, a sawmill purchased teak trees at Rs 5-10 per kg of dried wood, which barely means Rs 500-1,500 per tree. Some even quote a lump sum amount, which includes charges of tree harvesting permission. 

Instead of simply advocating for teak plantations, there is a crucial need to sensitise farmers to holistic packages encompassing not only cultivation techniques but also comprehensive best practices. Moreover, the integration of effective marketing strategies with forest auctions becomes pivotal in creating a robust ecosystem for teak planting. This multifaceted approach aims to enhance the overall profitability of teak cultivation. 

To empower farmers, it becomes essential to equip them with the requisite knowledge and skills, fostering an understanding of the intricacies involved in successful teak planting. In addition, quality planting material from certified forest nurseries will not only help farmers but also helps to win half the battle of tree growing. 

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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