Let’s begin with a brief history. In 2003, Portugal was hit by one of its greatest ever heat waves. The
country’s central region – in the area between Lisbon, Leiria and Coimbra – was the worst affected
by forest fires. With temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, a relative humidity of less than 30% and
winds of more than 30 kilometres per hour, there was an obvious threat of extreme fire, which was
even more likely in the case of those uncultivated rural areas left abandoned by farmers. The dry
vegetation was transformed into a genuine powder keg. A quarter of the forested area of the Pinhal de
Leiria burned and 21 people lost their lives. And now let’s return to the present day.

Just in the year of 2017 alone, over 80% of the Pinhal de Leiria disappeared. Altogether, 10% of the Portuguese forested area was destroyed by fire and over a hundred people died. There are no records of how many animals were killed. This was the greatest tragedy that Portugal has seen in recent years and it has left the country with an open wound at its very centre. It also resulted in thousands of tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.
Let’s just focus for a moment on the plans that are being developed for the future of our forests, so that the same mistakes are not repeated and so that we can avoid new catastrophes. It’s up to all of us to
make better use in the future of the lessons that we have learned from the fires.

This year has brought the worst catastrophe in living memory, as far as forest fires in Portugal are concerned. Given that a country’s greatest asset is its land and its population, has Portugal’s government made a real effort to devise a sustainable plan for the forests in order to defend both the territory and the
people? In recent years, fires have followed on from one another with little or nothing being done to prevent them or lessen their occurrence.

Prior to this, the fire with the greatest number of deaths occurred more than 50 years ago, in 1966, in the Serra de Sintra, when 25 soldiers were killed while fighting the flames. This century, the picture is a whole lot worse. Climate change is altering the atmosphere. We are being affected more and more by hot winds from Africa, instead of welcoming the cool sea breezes that used to be the hallmark of our summer season. Let’s go back in time again.

In 2003, fires raged from the north to the south of the country, consuming roughly 430,000 hectares of forest and claiming the lives of 21 people, including four firemen. While, in 2003, the damage caused by the fires resulted in losses of 611 million euros, only two years later, in 2005, the material losses amounted to 757 million euros, according to the statistics provided by the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests. More recently, in 2013, there were more than seven thousand fires, with
120,000 hectares of forest being destroyed by flames and nine people being killed, eight firefighters and one civilian. In 2017, we witnessed one of the worst catastrophes in living memory in Portugal, caused by two huge fires in June and October. It hadn’t rained at all since mid-March. The country was caught in the throes of a severe drought, an ideal scenario for arsonists.

The result was that, just a few months later, roughly 10% of the Portuguese forested area was engulfed in flames and more than 500,000 hectares had been burned, with more than one hundred deaths and hundreds of injuries. People lost their land and their houses, while factories and jobs were simply swept away. A global rise in temperature, unexpected atmospheric or climatic phenomena, a drop in rainfall and a lack of water in the ground, coupled with criminal acts, insufficient resources to fight the fires and negligence on the part of some landowners – these were just some of the causes. If we want to have fewer forest fires next year, then we have to start planning now for a future with more sustainable strategies to protect the country and its people. It was with this in mind that I accompanied Nuno Mamede, the founder of the company Terracrua Design, and a group of volunteers, on their visit to Pedrógão Grande.

The drama of desertification and the monoculture of eucalyptus

ECO 123 visited the region of Pedrógão Grande, one of the places worst affected by the fire, travelling to Alvares, a parish in the municipality of Góis, which, just this year alone, has been completely surrounded by flames on two separate occasions.

Victor Duarte is the President of the Alvares Parish Council, while also serving as the President of the Góis Municipal Forestry Association, as well as being the deputy chief of the Alvares Section of the Góis Brigade of Voluntary Firefighters. He has already been a firefighter for 27 years and has never seen anything comparable to what happened this year. “I’ve witnessed a lot of fires, but I’ve never seen anything as serious as this. Fires used to be more predictable. Perhaps it’s due to climate change, but the problem in the inland region is one of desertification. When the land isn’t lived on and used, it ends up being abandoned. When you further add to this the failure to clean up the land, what happened this year will be repeated more and more often,” he lamented, with a look of great concern stamped all over his face. The population of the parish of Alvares has fallen from 4,000 in 1950 to just 700 today, scattered over an area of roughly 100 square kilometres. Another of his concerns is the monoculture of eucalyptus, an industry that has become widely implanted all over the region and which is here to stay. “The eucalyptus is a great problem. Financially, it’s very important for a lot of people. Each landowner takes advantage of their terrain to plant as much as they can, packing in as many trees as possible, in order to make it more profitable. This is a danger to everyone’s safety, and when there’s a fire it sweeps everything away. People continue to invest very heavily in eucalyptus, and at the moment we don’t have enough capacity to respond to the many projects that we have to deal with,” he says, leaving us with a warning. “The most important thing is prevention, but this has its own costs and nobody seems to be prepared to pay for them.” As president of the Góis Municipal Forestry Association, he admits to being somewhat powerless in the face of all the facts. “The projects that have been presented to us are all within the law, and they respect the watercourses, but they’re not obliged to insert fire breaks. This was the third or fourth time that a fire has entered our parish from the same direction. If we had clear cut belts, we would be much safer and we’d be able to fight the fire more effectively. I’ve already voiced my opinion in the appropriate places, but it’s the legislators who make the decisions. You ask me whether I’m concerned? Of course I am, because the next time it will be even worse, I don’t have any doubts,” he told us.

“Trying to organise the forest, planting species that are native to the region, cleaning the land, making the landowners aware of alternative possibilities and, above all, creating fire breaks in the hills” could be alternatives. “For example, creating belts of 50 or 100 metres of clear land, and, if necessary compensating the landowners, as is the case, for example, when you build a motorway,” he says. Given the current position of the pieces on this chessboard, it might be thought that this is already a lost challenge for Victor Duarte, but the president of the Parish Council won’t admit defeat. “I don’t feel as though I’ve lost the battle, but I have to be as realistic as possible and I’ll only believe it when I see it. We have heard lots of things being said, but it’s all still the same in the field. If the Forest Intervention Area goes ahead, as planned, then it could be an interesting project. A technical committee will be appointed to implement a Forest Management Plan with greater control over the land and the power to manage the available resources and funding. If we add to this the creation of clear cut belts, then it will all make sense. And then there’s the basic problem, which is replanting the forest. The abandonment of the land is one of the great problems. At the moment, even hunting has come to a stop here. Wild boars and deer, they’ve all disappeared.”

Intervening on the land after the fires

At the end of October, the government approved a total of 328 million euros to support the victims and a maximum amount of 3.3 million euros to clean the forest and open up fire breaks, under the management of the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests, with 1.5 million euros already being made available for this purpose in 2018. Meanwhile, the population is already restarting its former activity and trying to get back to normality as soon as possible.

Going back to that fateful month of June, a week after the fires, the team from Terracrua Design visited some of the places that were worst affected by the fires. The founder of Terracrua Design told us that “We have friends in the area who have lost everything: their homes, their land and animals. And there are also people who have lost other people. They asked for
our help and we drew up a plan for intervening on the land. The fact that we are providing help is already influencing other people and other neighbours,”
said Nuno Mamede, highlighting the importance of intervention after the fires and explaining the work that is being undertaken on the ground. “It’s all about developing an emergency plan for intervention after fires. More important than immediately replanting trees is drawing up basic maps with the techniques that are used to control erosion, retaining the water in the ground, creating the flat areas that are needed to make a low-maintenance forest. What we did was to give some support in the field to the coordination of five projects for intervention that we carried out in Alvares, Pedrógão Grande and Figueiró dos Vinhos”. The interventions that were carried out are still in their initial phase, but you can already see their effects on the landscape.

Victor Duarte already recognises that the intervention has been a positive one, not only for the parish but for the region as a whole. “It may be that others can follow this same path. If more landowners took the same amount of care and undertook similar interventions on their property, then certainly everyone in our area would feel more protected,” he said.

Repopulating the territory and bringing villages back to life

Nuno Mamede attended one of the several seminars that have been held in Pedrógão Grande. This time, at the invitation of the Associação Raiz Permanente (Permanent Root Association), he came to share his ideas and techniques for interventions after fires with an audience consisting of many landowners who had been affected by the fires. “It is important to bear in mind the question of cleaning up the forests as a solution for reducing the impact of fires, because, if we scrape away all the soil from the forests and if we only have rows of upright “sticks”, the level of erosion will be just as bad or even worse than it is now.
And the level of biodiversity will be the same or worse. We’re all going to end up paying for biomass to be carried from one side to another, when it’s already subsidised,”
he warned us.

He defends the idea that “those who foster erosion should be made responsible. Whereas those who build up the soils,” he said, “should be rewarded. Ecological productions that are enhancing and improving the landscape and creating healthy spaces should also have incentives. A forest has to have animals. Without them, all that’s left is the undergrowth, which also favours fires. Animals play a fundamental role in the growth of the forest. And who knows whether or not the planning of hunting activities might also have an important role to play by making everything a little more ecological?” he asked us. The need to spread the population all across the territory was another of the subjects touched on by this manager of regenerative
ecological projects designed to fight fires. “It seems to me that there’s no future in leaving the countryside completely abandoned. We have a population that’s perhaps concentrated in 10% or
15% of the territory. We’re letting slip the best of both worlds, which are the villages themselves.
We need to take some of the population away from the cities and to create the conditions so that they can live there, with a good level of health, education and employment… The solution is to find mechanisms, implemented by the government or whatever, to promote the return of people to the villages,”
he stressed. “Any project or farm, however small it is, requires an investment that can range from tens to hundreds of thousands of euros, beginning with the question of water, whether it means drilling a borehole for a well or creating a pond, and then moving on to accesses and roads, building houses and then installing electricity and sewage systems. All of these systems are already being installed at an ecological level. And if we join four of these farms together, then we can reduce the costs to a third or a quarter of the original amount, by making a joint investment,” he remarked. In the consultant’s opinion, repopulating the inland region and the villages may serve as a stimulus for the creation of a range of jobs, including that of the forest firefighter. “We’re used to having both cellulose producers and firefighters, there’s no middle ground. The forest firefighters can perform this role and it will be a job they can do all year round. They can plant trees, thin out and clear the forests, fight fires and also prevent them. It’s possible to design efficient and ecological systems that involve people. And if they come back and resettle inland, then there will be fewer forest fires.”

Pedrogão Grande | Traduções: Alexandre Moura John Elliott & Kersten Funck-Knupfer | Fotografias: Alexandre Moura