What was done and what should have been done following the major fires of the last two years in Portugal? Terracrua Design (terracruadesign.com), a small company based in Faro, has become a reference in projects related to ecology and sustainability, forest regeneration, and post-fire strategies. Nuno Mamede is a consultant, designer, and project manager there, and shares with us a perspective from the ground.

Last summer, the largest fire in Europe happened in Monchique. 27,000 hectares burned for a week. How did you experience it?

The entities that should protect us, once again, were not up to the challenge. It is very sad when we realize that no one protects the rural areas. It seems like they just let it burn. It seems that the role of firefighters is being reduced to organizing evacuations and protecting the roads.

What really stopped the fire was the landscape, in the transition from shale soils to the limestone of Barrocal Algarvio. It was predictable where the fire was going, and on the third night, it was known (anticipating changes in wind speed and direction) that if they let it reach the top of Fóia, it would project fire to the southern Monchique mountain range.

What lessons should be learned?

I think it is essential to understand that a territory without a population and devoted to forest monoculture is doomed to burn. A rural territory like ours, full of emerging vegetation but without medium and large wild animals (deer, roe deer, horses, cows) that stimulate shrubs and trees to grow, is doomed to depend on human activities to be led to a multi-stratified and balanced forest state. The profitability of eucalyptus and pine monocultures does not allow for balanced landscape management – for example, through cuts and thinning followed by shredding and deposition on soils, or green pastures/fertilizer in the spaces between exploitations, which allows for medium-long term fertilization of the land and hydration of the landscape, reducing the severity of fires. The day will come when we attribute value to these two ecological functions: soil “construction” and water infiltration into the soil. And in this way, value more ecological practices and productions themselves.

“Maintaining and improving existing fertile soils is the most important task that each owner should assume,” argues Nuno Mamede.

The action on the burned lands seems to be as worrying as the fires themselves… Why?

The difference between success and failure lies in the right choice of action or technique. Among the many post-fire intervention actions available, we have ground cover, which is applied in an attempt to prevent the loss of soil and nutrients, and possible contaminations of riparian systems. If timely planned, direct seedings in the burned territory (by plane) is the most achievable option, achieving ground cover through meadows, and with a almost residual cost compared to mulch with the use of bales of straw (used, for example, in Galicia after the 2017 fires).

How do you view the government’s mandate for “cleaning” the land?

The information that has become public is simplistic and misleading. In addition to distances, we must consider the nature and characteristics of each shrub or tree species. There is data that proves that some species, especially when grouped together, reduce the strength and impact of fires, unlike the pine and eucalyptus trees that are widely used in Portugal. The government should set a good example, both in providing information and in making teams and machinery available for post-fire interventions, on a scale larger than just for photo opportunities or symbolic actions. It would be a good precedent to merge the concepts of forest maintenance/management and fire prevention: in an ecologically-regenerative system, they would be the same thing. We have excellent technicians in forest-related areas, so there is no excuse not to develop a serious forest management guide, in a simple version for small property owners on the prevention theme, and at the level of the “forest sector” to integrate proven techniques of water management on the land, such as the Keyline Design [a technique developed in the 1950s in Australia that takes into account the topography of the land and the natural flow of water to optimize its retention and infiltration into the soil] and Permaculture Design [also developed in Australia, it seeks to use the patterns and characteristics observed in nature, integrating plants, animals, constructions, and people, to create productive and harmonious habitats].

How do you see what has happened in the interior of Portugal following the major fires of 2017?

There have been several positive examples of popular initiative, and few inspiring examples from the state and management institutions. Forest intervention actions for prevention continue to be, at best, symbolic and without any territorial impact. These are isolated actions without continuity. We need concrete, simple, current, and pragmatic information, available on a scale that meets the needs of the territory. If they can send an email to each owner, they can send a list of intervention criteria or an infographic that informs how and when to do forest cleaning. 2018 was a turning point, a change in attitude towards fires. Now, it is generally known that different species have different combustion levels. Oaks, chestnuts, olive trees, and fruit trees do not handle fire the same way as pine and eucalyptus trees. We now know that the continuity and homogeneity of plantations for the forest sector increase the potential for violent fires, even if they are “cleaned” of shrub vegetation at ground level.

What inspiring examples have you observed?

The community of Pedrógão Grande and the actions organized through the Raiz Permanente Association. The Reflorestar Portugal Network. And popular actions such as Ferrarias de São João [a schist village in the Coimbra region where residents decided in an assembly to uproot eucalyptus trees and plant cork oaks]. I am concerned that these good actions may not be replicated. I think all good initiatives are few, but the time is now. “Desertification is a complex word for something simple. Unless we change our practices on the land, we might as well get used to riding camels and eating dates.”

For those who take care of a land, what are the most important actions to take? And what mistakes should be avoided?

A good farmer cultivates soils, and everything else is just talk. Maintaining and improving existing fertile soils (survivors) is the most important task that every owner should undertake. This perspective can be integrated into every action, even by keeping the machines they use, with slight changes in practices. Water seeding should also be present. With small actions, it is possible to increase rainwater infiltration in the land, mitigate erosion, and the danger of severe fires. Controlling erosion, using burned trunks or with small earth movements, such as contour infiltration trenches. Covering the soils, with meadow sowing and/or mulch (chips, litter, etc.). Dealing with remaining biomass without removing it from the site (chopping, deposition in level/contour curves). Structuring new plantations in contour infiltration trenches or terraces, to facilitate maintenance and reduce future costs.

Desertification is a complex word for something simple: the desert expands and is coming. Unless we change our practices in the territory, we might as well get used to riding camels and eating dates. There are excellent examples of sustainable forest management systems around the world, very positive ways of working the land. Schools like Keyline Design, Permaculture Design, Regenerative Agriculture, show us that, after all, another world is possible.

Interview conducted by Francisco Pedro

Image credits: terracruadesign.com

Photo caption: Post-fire intervention by Terracrua in Monchique, aiming to adapt the land to be productive and prevent new fires, implementing contour terraces and dams

Published in Voz do Campo n.º 223 (February 2019)