Portugal’s perfect fire-storm: Industrial tree plantations and climate change

Residents replanting burned areas with native trees: In the absence of sensible forestry policy or concrete government action after the fires, residents have taken matters into their own hands.(c) Rui Freitas
Residents replanting burned areas with native trees: In the absence of sensible forestry policy or concrete government action after the fires, residents have taken matters into their own hands.(c) Rui Freitas
Tomorrow is International Day Against Monoculture Tree Plantations. To mark the occasion OLIVER MUNNION reminds us of the importance of conserving and restoring natural forests
In the absence of serious political will to tackle the root causes of climate change, “biosequestration” is the new buzzword

A huge wildfire tore through the village of Ferraria de São João, in Penela, central Portugal in June this year. Exactly two months after the excavators were back.

Only this time they weren’t there to plough up the land to plant eucalyptus, as has happened to so much of the land around the village. They were there to dig the trees up.

While Portugal’s politicians squabbled over failed forestry policy in the aftermath of the fire, residents of Ferraria de São João acted quickly.

Oaks and chestnuts

They decided unanimously to create a 500 metre “Village Protection Zone”, where fire-prone plantation species like eucalyptus and pine would be uprooted, and a protective barrier of fire-resistant, native species like oaks and chestnuts would be planted instead.

Ferraria de São João was relatively lucky. An existing area of native cork oaks above the village saved many houses from the fire.

Other places suffered more extensive damage when, on the 17th June, central Portugal suffered it’s first “fire-storm”, leaving 64 people dead, injuring many more, and destroying vast areas of countryside.

Emergency services were caught by surprise – traditionally the fire season in Portugal starts in late July. This tragedy was the worst fire event in Portugal’s history, and left the nation wondering how it could possibly have happened.

In the absence of serious political will to tackle the root causes of climate change, “biosequestration” is the new buzzword

The fire was caused by a dry thunderstorm during an intense heatwave and severe drought, where temperature records were smashed throughout the country.

Out of control wildfires

It spread at great speed due to the high winds, and because of this many places could not be evacuated in time. Many people caught up in the fire had to seek refuge in basements or water tanks, and many more fought the fires themselves.

It was eventually extinguished a week later after almost 50,000 hectares had burned, affecting nine different municipalities.

This fire set the tone for the rest of the summer. So far in 2017 almost 280,000 hectares have burned, an area six times the average for the past decade, and equivalent to around 12% of Portugal’s forested areas.

On some days over 200 fires were recorded in the country, with thousands of firefighters fighting multiple out-of-control wildfires in different parts of central and northern Portugal.

Thick smoke, the smell of burning wood, and the sight of fire-fighting aeroplanes in the skies, drafted in from across Europe, have become ubiquitous.

Hot summers

The area of central Portugal that has been most impacted by the fires this year is known as the “Interior Pine Forest”, but eucalyptus is now the dominant species.

As an example of how extensively it has been planted in some areas, consider that around 70% of the area that burned in June was covered in eucalyptus and pine plantation.

Eucalyptus grows well in Portugal because of the hot summers and wet winters, and the powerful pulp and paper industry has taken full advantage of this.

A combination of appalling forestry policy, lack of any enforcement at the local level, and a depopulated and abandoned countryside has meant that eucalyptus plantations now cover huge areas of central and northern Portugal.

In fact, Portugal has more eucalyptus than any other country in the world proportionally, and more than any country in Europe in absolute terms, despite being a relatively small place. In some areas you can drive for hours through eucalyptus plantations.

Rivers and streams

This has been to the complete detriment of Portugal’s natural forests, wildlife, and communities that rely on precious spring water. Nothing eats eucalyptus here – not even goats.

The trees are so successful and invasive as the oils they give off actually prevent other plants from growing near them, and prevent animals and soil organisms from living on their leaf litter.

Eucalyptus plantations are “green deserts”, devoid of biodiversity, exhausting the soils they are grown in. After a site has had eucalyptus planted, been cut three times, then replanted, and cut another two or three times, as is the custom here, not even more eucalyptus can survive in the soils that are left behind.

Compounding this is the practice of “rip-ploughing”, where hillsides are ploughed on contour with bulldozers, literally scraping off any top soil and plant life before new plantations are created.

Eucalyptus is also highly water intensive, sucking up hundreds of litres a day where it can, reducing water flow in rivers and streams, and drying up the springs that sustain many communities throughout the dry summers.

Linked to climate change

And then there’s the fires. Eucalyptus trees don’t just catch fire, they spread them. They have evolved specifically to deal with fire, where long strands of bark move the fire quickly up into the canopy, and the volatile oils they produce intensify it. Eucalyptus leaves can project fires hundreds of metres further, making fire breaks in plantations almost redundant.

Conditions in Portugal this summer created the “perfect fire-storm”. The extreme heatwave in June that affected much of southern Europe has been directly linked to climate change, as have the severe drought conditions that have impacted most of the country.

By 2050 these extreme conditions will be the norm for Portugal. That’s right, the fires will only get worse.

Contrary to public opinion and all of the evidence of the devastating impacts of eucalyptus, successive governments have only incentivised its planting, leading to a situation where there are illegal plantations everywhere, and regulations that specify safe distances from houses and roads, adequate firebreaks, and inter-planting of native species are simply ignored.

Portugal is a sad example of how misplaced support for industrial tree plantations can go badly wrong. A supposedly “green industry”, as the pulp and paper companies and government ministers (before this year’s fires) would have you believe, has helped to create an environmental disaster, feeding the cycle of climate change impacts.

Serious political will

This should serve as a lesson to policy makers who are now putting plantations at the forefront of climate mitigation strategies globally. In the absence of serious political will to tackle the root causes of climate change, “biosequestration” is the new buzzword, involving vast tree plantations that suck up the emissions of a fossil-fuel addicted world.

Despite all of the evidence of the social, environmental and of course fire impacts of plantations, large-scale afforestation and fairy-tale technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), where huge plantations will be turned in to smoke that is then stored in old oil fields, are the best ideas that have come out of the landmark Paris Agreement so far.

If mitigation efforts are focused on sequestering future emissions with technologies that don’t exist and plantations that hurt communities and biodiversity, rather than stopping the emissions in the first place, then the strategy that is supposed to reduce the impacts of climate change will likely only make things worse.

New eucalyptus growth is already sprouting from the ashes of Portugal’s wild fires, but as the villagers of Ferraria de São João have shown, we can choose to dig them up instead.

The example set by Ferraria de São João should be followed on a global scale, as restoring natural ecosystems will make us more resilient to climate change, and protect communities from the impacts of it.

This Author

Oliver Munnion is the bioenergy campaigner and graphic designer at the Global Forest Coalition. He lives in central Portugal.