The 'de-eucalyptus brigades'

Last rays of beautiful afternoon light over the old pine forest.

The risk of blazing fires is ever-growing in the Lousame region of Galicia - and so the de-eucalyptus brigades were born.

If a match falls, that's it. That's the only thing it needs. It's just ready to burn and it's like a petrol bomb.

The first thing Joám Evans Pim knew about the fire threatening his home was when a neighbour in his nineties spotted smoke spewing from the forest. It was late one May morning in 2016. 

Froxán, in the Lousame region of Galicia, had fallen victim to a devastating fire a decade previously — a blaze which cut off all access to the half dozen houses clustered amid 100 hectares of common land.

With that memory still fresh in his mind, Joám along with his community headed to a path in a section of mixed oak and pine forest, the rubber fire beaters that every household owns in hand. As flames licked across the road, they snuffed them out, holding back the blaze until the firefighters could arrive. 


Two hectares of forest burnt down, but this did not become another 2006. Partly due to the elderly neighbour’s quick thinking, partly because the wind dropped and partly because the fire reached a natural break from the flammable eucalyptus which is so prevalent in the region. Taking quick action might well be instilled in the Froxán community, and what came next proves that point.

“The decision was taken that we have to do something about this, we couldn't just wait summer after summer, wondering every summer night, is it going to be tonight? Are we going to have to run out of our homes at whatever hour of the morning and try to escape?” Joám says. The constant threat was as bad as the fear when fires were blazing, and with increasingly long, hot, dry summers, the risk was ever-growing.

“If a match falls, that's it. That's the only thing it needs. It's just ready to burn and it's like a petrol bomb,” he says, adding that if a fire starts with a strong north-easterly wind behind it, it moves at incredible speed, and there’s no way to stop it.

“The first thing we decided to do, is those two hectares that got burned in 2016, we're going to get rid of the eucalyptus completely. And we're going to restore the native forest so that if in the future a fire comes back, it will stop right there,” Joám remembers. Eucalyptus, an invasive species, is highly flammable due to its bark and oils.

With little money and few residents, the community knew it needed support. It drew on two traditional concepts: roga, which is the old word for a call to communal work and alvaroque, a collective celebratory meal which would always follow roga. And so were born the brigadas deseucaliptizadoras, or de-eucalyptus brigades.


In April 2018, the first brigade set out onto a mountain slope where the 2016 fire had raged, now a metre-high blanket of eucalyptus saplings. More than 40 people got to work, and by the end of the day, the eucalyptus was gone.

Years later, oaks have naturally re-grown and the brigades have planted chestnut and birch trees. They’ve removed problematic pine too. The community now goes out around once a month to keep on top of new eucalyptus growth. The native forest is gradually re-emerging, and so too is wildlife. At least one lone wolf has been spotted, and badgers, foxes, common genet, wild boar and roe deer have all turned up on a wildlife camera.

If a match falls, that's it. That's the only thing it needs. It's just ready to burn and it's like a petrol bomb.

“Now we have this quite big area where even if a fire would get through, it would be very difficult for it to advance,” Joám says. But this was not the only community at threat. Almost half a million hectares of Galicia are plagued by eucalyptus, as are northern parts of Portugal, northern parts of Spain and the Basque Country.

The problem started in the 1960s, when Franco’s government built a national paper mill, and eucalyptus monocultures were planted to fill the demand for fast-growing trees. “What we really have, particularly in monocultures, is a green desert,” Joám explains. Underneath the canopy of eucalyptus, chemical weeding erodes the soil.

In tandem with the plantations, eucalyptus invaded recently burnt areas of forest and stopped native plants regrowing, as was the case in Froxán. Beyond trees, other species were pushed out too. Wild animals like boar failed to find food in their once native habitat, and went in search of farmers’ crops instead.


In 2017, the community began talks with a small NGO in Galicia called Verdegaia, in the hopes of taking the brigades out across the region, with proper accident insurance and a unified image. They’d just come to an agreement to go ahead, when forest fires struck south-west Europe again in autumn 2017. 

For the first time in Galicia, cities were affected too, including Vigo, the biggest city in Galicia, which is completely surrounded by patches of eucalyptus. Suddenly, a lot of people paid attention to the brigades.

The brigades are completely run by volunteers and their numbers have now swelled to 1,400, accumulated through word of mouth. Joám keeps this database in check, and sends out mailshots about upcoming actions. Another volunteer looks after a tool bank, where chainsaws, safety gear, weeding machines and around 100 axes are ready for use. Neighbouring Portugal has even taken up the reins.

When someone wants to host an action, they are responsible for coordinating the work on the ground. When the full heat of the sun hits at around 2.30pm, the brigades down tools and eat — and Galician people are famed for eating properly. It’s up to the host to prepare the meal and celebration, and there’s a friendly rivalry about who can lay on the best spread. 

This often comes in the form of a traditional caldo (vegetable stew) or a chickpea recipe known as cajos. One community has become known for its lasagne, which might not be traditional, but is still delicious. 


Wine flows, bowls are filled and emptied, and people sing. After the celebration, an activity usually follows — a trip to a megalith with an archaeologist, a hot spring bath or a chainsaw maintenance workshop.

Just like in that first action in Froxán, Joám describes how brigades often see landscapes transforming before their eyes: “You get to a place, nine o'clock or whatever, and when you finish the work of the day, by two o'clock, you see the change.” 

Sometimes they cut down towering eucalyptus and reveal hidden oaks, other times they plant native trees where the forest has been squeezed out. They go into vital wetlands and remove eucalyptus without replanting other trees.

However impressive the growth of the brigade network, they are far from saving Galicia’s forests. The brigades have managed to work in just over 1,000 hectares. “It’s a grain of rice,” as Joám says.

The impact, however tiny, is clear. A brigade was once called in to clear eucalyptus from a Bronze Age hill fort, and when a fire came sometime later, it stopped short of the protected area.

From a grassroots community determined to protect their homes, the brigades are now organised — they even wear branded t-shirts. As the network spills across national borders, more and more communities are giving forests their best chance of resistance against increasingly frequent fires, and in turn the forests are giving those communities the best chance of survival.

This Author

Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance environmental and human rights journalist. 

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