Burned landscapes turn Portugal toward forest management solutions

Portugal faces the reality of summer forest fires as local leaders push for forest management reform through consolidating abandoned plots of land, getting rid of undergrowth, and growing fire-resistant plants and trees.

Rafael Marchante/Reuters
A shrine stands on a hill burned by a forest fire in Serta, Portugal on Sept. 9, 2017. The people of Portugal hope to break a recurring cycle of forest fires through better forest management.

Large parts of Portugal's interior are desolate places these days, with charred trees as far as the eye can see and an acrid smell lingering in the air.

Sixty-four people died in this year's summer fires, Portugal's deadliest natural disaster in living memory. Three months after the biggest blaze, it's hard to imagine anything growing again in the hills around towns like Macao.

But the blackened terrain may hold the seeds of a plan that could not only stop the cycle of deadly fires but also rejuvenate the local economy with commercial farming and forestry projects.

At the heart of the issue lies age-old traditions in management of the land, made up mostly of small plots that have become fire hazards after they were abandoned by new generations of landholders who moved to the cities.

Locals say they need government help to merge the plots into economically viable units that will give absentee owners an incentive to build firebreaks and clear highly flammable undergrowth and wild eucalyptus trees.

"We need a big revolution to make sure this doesn't happen again but I don't know if anybody will do it," said Paula Fernandez, mayor of the village of Castelo, which was hit a day after the inferno started north of her parish in June.

Ms. Fernandez and two colleagues fought the flames themselves with a small water truck because firefighters never came. They saved the village but not the surrounding forest, part of the 45,000 hectares (about 110,00 acres) destroyed in this area alone in just five days.

Spurred into action by the fatalities and 1 billion euros (US$1.17 billion) in fire losses, the government agreed to create a legal framework around merging the plots which will include a central land registry, federal grants, and tax incentives for landowners.

The Minister of Agriculture, Forest and Rural Development, Luis Capoulas Santos, told Reuters his ministry stands ready with 600 million euros for forest reform until 2020.

There will be "a generous and attractive package of tax benefits which aims to encourage and stimulate the creation of these entities," he said in an e-mail.

The details of how the system will work have yet to be finalized, however, creating concern the initiative will wither.

"The problem has been that politicians haven't been ready for our solutions. They still think the small landowners are here, clinging to their plots. They are not," said Antonio Louro, deputy mayor of Macao and architect of its land reforms.

"The only way to stop the cycle of fires every 10 to 15 years is if we break it by intervening."

Portugal's fires burned 40 percent of the total in all of the European Union this year, far more than any other country. With just 2.1 percent of the EU's landmass, Portugal was its biggest burner during 2008-16 as well, with an average of 36 percent of the total.

Locals in Macao, where 80,000 people own 42,000 hectares of land, know the story only too well: In 2003, fires burnt half the municipality and killed seven people.

Afterwards, local leaders introduced special firefighting technology, cut down trees along major roads, and established a regional land registry. They had no central government help, however, and this year half its territory burnt again.

"This was an area where families had their small properties and they lived off the land. That ended in the 1970s, they left, and the owners of the land now live in the cities," said Mr. Louro. "The landscape we now have is the result of abandonment."

Jorge Silva, a Macao landowner whose property was burnt in 2003 but spared this year, says that "if we don't take advantage of this opportunity now to do this [land reform] once and for all, in 15 years we will be in the same situation."

"I don't see any other way out," he said.

Among firefighters there is no doubt that the root cause of the rapid spread of fires is rampant undergrowth, which is expensive to clear for plots of a hectare or less.

"What has to be done is land and forest management. As long as that doesn't happen we can't do much," said Pedro Jana, commander of Macao's firefighting brigade. "This is more of a question of prevention than firefighting."

Mr. Jana said he has never seen a fire as violent as the one in Pedrogao Grande this summer, with flames reaching 44 to 66 yards high, moving as fast as 7.5 miles per hour, fanned by powerful winds, killing many in their cars as they tried to escape.

The fires spread mainly in the central interior region in an unusually hot, dry summer, destroying 240,000 hectares of woodland, 24 times the area of Lisbon.

Small fires are burning even now as the weather remains hot.

Louro wants to create what he calls "village companies" by combining the tiny plots into large, independently managed properties.

These units of land would be managed jointly, allowing for sharing of profits. Farm crops that traditionally grew in the valleys – lemons, pears and olives – would be reintroduced.

"We have to reintroduce these crops in the landscape in such a way that the agricultural areas divide the big blocks of forest, reducing the chances of such big fires," said Louro.

After the 2003 fires, Silva led efforts in his small village of Eiras to gather his fellow small landowners to combine their plots, collecting signatures representing a total of 1,100 hectares. He is sure he could do it again now.

"In a week I gathered them all. They told me 'deal with this because it's the only solution'. We spent 10 years presenting our project but it didn't work then. What we needed was fresh capital," said Silva.

The government's proposal is to create a new instrument for combined plots of land, known as Forest Management Entities, which will receive special tax benefits.

The entities will have to manage a minimum of 100 hectares, at least half of which must come from landowners with plots of under five hectares to encourage them to join. It will be up to local councils to make it work.

In Macao, Louro is feeling positive.

"I am convinced that in a municipality of the size of Macao, with [15 million euros to 20 million euros] we could start this process very quickly and reverse the fires," he said.

This story was reported by Reuters.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Burned landscapes turn Portugal toward forest management solutions
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today