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A conversation in the countryside

The hands of the clock have not yet reached five o’clock on this beautiful summer day that is slowly awakening from its slumber. The information arrives. I am going to meet with a group of citizens who have decided to put an end to monocultures. So, I get out of bed at four in the morning and get dressed. I arrive at a crossroads in no man’s land.

I had parked my car in a safe place some time before, and so I walked the rest of the way. At some point, I turned off the tarmac road onto a dirt track and followed it to the terraces carved out of the land by bulldozers. I waited for the group under the only cork-oak that I had glimpsed on the way there.

I am at the agreed meeting place. It’s still dark, but slowly the horizon turns grey. Then it becomes lighter, and finally it changes to yellow. Soon the sun will rise. I turn off the torch I have around my neck. I wait. Then they begin to arrive. They whisper to one another, spreading themselves around the space. Two or three warriors are stationed on each terrace.

They begin to uproot the young trees belonging to the Navigator company, clandestinely planted in March and April, during the lockdown. The soil is a sterile grey colour. They put the uprooted trees on the edge of the terraces. In this way, two people can eradicate up to 500 “poisonous plants” per hour. This is how they will stop the invasion.

“We don’t let them plant trees for the exclusive production of paper,” they say. “Because, once they’re planted, eucalyptuses become a real pest with the first rain of the winter. And, if they’re sawn or cut down, then they just grow back, endlessly. This cutting and regrowth is a way of poisoning the landscape irretrievably. So, it’s better to pull these trees out immediately.”

© B. Thomas

 

I ask António*, 26 years old, if he is not afraid to go onto someone else’s property and uproot the newly-planted trees. “No,” he replies, “and what’s more we weren’t even asked if we wanted eucalyptus on our doorstep. And then,” he adds, “the material burns like petrol with its essential oils. By the way, there is no fence around the property, it’s open to the public.”

Sofia*, aged 31, tells her story briefly. At the time when the lockdown began, in March, the paper mafia had planted many thousands of new eucalyptus plants, the so-called fast-growing hybrids, in places where previously arbutus, cork and pine trees were to be found. These burnt trees were cut down with chainsaws and the earth was then levelled. This is called creating facts. One of their members tried to report the illegal reforestation with eucalyptus to the GNR. But the authorities weren’t interested. Nor were they interested in registering the complaint. The municipal council had been informed, through its president, as well as the ICNF. Everyone had turned a blind eye to the problem. Only then did this group of citizens decide to become active. “Yes, we had concerns. We’re doing this sort of thing for the first time,” António underlines, “and this doesn’t mean that we won’t be pulling up eucalyptus again. “

It’s time to “resist and rise up because we’re all victims of the industrial eucalyptus trade, just as we are of the forest fires themselves. We’ve had enough!” complains another activist. Hour after hour, terrace after terrace is cleared. At the end of their labours, they bathe in a nearby lake. Team building. After work, they simply vanish in all directions. They express an interest in meeting up again within a week, and then they go their separate ways.

ECO123 visits them for a second time. After they finished their work, the following interview was arranged with Maria Ferreira*, 58 years old.

* Names changed by the editor

 

We have a good view of the Algarve’s native forest in front of us…

(laughs) It used to be a good view. You’re right.

 

… do you remember it?

Yes, I do. When I returned to Monchique, it was still an indigenous forest.

 

I would like to know your opinion about the forest that we can see now.

I can’t say that it all happened very quickly. When I returned to Monchique – and I only realised this later, when I saw pictures of the first years of my professional life here – it was 1986, and there was a forest. We had shade and mushrooms, we had life. Then there were the fires, and the torrential rain … and we didn’t notice the advent of desertification. Every day, we look at things and it seems that we often don’t realise just how much they’ve changed.

Looking at the photos from that time, I notice that we seemed to be living in a tropical country. I have a picture of a farmer with a basket of fruit on his head in this countryside that was once green and full of variety. We have no trees now. The young trees were first wiped out by the 2003 fire, and then once again by the 2018 fire.

 

What effect did that have?

Well, the earth was hurt, just like all of us. The land… is sad.

 

What motivates you to uproot eucalyptus?

© dpa

When I look at this land covered in a monoculture of eucalyptus, I realise that it’s not in my hands, not in the hands of conscious people, to be able to fight against this. Because everything is moving in that direction.

When we go to Fóia, an incredible microclimate in the Algarve, we can see that it’s covered with eucalyptus. On Picota, a thermal mountain (with many springs), previously covered with ancient arbutus trees (they were as much as fifty or sixty years old, we didn’t even know their age), it’s exactly the same.

Looking at all this, it makes me realise that there is no possibility of fighting it, because the promoters of monocultures are full of power and the power comes to them from money. It’s very sad.

The only answer we can make is to not agree with what’s going on. And to do everything in our power to stop them from felling native trees. It would be very good if everyone were motivated to plant good trees, not eucalyptus. We know that these “lords”, with their power and money, offer an incentive of five hundred euros per hectare to encourage people to proceed with the replantation of eucalyptus.

It’s a mafia, a real mafia. They offer this amount because they can make thirty times more in terms of profit, of course. They even appear to be good people. And the farmers, perhaps due to a lack of knowledge, financial difficulties, or a lack of incentive to take care of the land, join in too. It’s normal.

 

Is the gap between knowing that eucalyptus is very bad for this mountain, for this land, and the gesture of pulling it up, wide or very narrow?

It’s a journey that one makes in accordance with one’s heart. When people have no way of fighting these economic giants, they have to do what their heart tells them – I will protect this land, regardless! It doesn’t matter how, because they are mafiosi and we are going to defend this land and protect it from them.

If we see that they’re about to control this land through their money and by manipulating the population who are not aware of the issue, then we will do everything we can to prevent this from happening. Because we love this land, but they don’t. They want to “suck” as much out of the land as they can, even if it means destroying it in the long run. And that’s what people don’t know.

A monoculture, whether it be of eucalyptus or any other species, destroys what lies around it. We have to find spaces for these monocultures, for economic reasons, but we must also reserve spaces for the forest to be as it is, so that people can live in a healthy way, with water flowing from the springs. Because the monoculture destroys the water and the land, it causes desertification. We’re not against the economy, we all live from it, but we are against an unbridled economy that steals the land from our children and grandchildren. They will no longer have the sort of land that I did when I arrived in Monchique. They simply won’t!

 

What did you feel when we met (we won’t talk about names or places) at half past five in the morning and, with a group of people, you pulled up hundreds of hectares of eucalyptus?

It was a feeling of urgency. This was the right time, because they were freshly planted, they were small and easy to pull up. As our ancestors used to say: “don’t leave until tomorrow what you can do today.”

 

© dpa

And do you have any idea how many (thousand) small eucalyptus trees have already been uprooted?

At the beginning, we even counted, roughly, how many we pulled up, but then we stopped doing it. We just wanted to finish the job, but we could never have managed to do it completely. We did what we could.

 

Knowing that the company will replant again, what ideas will you now put into practice?

The solution is to continue, with the weapons we have. And if we get support, I hope to try to stop them, officially.

 

… Because this replanting by the Navigator Company will be illegal? According to the Natura 2000 Network, invasive species should not be planted.

Exactly. And it’s a joy to know that this directive exists.

 

However, the ICNF, in Portugal, hasn’t declared eucalyptus to be an invasive species. When it doesn’t burn, it’s not considered so, but when it does burn, then a single tree can spread hundreds of new trees. That is, until it burns, it’s not considered to be invasive …

How is it possible not to consider it an invasive species when we’re talking about a tree that, when it’s cut down or burned, has an immense number of trees that spring from the same stump? The strawberry tree, for example, is an indigenous tree; eucalyptus is originally from Australia and it’s only here to make money for paper manufacturers…

 

It arrived in 1850. It’s been in Portugal for one hundred and seventy years.

Exactly, it’s not indigenous …

 

What dreams do you have? What would you like to see accomplished?

My wish is to see a healthy forest again, a forest that provides shade, that lets the springs flow and that provides shelter for deer and other animals. The deer have returned – we’ve already started to see them (she smiles). All those things that bring joy and happiness to everyone.

 

And what is necessary for people to be able to live in the countryside?
What is it called …?

Biodiversity.

 

But city dwellers still can’t understand this word. For many people, it’s just a word.

Cities are cradles of concrete. Biodiversity must also exist in our hearts; we can’t have our hearts full of “monocultures”. You have to be tolerant.

I’m not against the paper manufacturers, but I am against the way they exploit our land, that’s all. Everyone has rights. I am also entitled to my oaks and my chestnut trees. We still have so much paper we can recycle. It can’t be just one economy that dominates all the rest. A kind of consensus must be sought. You can’t invade people’s land like that. This can’t be allowed to happen.

 

Will you continue to pull up trees?

I will (she laughs), of course.

 

Aren’t you afraid of facing criminal charges?

I don’t think about it. So, I’m not afraid until I start thinking …

 

Thank you.

Uwe Heitkamp (60)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123.
Translations :  Fernando Medronho & Penny e Tim Coombs | fotografias: Dpa, B. Thomas & Stefanie Kreutzer

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