João Carmago, aged 35. lives in Lisbon. He has two daughters, a one-year-old and a four-year-old. he graduated in Zootechnical Engineering, but life surprised him with a taste for Journalism. Meanwhile, he studied Environmental Engineering for himself, which he found very stimulating intellectually. He worked for some years in this field and went to live in Mozambique. He taught in the north of the country, first at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences (Lichinga), then at the Faculty of Biology (Pemba). He returned to Portugal after two years.
He felt stimulated by political citizenship and began working at the League for the Protection of Nature (LPN), where he stayed for four years. He is finishing his PhD in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies. Environmental themes with a social dimension are always present because there is never a way to solve one problem without thinking about the other.
How did your book Portugal in Flames come about?
The subject has always caused me some confusion, particularly in Portugal. Given the enormous existing area, there was very little thought or reflection about it in the 1980s, or most of the 1990s. The challenge has disappeared inversely with the incredible expansion of the area of eucalyptus and the increasing abandonment evident in the interior of the country and in rural areas. I also noticed this a lot in Mozambique, massive areas, with native forest cut down for the introduction of eucalyptus.
They were Swedish companies at the time. Now I know that there is also Protocol Mozambique, which is part of the Navigator group. When I came back to work at LPN, I started writing about it. However, in 2012, the Assunção Cristas Law came into effect. I was one of the people who helped set up the campaign to try to repeal the law that liberalised the planting of eucalyptus in areas of less than two hectares. And when I began to write publicly on the subject, I was attacked, far more than I had expected.
By several people, many of them connected to the sector … anonymous attacks. I realised that it was much stronger than I had imagined. It was very structured, planned. Looking back, I was being very naive in thinking that having the country with the largest area of eucalyptus in the world was only due to inertia. When I wrote this in an article in 2012, I realised that I had never read it anywhere.
One million hectares, 12 percent of the country.
I then went on to address existing problems, namely the serious problem of abandonment, the loss of forest income and products. I met several people who shared the same opinion. It was with one of them, Paulo Pimenta de Castro, that I wrote the book Portugal in Flames. He is a man who came from a much more right-wing background, but in this analysis we were totally in agreement on how we came here, how the enormous size of the problem poses a challenge for the future.
What position do you have in relation to the element of fire?
Fire in the Mediterranean is a natural element, there is no possibility of ending the fires, obviously.
Fire or conflagration? I’m talking about the element.
It is an element that has been present for as long as the earth has existed and if it happens within a defined dimension, it has a role and can even be a regenerating factor for ecosystems which may end up with biomass from the available biodiversity. But we all have a very large influence on the dimension that fire has within an ecosystem, a territory, a population. Small fires with small consequences are one thing; the monstrosities that are happening more and more, thousands of hectares burning uninterrupted, are another. From a certain perspective, there is no obstacle, no firefighters or possible means of combat. Uninterrupted areas of highly combustible species end up benefiting from the frequency of fires. When we create these conditions, we associate this with favourable factors on a global scale for the occurrence of fires, namely an increase in temperature and a reduction in humidity. We’re creating hell!
What alternatives are there?
What we are trying to draw up as an alternative is first to introduce a rationale, which is almost nonexistent, into the territory. A situation of expansion of eucalyptus was created mainly through planting. We are not only talking about an invasive expansion, the main incentive was people and the pulp industry. They have strangled the entire rural economy for that product. What does it mean to introduce a rationale? We have a very varied territory; every 100 kilometres, whether highland or lowland, the predominant species and the topography change according to the climatic conditions.
From the Algarve to the Minho, it appears almost as if we were leaving Morocco and arriving in Northern Germany. What we have and what we have found, are maps of a bioclimatic adaptation of the territory.
The Higher Institute of Agronomy (Department of Landscape Architecture) has had an incredible piece of work done by Manuela Raposo Guimarães, which tells us that different species, types of forest and even agriculture, make sense in a given territory, but even down to a very small scale; I would not say down to a square metre, but almost. It tells us which species make sense on a slope, defining the characteristics of the species by the soil conditions, sunshine, general humidity and temperature. It’s quite simple. We are trying to add to this the issue of climate change. Certain combinations of species now make sense. We must forget the idea of having monocultures, because it is totally absurd to try to take such diverse territory and think that the same species will work everywhere.
But in the future which species will make sense? Which ones make sense today, which ones will make sense with an increase of 1 or 2 degrees centigrade, with less precipitation? The territory needs to be prepared for the future in terms of climate change, giving priority, of course, to indigenous, less fire-prone and more drought-resistant species. When there are no indigenous species, we need to look for species close to our biome, both more continental and Mediterranean species, as the advance of the Sahara northwards will cause the desert climate to move up. We can already think of species that don’t exist in Portugal, but they exist in Morocco, which can – and should – be tested on a small, experimental scale of course: argans, atlas silks, Calabrian pines and Aleppo pines. We must reproduce the abundance of species, which we have been fighting against in the last few decades through the expansion of pine and eucalyptus on a massive scale. This all implies having people in the countryside, in the rural world, because rethinking the territory is not only about making money quickly, it is about making the territory viable. It is to ensure that, with an increase of another two or three degrees centigrade, Portugal remains a viable country. I am not saying in financial or economic terms; these are entirely human constructs, but viable in terms of resources: water and food production.
Unfortunately, the simplification resulting from climate change will mean that our enormous economic complexity will have to be made simpler. Either we prepare (and this process may even benefit society, our collective life) or not, and then we will have a tremendous shock that will make the austerity processes of the last few years seem like a joke. We have two paths: either viability or an immanent collapse.
In our day-to-day life is there time to reflect on these two paths?
There has to be.
Will people who go to work forty or more hours per week have the capacity to unite, have an opinion and act in defence of Nature, for a forest with biodiversity?
I believe there are several scales of action, all of which are complementary. There are already people who are doing an important part of this work. These people have lifestyles and collective processes where things are changing. On the other hand, fortunately, processes of contestation always create a certain pressure for change. Although they tell us that each of us makes little difference, this is a trap, it is hegemony. And this hegemony is reproduced by culture, reproduced in institutions, in schools, in the press, in systems of justice and in laws. We are in need of a counter-hegemonic shock, because this hegemony affects the people who cultivate it. They themselves feel that it is not possible to change things. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the economic regime in which we live. We have, in fact, been put into a trap that has already been set up inside our own heads.
Each fire makes each inhabitant poorer. What will be the consequences of the departure of each family from the countryside to the city? How can we stop this exodus? How can we motivate young people to return to the land to work with biodiversity?
There is a small back-to-nature movement. But growth is needed. And to grow to scale, you have to have a plan. The book tries to give some clues for this plan, the aptitude of territories, a rationale. Then we must reverse much of what has been dismantled in recent years, because the phenomenon of rural exodus is not an issue exclusive to Portugal, it has happened all over the world in response to a series of incentives: the attractiveness of cities and the lack of investment in the countryside. In Portugal, specifically, the dismantling of the network of public services, hospitals, systems of justice, schools … These are factors that discourage people. There is no countercyclical movement to this rural exodus that wouldn’t be the result of a great investment, of a grand plan to spread the population back throughout the territory.
This plan of rationalisation of the territory is also extremely beneficial for the coast and for the big cities. Because they can’t exist without water, which is entirely dependent on the interior. Food production will have to be increasingly of national or local origin, even because the major distribution systems and international food trade have enormous tensions and these will suffer increasing escalations. Therefore, Portugal has been reducing its food production through a series of external incentives and today it has been reduced to practically nothing. It is self-sufficient in three or four products and none of them are for direct consumption, they are olive oils, oils … It’s obvious that food production will depend much more on the interior and water.
If we do not do anything what prospect will we have?
I would say that in 20, 30 years, if the temperature continues to increase at the rate it is, the level of desertification will become very, very high as far as the Tagus.
In other words, is Portugal uninhabitable?
But with a lot more stress.
Yes, and with far fewer people. There are people living in the Sahara. But let’s just say it’s a very low population density and a very tough lifestyle. Even in the worst scenarios there are large habitable strips. In national and mainly international territories, housing pressure is much higher – many more people in much less space and with much greater need to consume resources. These are the perfect conditions for all kinds of barbarism. Nature pushes us, squeezes us and then we put pressure on each other.
An Exodus to the North?
Yes, paths to the north, since we would walk towards the Centre and North of Europe. Of course, the people of North Africa would also go this way, so the pressure is total. But including people in this adaptation plan could revitalise the country.
What can we do on a daily basis to reduce climate change?
I always try to take the onus off individual action, though I obviously consider it important, except for flying, for example. We must have a movement of political pressure, which should be international, to do two things simultaneously …
… Carrot or stick? The donkey is only motivated by a carrot.
The current report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now been released. This tells us something that is very powerful and should have been said long ago: in order to keep the rise in temperature below one and a half degrees centigrade we have to cut fifty percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That’s in 12 years time. This not only means that there should be no new explorations for gas, oil and coal, but also that existing production is cut; this means a very radical energy revolution. And, unfortunately, a report on that scale, with that intent, is unattractive to civil society. Civil society needs to change not only transport and energy, but also the way agriculture is managed, how one lives in the rural world and in the forest … Therefore, this pressure is extremely important. At the level of individual behaviour, we all know how to act.
.. or do things differently …
Or do things differently. Transport, public policies … Public policies are external to people. This is how the State must be interpreted, not only as a Leviathan far from each of us, but as something we can appropriate.
Less fire, too, of course.
No burning of oil, charcoal or gas.
And also no burning of the forest, if it were possible. There is a tendency for it to burn more and more, so we know that we can have a much less combustible and much less uninterrupted forest that allows a fire to be much more controllable, even in large areas. Given this, we must still be aware that there are conditions, such as those that occurred here in October 2017, which are very difficult to control. The large areas of eucalyptus and pine forest burned uncontrollably, but there are many more bio-diverse areas, for example the Margarida Forest, near Arganil, which only burned around the perimeter. The diversity of species and their huge complementarity, with different kinds of complexity, slowed down the fire, lowered its height and saved the heart of the forest.
There are many signs that show that diversity works much better in firefighting and therefore a bio-diverse forest offers us so much more – plus much more well-being: more services for water, more products (fruits, mushrooms, berries, roots, wood) – than a forest thought of as a factory. This, because Nature, despite giving us so much, is not a sausage factory.