Home | BotGarden | Nº 105 – Minimising the Risk of Forest Fires.
An essay by Uwe Heitkamp

Nº 105 – Minimising the Risk of Forest Fires.
An essay by Uwe Heitkamp

Saturday 18th September 2021.

By now every serious democratic candidate has been given the chance to air their views on the forest fires in a 30-minute unscripted interview. Their replies to the question of what they are intending to do to break the cycle of forest fires in Monchique, or to stop them altogether, makes it look as if they didn’t really have a solution in mind. José Chaparro, Bruno Estremores, João Duarte and Paulo Alves are the four candidates who all want to become mayor, and all of them still have a real chance to make this happen. Unless of course the candidate of the neofascist Chega party manages to obtain the majority of votes, which would be a devastating outcome. There is however a solution for the forest fires, and it is eminently simple, as you’ll know if you yourself have been the victim of a forest fire. This solution may be expressed in six words and then extended to all areas of life, applying the law, and rigorously.

I’m not exactly proud to be able to say I’ve survived five forest fires, that I was right in the middle of it, in order to save my trees. The experience has traumatised, scared and hurt me, but also encouraged me to face the fire. No, I’m not going to allow myself to be evacuated without resisting, no, I will defend my forest, as long as I have two working legs and arms, steered by a brain working normally, and overcomes the fear. Forest fires, you see, are put out by water.

Here’s a legitimate question: why is it so difficult for a politician to work out a proper PDM municipal master plan over twelve years, a PDM worth the paper it’s been written on? Rui André, mayor of Monchique for a couple more weeks, has completely failed here. Between  2009 and 2021 he had all the time in the world, yet didn’t give priority to the PDM and Civil Protection. And the buck of the 2018 forest fire stops with him. And he knows that. No use getting the Padre to hear your confession. He’d have done better to take his responsibility as mayor more seriously and presented a proper PDM. This requires teamwork. Specialists from the entire community are working on this together, and the stated goal is always „minimising the risk of forest fires“. I would expect a responsible politician to have done their homework on becoming mayor. This includes the absolute will to try everything humanly possible to exclude this kind of disasters which exacerbate the climate crisis even more. This takes the courage to make decisions. As mayor you can’t make everyone happy, business interests in particular. It takes the courage to say NO. And this also means banning the industrial monocultures from Monchique. Eucalyptus mustn’t be allowed to come too close to Monchique, Alferce and Marmelete.

It’s election time again, and only the most stupid cows elect their own butcher.

Which is why I asked all mayoral candidates what they are planning to do break the cycle, to stop the forest fires. Their answers are helpless thoughts, based on the assumption that more people will live in Monchique once more. The fact is that the rural exodus from Monchique is ongoing, that people are leaving their land, allowing their houses, gardens and forests to run to seed. Any fire will be only too happy to feed on what’s left. Rural exodus is also a consequence of the forest fires and the lack of tackling their root causes. It’s burning, and then the damage is ignored. A mayor who three years after the forest fire still doesn’t know the amount of the damage has done a terrible job. In truth it wouldn’t be such a great surprise if the neo-fascists were to hold the mirror of incompetence up to the democrats and to win the elections with a huge bang. Wake up, people! There’s everything to play for in these local elections. This is about selecting the most competent candidate amongst the democrats and supporting him in coping with the threat of disaster.

In two weeks’ time, Rui André will be history. That’s the good news. He’s taking early retirement at 45. Followed by a devil-may-care approach? Definitely not. We have João Duarte of the Independents (CPM), an engineer able to make decisions with technical brilliance and independently from the political cabal of the village. His statement that he intends to change the attitude towards problem-solving in Monchique sounds promising. He is no big landowner cultivating eucalyptus without getting his hands dirty. And there is Paulo Alves of the PS, who is also said not to be above cultivating potatoes and beans in the soil of his garden, with his own hands.

Minimising the risk of forest fires would mean banning eucalyptus from a region of ten kilometres around Monchique, Alferce and Marmelete. This would be substantially minimise the risk of a forest fire. And it would be the new PDM deciding where eucalyptus could be planted and up to which density. This will be the most urgent task for the Town Hall to deal with. I recommend involving every party represented in local government, as well as the administration of the municipality and a competent lawyer specialised in administrative law.

We now have time, an entire winter in fact, and it’s important to make good use of this time before the next dry and hot summer brings the next massive forest fire risk.

So what is a PDM when it’s at home? The Plano Director Municipal is an instrument of municipal land use planning and should always mirror the current situation in a district, but also shape it: the land development plan, the economic situation, the infrastructure, the designation of particularly sensitive ecological areas in need of protection, agriculture and forestry, civil protection planning in the event of a forest fire or an earthquake and so forth. In Monchique, drawing up the PDM will involve squaring the circle as it were. For the PDM is the masterplan for a community. It governs which areas may be built on or not and where, what may be planted and where, or not. Industrial eucalyptus plantations are the hottest potato being passed around in this discussion. Eucalyptus is the be all and end all determining factor in the risk of a forest fire. For a long time we saw heavy beating about the bush going on. Considering the EU Natura 2000 network guidance issued by the EU Commission, on the basis of protecting flora and fauna, 87 per cent of the 396 km2 making up Monchique council are a nature reserve governed by the ZPO 0037. So if this is about enforcing and implementing this EU directive also in Monchique, as Monchique belongs to the sphere of influence of the European Union (or does it?), then by law not a single eucalyptus plantation should exist in the Monchique mountains, no invasive tree species being allowed.

But maybe Monchique isn’t part of the European Union. In which case I’d recommend following the example of Poland, and cancel all EU subventions going to Monchique.

A new, juridically legitimised PDM is the only basis to allow the development of nature tourism around hiking, mountain biking, relaxation – and a working local economy. Of course, minimising the risks of forest fire also means building everything to fire-resistant standards, and to make it obligatory for each estate to have large water cisterns or ponds, to give priority to the financing of the firefighting service, to equip and organise that service in such a way that it can effortlessly reach any fire source within 15 minutes. Make an effort, you politicians, to finally make Monchique free of fires! Yes we can!

Native mixed forests increase humidity levels within an ecological habitat. This is not only about minimising the risk of forest fires, but also about increasing resilience, the ability to resist. Because in the climate crisis of the coming decades what will happen is that it might not rain for an entire winter or several winters in a row. What do we do then? How long will our water reserves last? And what do we do when it rains in one hour as much as it would normally in a month?

There’s more: Lisbon should urgently pass a law that makes it mandatory for house owners to have insurance. Climate change doesn’t care whether local politicians have done their homework or not.

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 : Dina Adão, Tim Coombs, João Medronho, Kathleen Becker
Fotos: Uwe Heitkamp, dpa


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