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Dirty money? That’ll be from Brussels and Luxembourg.

Saturday 2nd March 2024.

Can you smell the money? My first forest fire arrived without any declaration of war, yet we are now engaged in a battle that has been going on for a lot longer than the war in Ukraine. It’s a climate war, which started on 11 September 2003 with a fire that blazed its way through Monchique to Silves and then came back, via Aljezur, right into the heart of the Odemira municipality, destroying over 40,000 hectares of forest before finally being extinguished only a week later. 400 km² multiplied by 20,000 tons of CO2 per km²! I personally held the paper manufacturers responsible for the CO2 emissions. The wind eventually died down and the gigantic forest fire was subsequently extinguished. Everything around me had turned black and I found myself walking through the ashes. That was when I purchased a gas mask and, for the first time in my life, gave some serious thought to discovering the best way to protect myself and others from forest fires. The following winter I was already coughing my guts out…

Fábrica de papel

For 34 years now, I’ve been living and working as a journalist in provincial Portugal, in the forest of Monchique, much of which provides Portugal’s biggest paper manufacturer The Navigator Company with the resources that it needs for its ambitious economic goals. Many cork oak and chestnut forests were felled in the 1990s and thereafter, completely annihilating the previously high level of biodiversity. This led to the plantation of rows of monocultures of Australian eucalyptus instead of a mixed forest composed of traditional tree species. Every two metres, a tree would rise up from the landscape. Those trees grew quickly, one after another, terrace after terrace, and now, within the space of one generation, a million hectares of mixed forest have been turned into monocultures in Portugal. That’s more than ten per cent of the surface of the entire country: 10,000 km² of 92,152 km². So, that is the background to the question of Portugal’s forests; and now we’ll get down to the reasons why Portugal suffers fires again and again. It’s all about money.

People always claim that money has no smell. But that’s not true. Subsidies, free money from Brussels and cheap credits offered by the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg – this is the first bait offered to the farmers and forest owners, enticing them to clear their traditional forests and to prepare the ground for industry. This is just as nonsensical as the organisation, so to speak, of the EU state with its 27 members. One says do it this way; the other says do it that way. So what’s the way ahead then? The money from Brussels and Luxembourg has long been stinking of burnt earth.

Some (namely, the European Commission in Brussels) define a zone of forested land as a network NATURA 2000 protected area filled with valuable natural resources of native tree species: cork oak forests, carob trees, groves of umbrella pines growing alongside age-old olive trees, medronheiros (strawberry trees), fig, almond and mulberry trees too. These trees feed their owners, who can then press the olives into oil, distil medronho brandy, collect pine nuts, pick carobs, dry figs and use the almonds to make delicious marzipan. Beekeepers live off the honey and there are prize-winning jam makers; goatherds walk their goats across the land; animals graze on the verges of the narrow by-roads; dairies create fresh cheese, yoghurt and other milk products: what I can see is a manageable subsistence economy that has developed over many generations. Monchique was once able to feed itself. Has this kind of economy now lost its value?

As outras instituições da União Europeia, que dispõem do chamado “caldeirão” através do qual são subsidiados os projetos mais absurdos com o dinheiro dos contribuintes, perspetivam subsidiar as monoculturas na zona designa da „rede NATURA 2000“. Pergunto-me como é que isto não é controlado pela União Europeia. Não há lugar para o eucalipto numa área de rede NATURA 2000. Onde anteriormente foram abatidas clandestinamente as árvores tradicionais, plantaram-se eucaliptos. Decorridos oito anos, os eucaliptos estão “maduros” para serem abatidos, depois carregados em camiões e transportados para as fábricas de Setúbal ou Matosinhos, onde são transformados em papel que é exportado para todo o mundo. Isto traz dinheiro ao produtor, receitas ao fabricante de papel e impostos ao Estado. Comem todos do mesmo prato. Quase como na máfia. Quase. Com a polícia naturalmente ausente. E como a espécie de árvore eucalipto, à primeira vista, é “fácil de cuidar”, no toco que restou da árvore cortada, brota logo a próxima árvore que vai crescer e desenvolver-se automaticamente. E este ciclo repete-se vezes sem conta.

Ganhar dinheiro de forma fácil

São cada vez mais os incêndios em Portugal, especialmente em Monchique, onde 82% da floresta mista, anteriormente diversificada, foi, entretanto, convertida em monoculturas de eucalipto. Decorreram duas dezenas de anos e nenhum Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas (ICNF), e nenhuma Câmara Municipal de Monchique, e nenhum dos vários governos quis acabar com este desvario clandestino entre proprietários florestais e a Navigator Company. Fracassou um projeto de bioparque de uma fundação local, devido à corrupção da Câmara Municipal, sob a égide do político Carlos Alberto Tuta, que governou Monchique durante 27 anos, de 1982 a 2009.

The other EU institutions, with access to what are known popularly as “pork barrels”, promote the most absurd projects with tax revenue, dangling subsidies for monocultures in the designated NATURA 2000 zone before the eyes of investors. I wonder why this is not monitored by the EU. Eucalyptus trees have no place in a NATURA 2000 zone. In those places where the previously existing traditional trees were felled in secret, the land has now been planted with eucalyptus. It only takes eight years for a eucalyptus tree to “ripen” enough for its immediate felling, to be subsequently loaded onto trucks and hauled to factories in Setúbal or Matosinhos in order to be turned into paper and exported all over the world. This creates cash for the forest owners, a profitable turnover for the paper manufacturers and tax revenue for the state. Everybody is in the same boat, rather like the mafia. Nearly. There is no visible police presence, of course. And because, at first glance, eucalyptus appears to be an “easy-care” species of tree, the felled tree is immediately replaced by another one, which sprouts automatically in its stead. And the same malarkey is repeated again and again.


Earning money the easy way.

Trees continue to burn in Portugal, and particularly in Monchique, where 82% of the once-diverse mixed forest has by now been converted into eucalyptus monocultures. This process hasn’t even taken two decades, and neither the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF), nor the Monchique Municipal Council, nor any of the various governments that we have had, have been prepared to stop this insane clandestine deal between the forest owners and the Navigator Company. A bio park project established by a local foundation collapsed in the face of the corruption that thrived under the leadership of Carlos Alberto Tuta, the mayor who governed Monchique for 27 years, between 1982 and 2009.

In 2003, the impact of climate change first began to show through quite clearly. Temperatures have risen slowly but surely. Also, it has been raining less. The first springs and brooks now begin to fall dry by late summer. Soils are drying out. Eucalyptus monocultures simply guzzle water, ten times more than cork oak forests. And when a small fire driven by the wind meets a eucalyptus forest, it immediately finds plenty of food. Where once the natural humidity of a native mixed forest would cause a fire to slow down, the exact opposite happens in a eucalyptus-driven monoculture: the fire is fuelled even more due to its essential oils that explode like a petrol bomb. A small fire becomes a veritable forest fire; if a fire meets a eucalyptus grove, it turns into a mega fire particularly when the wind comes into play, pushing it along. This is sheer hell, an “out-of-kilter meteorology working in conjunction with dry and oil-soaked tree plantations. This is man-made,” says Xavier Domingos Viegas, a Professor at Coimbra University, and one of the leading European authorities on this subject.

Making big money with the natural resource forest.

Fewer and fewer people are living in the Monchique municipality, which covers an area of just under 400 km2: today, following the exodus of its once 12,000 rural inhabitants in the early 1970s, the countryside sustains a population of less than 5,000, many of whom are old and frail. Over half of the region’s houses and farmsteads are empty or have burnt down: their ruins are scattered around the landscape, representing good business for estate agents and nature tourism. As I walk past these ruins on my hikes through the abandoned countryside, I can clearly see that the undergrowth is no longer cut back, providing perfect fodder for the next forest fire. And the eucalyptus carries on growing, no matter whether it’s mown down or now burnt to a cinder. In the year 2024, eucalyptus trees carry on growing, wild and out of control – in Monchique with its EU-network NATURA 2000 certification.

And together with the eucalyptus trees, we now have other invasive tree species growing in Monchique – also introduced to Portugal from Australia: the acacia and the mimosa. Experts reckon that it will take even less than one generation for Monchique to be completely overgrown by invasive tree species. The roots of acacias and mimosas spread both deep and wide, and, just below the surface of the soil, every acacia tree is connected to another one. If you cut down an acacia or a mimosa, you’ll witness a botanical miracle: just one single felled tree immediately sprouts between five and ten new trees. A true plague, particularly following forest fires such as the one that ravaged the countryside in August 2018, burning 28,000 hectares. Whereas, before the forest fire, you had just a few thousand acacia trees in Monchique, afterwards these had turned into several million new trees. The alien invaders have become too many to count.

ECO123 has been trying since June 2023 to obtain a statement on this topic from the Socialist Mayor Paulo Alves. However, due to the mayor’s schedule, our repeated requests until 12 February of this year have not enjoyed any success. This issue is more than just something that may be considered as simply uncomfortable. It requires the attention of the entire population and the Monchique town council: it’s a labour-intensive process and you can’t earn anything from it, other than a warm handshake from your neighbour. Nearly everyone is affected. Might it be better to ignore this issue during this legislative period? But, then again, you should never give up hope with politicians. For they want to be re-elected.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen boldly and simply calls this policy of rural industrialisation (and thus the destruction of nature) the “Green Deal”. In December 2023, this eucalyptus deal was rewarded with a low-interest loan of over 155 million euros for “The Navigator Company” by the European Investment Bank (EIB) in Luxembourg, to modernise its machinery. For those who already have will be given more. Meanwhile, the victims of the forest fires are left out in the cold. They don’t increase the GDP and they pay little tax. Watch this space. For this story continues next week, right here.

Uwe Heitkamp (64)

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, John Elliot, Ruth Correia, Patrícia Lara, Kathleen Becker
Photos: Uwe Heitkamp

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