Home | Short Stories | Nº 47 – Open letter to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

Nº 47 – Open letter to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

Saturday, 8 th August 2020

Madam President of the EU Commission, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen.

At the beginning of the week, journalists were presented with a press release with information relating to both Portugal and Europe, which contained such keywords as Green Deal, investments, sustainability, forest fires, reforestation, economics, ecology, eucalyptus, monocultures, cellulose and paper, among others.

 An Investment Plan for Europe?

I read in this press release that the European Investment Bank (EIB) will lend the Navigator Company SA (Setúbal) exactly 27.5 million euros for the purchase of a new paper machine (total cost 55 million euros), which is to operate in Figueira da Foz. The company had a profit of 168.3 million euros after tax in 2019. Should we be surprised? It is an example of the familiar politics of regression, in which the EU directly or indirectly supports monoculture projects, thus paving the way for climate decline. I investigated the case and discovered that the same group had already received a loan of 25 million euros from the EU on 7 July 2016, for the modernisation of its machinery, in Aveiro. In 2015, the company’s profit after tax was 196.8 million euros. Why does the EU act in this way?


Screenshot Website BEI


I don’t usually interfere in political processes and decision-making. I am a journalist and I have lived and worked in Monchique, Portugal, for 30 years. However, I do comment on decisions. I edit the trilingual magazine ECO123 in Portuguese, English and German, along with a dozen colleagues. Together, we work for a media organisation whose products are sold all across Europe.

Over the past few decades, I have continuously followed the aggressive policy of expansion that this group, which is active not only in Portugal, but also in Mozambique, where it is literally “clearing away the native forest”. SEMAPA SA – the parent company – which holds about 75% of the shares, is operating with similar brutality. Both are listed on the Lisbon Stock Exchange’s PSI 20 index.

Over the 30 years that I have lived in the south of Portugal, I have seen my property destroyed by disastrous forest fires five times and I have witnessed the destructive force of these blazes in an area of forest that year after year is mostly covered with ever-larger industrial eucalyptus plantations. Without these monocultures, it would have been much easier to put out the fires.

Portugal, with a total area of just over 92,000 km2 , is a country where only two percent of the forest is owned by the State, or, to be more precise, only 55 km2 . 98% of the forested area is privately owned. The Navigator Company alone has more than twice the forested area I have just mentioned: 120 km2 . This places the Portuguese State in last position among the 27 States in Europe. Who is really paying taxes to whom in this situation?

The arm of the State is powerless and is not even willing to apply its own laws to effectively control the situation through its own civil servants. Why encourage the planting of more eucalyptus trees after the Monchique forest fire in 2018? It would be logical to adopt the reverse policy. The paper producer happily continues to plant monocultures, even in places where this is illegal, and furthermore doing so secretly during the lockdown period imposed by Covid-19. It is money laundering by the national treasury. Can we “turn a blind eye” to this? The payment of high taxes always brings its reward! António Costa passed the buck to a simple gardener when he placed the previous Navigator manager Tiago Oliveira in charge of forests and fires. Now, this man is responsible for the classification of forested areas and for coordinating the fighting of forest fires in the government. What more can citizens expect than to see the fires spreading and becoming even hotter every year? You will certainly be aware of the European Natura 2000 network, which means that not a single eucalyptus should be planted in Monchique. Ah, Europe! Brussels is too far away.

There is talk of the consequences of forest fires… even higher CO2 emissions, growing desertification, higher temperatures, increasing poverty and monocultures. No wonder people are leaving the countryside. Because the burnt areas are immediately freed up for new plantations with even more eucalyptus.

It is possible that the President of the EIB, Dr Werner Hoyer, and his board of directors, were not informed of these facts when making their decision. Or perhaps they simply cannot do any better. Such decisions are taken in geographically distant rooms in Luxembourg with air conditioning systems that work. Maybe one hand washed the other, who knows?


The fact that we are in the Serra de Monchique, surrounded by eucalyptus as if we were in a bell jar, and that we see the once beautiful Portuguese mixed forest being used to make wallpaper to decorate kitchens, bathrooms and offices, is perfectly easy to read on the balance sheet of a limited company. But our climate doesn’t know about air conditioning systems. Our climate is determined by forest fires and eucalyptus. And it’s becoming increasingly more chaotic, drier and hotter with each year that passes.

However, the fact that we humans have had to “burn” five times in 30 years, and that many people in Monchique have lost everything – including their homes, farms and animals – is not recorded on any EU balance sheet. On the contrary. The Navigator Company – fully aware of the pain it is causing to the injured parties involved – is currently promoting a clever Public Relations campaign that reminds me that attack is always the best form of defence. It praises itself for its commitment to sustainability and strives to convey the idea of climate neutrality. Oh, yes? Well, believe it or not, they will be blessed. In a time when we lack guidance, more and more managers are describing abuses and violations with a single word: love. The forest is not the same as a sausage factory.

The history of the forest and, therefore, the relationship of human beings with the space in which they live and rest must be rewritten. What is needed is a narrative that is based on reality. One day, humanity will regret having destroyed its traditional and equilibriumgenerating forests – and having used industrial eucalyptus monocultures unlawfully as raw material warehouses for business purposes. A three-year-old eucalyptus consumes 20 litres of groundwater a day. At some point, we will realise that the missing water cannot be purchased with even more money. But then we will already have been left out in the cold. (Or should I say in a drought?) …

Yours sincerely,

Uwe Heitkamp

Uwe Heitkamp (60)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, has lived in Monchique Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123.

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