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Eucaliptos cutter in Monchique

Monchique, and eucalyptus in Portugal.

At present, there is a population of 6,045 living in an area of 396 square kilometres, surrounded by hills and forests. 76% of these are eucalyptus plantations. During the most recent forest fires in 2003, 317 square kilometres of forest burned in ten days, i.e. 80% of the municipality. A trauma that still lives on today because the fire brigade were barely able to put the fires out. Twelve years before, in 1991, fires raged in Monchique for a week. Again and again, the upland forests catch fire and destroy the small-scale farming livelihoods of the inhabitants even more. And so, the next forest fire is just a matter of time.

2013 will go down in the history of Portugal as a year of catastrophe: large parts of the Serra do Caramulo caught fire. In 165 of 308 Portuguese counties we see large eucalyptus plantations. 10% of the Portuguese state has gone up in smoke in less than a generation. Fire-fighters have lost their lives, many locals have lost everything they own. Beekeepers lost their hives, medronho farmers lost the basis for their distilleries, cork, carob, olive and fig harvests, sheep, goats, hens and much more were all lost. After a forest fire, even hunters can’t find any game anymore.

Since 1960, when the first major landowners started the industrial eucalyptus plantation for the production of cellulose in Monchique, the population there has more than halved. Over half the local residents are aged 60 and over. For a number of years, bitter arguments have been going on about whether the finance department, the court, the social security office and other institutions should close and move into the next biggest town. “Fewer and fewer residents” justify the closing down of Monchique, which has officially existed since 1773.

According to official figures, in 1960 there were still 14,799 people living in Monchique, mainly from traditional agriculture (subsistence economy). With the introduction of industrial forestry and agriculture (eucalyptus and mass livestock farming) around 40,000 pigs were also fattened up, the population has fallen by more than half within two generations. Many young people leave their parental homes and the rural areas because they can see no future for themselves. They can find no work and the few opportunities that are on offer are unattractive, unmotivating and beneath their level of education. In the last local elections, only 3,663 of the 5,165 registered voters cast their ballots, 500 fewer than four years ago, and the trend is downwards.

The eucalyptus seeds have not only taken root in Monchique, but in many parts of Portugal. They have developed into a plague which every year accumulates in countless forest fires. The trees’ volatile oils are highly flammable. The economic damage caused by the forest fires amounts to billions, the ecological damage is unmeasurable, the social, health and cultural consequences of the forest fires have so far been ignored by all governments, despite all the changes. Meanwhile, insurance companies are refusing to insure forests. The fire brigades are overstretched, not only because there is a shortage of modern fire engines and equipment, but also because funding is being cut everywhere and savings are being made. In some places, military and paramilitary personnel (so-called GIPS) were deployed in patrols in order to be able to spot forest fires and bring them under control more quickly.

Where eucalyptus plantations are established, no other indigenous trees grow any more. Within a few years, eucalyptus trees grow to a massive height because their roots penetrate immediately, quickly and deep into the ground and draw out all the water. Eucalyptus is an extremely invasive plant. In Portugal, it is increasingly displacing indigenous trees: chestnut, carob, stone pines and cork oaks are all in retreat.

It is a vicious circle. Forest fires encourage the tree’s invasive properties even more. The seeds, trunks and roots of a eucalyptus tree which is burnt once – like all other plants – are not destroyed by fire, but spread even more after a fire. In the long term, the eucalyptus’s invasive properties can cause whole ecosystems to collapse or change completely. The strong smell of menthol is very unusual for European animals and drives them away. And in any case, monocultures generally provide scant habitat for the animal world, or none at all.

You can also read our report about the association A Nossa Terra from Monchique in this edition.

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