I will not dwell too much on the disastrous history of the forests that blight this country, it's all spelled out in the article "Fires and Desertification of Portugal´s Forests," published in O Público about ten years ago, (writes Jorge Paiva, Portugal's 'David Attenborough').
Although we warned about the causes of annual fires that have been going on now for four decades, and how the problem can be solved, successive governments not only have caused, but also have been collaborators in establishing monocultures, continuous and contiguous, with only minimum control, order and rules applying.
We know that before the last glaciation, the evergreen laurisilva, predominantly with trees of the laurel family, was the forest that covered the land.
During the glacial period, this forest practically disappeared in mainland Portugal (there are only some species remaining). Portugal had forest cover (Taiga) similar to that which surrounds the temperate northern part of the terrestrial globe, around the arctic circle - witness the relics of Pinus sylvestris still found in some of the coldest mountainous areas of Gerês.
After the beginning of the present period, the Holocene (Anthropogenic), with the disappearance of laurisilva and taiga the respective continental ecological niche was occupied by a new forest in which trees of the family of Fagaceae predominated - such as oak, beech and chestnut trees. This type of forest is designated as fagosilva.
Then man began the cultivation of cereals and the domestication of animals about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago and the degradation of fagosilva began. The Discoveries and their expansion provoked a tremendous devastation of the fagosilva, completed later on with the construction of the railroad network, whose sleepers were made of oak.
The mountains, particularly those of the region between the Douro and Tagus, were practically deforested. With the mountains uninhabited, the rural population began to live from grazing livestock.
Intensive pastoralism also had a great impact on the destruction of the Portuguese flora. Fires in agricultural regions and grazing areas also contributed to, and continue to contribute to, the desertification of our mountains. At one point, these areas were reforested with the pine tree (Pinus pinaster) - particularly after the creation of the Forestry Services and the afforestation policy of the Estado Novo.
Portugal now has the largest continuous pinewood area in Europe and our mountains have became an immense pine forest where before there were oaks.
After the destruction of this oak forest, those people who had lived from the primitive forest (hunting and gathering) now came to live in pine forest which gave wood, bedding, plants for livestock, fertiliser for the fields and handicrafts, such as making spoons, forks and even knives.
Since the middle of the C20th many of these pine forests have been replaced by eucalyptus which has been planted widely. Eucalyptus is more interesting to the cellulose (paper) industry because the trees are faster growing than pine trees. In the last decades, plantations of eucalyptus have been so rampant that Europe's largest continuous eucalyptus area has been created in Portugal.
With the mountains occupied by eucalyptus trees, the rural exodus occurred because, as the eucalyptus trees are cut every ten years, the people can not spend ten years looking at a tree growing with nothing else to do.
In addition to the rural abandonment which they were forced into, people were economically dependent on a monopoly, a risk to which they were not, and never were, alerted.
In this way, our mountains became covered by monospecific forests, with highly inflammable trees (the resin from the pine tree and the oils in the eucalyptus.)
Therefore, I designate this type of forest: 'ignisliva' (from the Latin ignis = fire and silva = forest), or 'xilopiros' (from the Greek xylon = wood and pyr = fire).
As we are accustomed to the term laurisilva, perhaps it is better to adopt ignisliva for the forest that we now have. But since I have long called them “ fiery summers” that we have had over the last decades, you may prefer the term xyloiros, for we have been planting forests to have wood to burn.
When the forest was pine trees, the Forest Services controlled it and we had did not have so many devastating summer fires. From the 1980s onwards, successive governments resolved not only to end the Forest Services, but also to wind down all existing material and human resources, as well as all the built heritage (so-called Forest Guard Houses).
As already mentioned, there already has been depopulation of the rural environment which included forest technicians. Without certified forestry professionals (forest engineers and foresters, technicians and forest rangers), pine and eucalyptus areas were planted without rules, creating continuous and contiguous areas of this igneous forest.
We then had summers with devastating fires and the attendant risks of travelling on certain roads, flanked by these forests for kilometre after kilometre. There are many dangerous council areas, such as those where the misfortune occurred at Pedrógão Grande.
So, when foreign friends of mine want to visit Portugal by car, I indicate the zones where they should not travel (a Frenchman died in the last devastating fire). At present, in Portugal, there is the real risk of being incinerated on a road.
In my opinion, for as long as they fail to carry out spatial planning, fail to re-create Forest Services and fail to equip this body with qualified professionals, we will never stop having devastating fires.
It is not with volunteers that the problem is solved, but with professionals, and having them on the ground EVERY YEAR.
You can tell me that the Forest Service was a very "heavy" (onerous) structure that required a lot of qualified staff. But, I know a lot of political structures that are "very heavy" and with even more personnel, but which no government has put an end.
Just a few examples. Madeira has an area of 741 km2 and has 11 Councils. The Algarve has an area of 4,997 km2 (more than six times that of Madeira) and 16 Councils.
Therefore, Madeira should have only two Councils, except this would involve a large decrease in personnel and structures. Madeira has a Legislative Assembly with 47 deputies so the Autonomous Region of Madeira is "very heavy" compared to the Forestry Services with many parishes with less than 5,000 inhabitants. What a waste of political and bureaucratic personnel.
And it was argued that Forest Services - the only professionalised structure to manage the forest and avoid fires - had to be wound down because it was too "heavy" !!! ...
It is better to stop now, for I, as much as I am honoured to be a Portuguese, I am ASHAMED of living in a country that imports oak wood for furniture, but does not replant the native forest.
Jorge Paiva, Coimbra University
June 20, 2017
O Público National Newspaper