Fire season in Portugal, which typically lasts between June to September, has arrived once more. As of June 29, 2020, more than two dozen municipalities in the districts of Bragança, Guarda, Castelo Branco, Santarém, Beja and Faro are at very high risk, according to the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and the Atmosphere (IPMA). A bevy of eucalyptus trees throughout the country remain at the ready, veritable tinder boxes ready to explode. It doesn’t help that recent BBC Weather forecasting projects Portugal and Spain to ‘boil’ under minimum 30°C temperatures (June 30, 2020).
It is just the heat? I won’t bore you with endless facts about eucalyptus trees; however, they are a thirsty lot, draining the soil through high water consumption. They are also an important cash crop in rural Portugal, helping sustain local and international factories with wood pulp, which accounts for 5% of Portugal’s total exports. Paper is important here, and sourcing wood pulp from a cheap, fast-growing tree that is easily replaceable was likely one of the original causes in choosing to plant eucalyptus in the first place.
How to solve the problem? Portugal’s government can voyage forth into the forests and seize the land, right? They can simply go about putting forward proper forestry maintenance procedures with impunity, no? Not so fast. In fact, “Portuguese forests are more than 85% privately owned; the state owns barely 2% of the land area, with the rest under the care of local communities”. In several cases, citizens may or may not even be aware that they’ve inherited the land upon which these budding forest fires lie. A tangled web of eucalyptus, this.
How about climate disruption? There must be an impact, yes? Frighteningly, the interiors of both Spain and Portugal maintain high risks for profound effects of climate disruption. For example, Beighley & Hyde provide a map including average (historical) and projected (future) forest fire danger throughout Europe, and the models are damning. In Portugal alone, the Seasonal Severity Rating (SSR) is poised to rise from 6-7 to 7-10 throughout much of the country by 2100. The problem, as Verde & Zêzere succinctly emphasise in their wildfire susceptibility report: “…is how to sustain 64%, roughly two thirds, of the Portuguese territory.
What should new immigrants to Portugal be considering? While the Interior is an important agricultural zone that helps provide Portugal with a dizzying number of her natural exports, it doesn’t seem to be the future of the country. That said, I’m all for industrious immigrants that may want to make Portugal’s Interior the place of their homesteading/sustainable living dreams; however, it’s incredibly important to choose a location that is not on the path toward decline. My distinct suggestion is either in and around Porto (or Aveiro for rural living). The Aveiro district sees little in the way of wildfires, has access to the sea and sits atop a large aquifer with decent recharge rates. Porto and Aveiro are also ensconced firmly within the ‘blue zone’ of the above figure.
Will the Portuguese government come to terms with this crisis? Some argue that the government’s forest fire prevention plans only serve as window dressing to addressing the problem. I won’t speak to that; nevertheless, the question is whether the political will to address this massive problem will find true expression, or whether it will languish in ‘empty speech’. Let’s hope, as the Interior ‘empties’ of people fleeing the early disasters of climate disruption, that the government will not become distracted on this issue. Portugal has an opportunity to lead in Green initiatives; it will be only through getting its proverbial ‘house in order’ that it can lead with the moral vision the country’s current leaders presently prescribe.
We often write positively about Portugal on this blog. Yet, bear in mind that no panacea exists on the planet; however, we find it extremely important to be aware of (and consider) the many factors that could affect your life as you choose where to plant your seeds. For us, we’ll stay in the ‘blue zone’.