A Holistic Perspective on How the Fires in Portugal Came to be and Where we Go from Here

Written By Doug Crouch, Temporary Resident of Portugal

While the blame for such a tragic wildfire is swirling intensely already, I first express my condolences to those who lost so much.  Life, property, livelihoods, tradition, memories, and so much more.  For the ecosystem its tragic as well. The long story of how we got to such a moment is long and twisting and its progression downward on this dangerous path I hope to explain below.  And I state here first before that, we are all to

from State of the World Article

blame.  While its easy to point the finger at the Eucalyptus mafia and sign petitions, we must point back to ourselves first.  An industry such as that, along with the Pine industry, can not gain such clout to influence politicians without demand.  Just as the corn industry dominates agriculture policy and land use in the states, without the demand of cheap meat and sugary beverages, they would not have it.  So as I said in my last TreeYo EDU article where I mention Eucalyptus in Portugal, State of the World, even the toilet paper we use is not vegan and that is now more clearly evident than ever before.  People died, and have been for many years now, because of our demand for paper and toilet paper, and most importantly, as cheap as we can get it! So as Bob Marley said, “judge not if you are not ready for judgment”.  We must all swallow the hard facts that we create the demand, the industry creates the supply, the political legislation opens it up for incestous extractive practices, and the ecosystem and its inhabitants suffer. We live in the age of the consumer, no longer the supplier.  So when you go to your supermarkets and buy that super cheap toilet paper, guess what, you bought monoculture Eucalyptus from Portugal.

The Long Story of Change

It starts back in the Roman Empire actually.  The Romans traveled to Iberia to hunt, the place was so rich with wildlife from the amazingly abundant forest they went through the long trails to find this bounty.  As we know, overhunting can start a dangerous road on ecosystem alteration as often predators of the prey we were in search of also began to decline from hunting.  The forests of Iberia began a long tradition of extraction from there, often for war purposes, and began the process of desertification many, many years ago.

Natural Forest vs. Monoculture

The natural oak forests of Portugal are a wonderful creation of a layered approach to growing and creating niches for many different creatures; an inherent food forest.  The natural forests have plenty of mast from the oaks, combined with chestnuts in the right microclimates, for wildlife stability.  Several fruiting shrubs like Hawthron and Strawberry tree yielded fruits

Planting Strawberry Tree, Madronho, in Decertifying lands in Spain, Suryalila Retreat

as well.  Vines scrambled, riparian trees stabilized rivers, acorns fed wild pigs, deer foraged on the multitude of native shrubs and trees.  It was jungly in a way even with the extended dry periods. The ecosystem would have incurred fire from time to time as all drylands climates have this balance.  But the intensity of fires would have been low but the suppression of fires and the altering of the ecosystem created this intense burn we saw again this year in Central Portugal.  The greatest indication of that fire was once natural is the magnificent tree itself, the Cork Oak.  While most people around the world have had the pleasure of experiencing cork through wine or some other industrial product, most have not walked through a cork forest. The thick, spongy bark that is extracted

In background, Eucalyptus and all the sort of the shrubbery that grows along or under Eucalyptus, fuel for fire

for things such as wine stoppers, is in fact an evolutionary response to fire being apart of the ecosystem.  Its one that allowed fire to shape the landscape but not bring it to its knees.  It slows the fire and keeps it in the lower reaches of the forest rather it being a ladder fuel tree.  Ladder fuel canopy trees such as Eucalyptus or pine, would have been much more spaced out in their natural habitats.  While both are also adapted to experience fire in their native ecosystems, which humans even enhanced through controlled burns to create more of a savannah for hunting, planting them at this density is ludicrous especially without animal integration.  While it does afford economies of scale, which is a cornerstone of modern capitalism, it doesn’t see the system holistically.  Thus when fires reach the canopy of such monocultures through ladder fuel of shrubs below and the bark and branches being held up by them, the intensity of fires, the spread of them, the beast that is created is so incredibly dangerous it belongs in a Hollywood Horror movie. But it has been a reality for Portuguese for many years.

Dictatorship

In our modern days, the dictatorship of Portugal was one major influencer on the land use.  Many trees were cut, especially in inner Alentejo for the production of wheat.  One of the main social repercussions of the dictatorship was massive waves of migration out of the country in the years following its collapse.  While Salazar did have some great policies, he left Portugal in a tough standing because he wasn’t aligned with the western powers and their system of capitalism. So of course they were far behind when they entered and why not migrate for work to a more advanced one like France, which received many, many Portuguese in the 70’s.  It continued for many years after that with high concentrations of Portuguese in Newark, NJ, USA, Chicago, USA, Toronto, Canada, London, Paris, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and spreading back into the colonies they once held. Some say that Paris is actually the second largest Portuguese city with more people from Portugal there than then Oporto.

 

EU Common Agriculture Policy

Maybe the single greatest cause of this tragedy is this policy. If you don’t know it and are an EU resident you should learn more.  This is where the lands of Portugal really changed and why many secretly despise the EU.  It is a system of quotas that stripped Portugal of its cultural identity as a wine and olive producer to a forestry state.  The stories are rampant throughout Iberia but heard often in Central Portugal where people were paid to take out Olive trees and vines.  Their traditional livelihoods were taken away and people again fled out of the country thus creating even more abandonment. Abandonment is dangerous for lands that have been disturbed for so long because they build up un-cycled carbon resources over time.  Humans and Wildlife along with microbes would have actively managed carbon resources and turned them into carbon rich soils thus building a more resilient landscape.  With people and wildlife and microbes having been extracted because of the myriad of spiraling chain reactions of cause and effect, the ecosystem declines even more and is ripe for fire to cycle carbon instead.

Chopped brown material of bracken fern and blackberry, mechanically cut which are two incredible ladder fuels when they dry out, Tabua, Central Portugal

Thus basically what the EU does is offer a subsidy for a particular crop selection and people jump on it and an industry is developed. Henceforth, when this EU policy was instituted and intensified over the years, what a great solution to no markets for traditional crops or being an absentee landlord.  Simply drop some forestry trees in through signing a contract spurred by EU subsidies, wait until the forestry crops were ready years later, and receive fat royalties for doing nothing other than selling out the ecosystem.  Thus the industry grew in its power and control as people could not sell land in Portugal because who wanted to move to this forgotten, economically depressed country struggling to catch up with the rest of the world.  It’s not like that way now as foreigners are fleeing inwards to these regions for a self-sufficient lifestyle outside of their mainly northern European locales.  But the damage was done already before they arrived.  Huge swaths of land when you drive North from Lisbon are in this monoculture.  As I wrote in my last article, again, monoculture produces disastrous results.  We know this, we know the amount of chemicals used in monocultures of corn in the midwest of the states or wheat in Spain.  And we know that in Portugal people die every single year, mainly firefighters making less than two euro an hour to fight them.  Yet in this moment of tragedy, we will not point the finger back at ourselves and say wow, you know, not everyone in this world has access to toilet paper.  Having done an eight month stint in Asia in 2009 I know this well.  When you do defecate, or for women urinate, you don’t use toilet paper for hygiene purposes.  You use water.  While toilet paper is an incredible step up in hygiene, mainly because of its disposability, it does have an effect later downstream.  Our instant culture is not a permaculture and we have long waived long-term foresight for short-term gains in convenience.  It’s a great paradox we live in, that us wiping our ass causes wildlife to be extinguished by monoculture and in this case a severe and dramatic loss of life has occurred.

Solutions

First and foremost we need to switch our thinking into a more holistic one, I have offered a model before and I offer it here again (Holistic Model).  If we don’t break from our Cartesian Dualism route, the path to extinction for our species has been laid. Yes indeed please sign the petitions to let the politicians know the numbers of people in Portugal who wish to see their national heritage of a diverse landscape be brought back.  Pressure politicians but also take action. We need a massive aid package that directs funds into cutting the trees that are left over from this massive fire and laying them on contour so when the rains do come the ash that is left over doesn’t simply wash away.  With fires of that temperature and the high silica content laden soils of central Portugal the soils will have turned into glass essentially leaving a lasting degredatory effect on the landscape for years.  The only way to prevent this is contour bunding using the trees to slow erosion, trap sediments and ash, and infiltrate water.  Essentially its terraces with woody matter.

So make sure your lands are infiltrating water, that your biodiversity portfolio is being diversified, make sure you are cleaning your lands with mechanical intervention and biological means.  I also wrote many years ago about how animals were being used in one particular case in Portugal.  I copy and paste at the bottom of this as it comes from a longer article on the use of biological resources.  So invite shepherds back into your land or become one.  Enliven this tradition. We must have the nitrogen-fixing shrubs and bushes that grow under the eucalyptus cycled, making sure the shedding branches and bark of Eucalyptus are knocked to the ground where they can be fungus food and animal manures repopulate microbes in these degraded ecosystems. We desperately need livestock to have animal impact especially since the wildlife that did it before has long been extinguished.  I have seen two deer in eight years in Portugal. Use companies like Ecointerventions to clean or the firemen services, but take this responsibility on strongly.  Invest in green company products and services like the

New Zealand Mirror Plant, Coprosma repens, fire suppressing plant from New Zealand. from http://www.aphotoflora.com/af_coprosma_repens_tree_bedstraw.html

aforementioned company. If you are a permaculture designer in Portugal every design should have a section on fire.  Plant species that are fire-retardant and make sure edges of properties are clean and planted with succulents like agave or shrubs like New Zealand mirror plant.  Cycle water and Carbon.  If you are an absentee landlord work out leases with young permaculturists/ homesteaders for working your land at a cheap rate and even invest in the property so they have capital to make improvements with.  Buy local and Portuguese goods and if you run a tourism project please make sure you are buying biological and local products to support this land use redevelopment.  There is so much money in tourism right now and the amount of bullshit supermarket food I have had thrown at me as I travel, even in quite pricey hotels, hostels, and farm stays is astounding.  Quit using toilet paper, wash not wipe, use handkerchiefs for your nose.  Build community, do permablitz’s for land clearings.  Pressure councils to invest in stabilizing the hydrological cycle in a given area and form watershed councils so the movements grow bigger.  Plant native species and incorporate non natives in food forests. Pressure Councils to make sure that fire-retardant species are planted along exit roadways as almost all the pictures you see of where people died trying to get out, pine and Eucalyptus were planted all the way to the edge. Such near sighted planning is the cause and the effect is one of great tragedy and drama. The list goes on, but it is indeed on all of us to make sure these tragedies don’t happen again and the people lost are not lost in vain.

Small breed nimble cattle on Biodynamic farm near Amarante, North Central Portugal, cleaning up below Eucalyptus plantations

Referred to Excerpt on using Animals in the Landscape

Cows can also be used to accelerate the succession of the soil and turn a problem into a solution as I once witnessed at a rangeland in the North of Portugal.  It was a steep terrain, classically planted out with Eucalyptus monoculture, which of course makes for a fire prone hillside, which is an extremely dangerous system to create.  However, one farmer there began to raise smaller and more agile beef on these hillsides that browsed more like goats than say Angus beef.  They were tractored in a sense with electric fence being moved daily or every other day in and amongst the Eucalyptus groves.  Part of Eucalyptus’s fire strategy is to constantly shed its bark through its fast growth and drop branches.  This adds quite considerably to the fuel load below and what most grows in the understory is a mix of nitrogen-fixing bushes.  These are often quite nutritious for animals and the cows primary intake was this fire prone vegetation as well.  With the cows ranging in a small pasture, they were able to knock down the branches and bark of the Eucalyptus and chip them up and other organic material with their weight and hooves which drastically cuts the fire risk.  The material has a chance to break down biologically instead of oxidatively.  The cow manures the hillsides reinserting biology back into the system that was lost during spray, spray, spray implementation which also speeds the breakdown of this newly chipped organic material.  Then they are quickly moved on so the ground is not over compacted, the bushes are not overgrazed but the animal impact occurs.  He was so successful with his rotation that neighbors allowed him to graze his cattle on their land and was able to increase his herd size and thus profit.  He was hoping to phase out his day job in town because of this which would of course result in an even stronger system due to even more refined management.

 

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15 Comments on “A Holistic Perspective on How the Fires in Portugal Came to be and Where we Go from Here

  1. Extremelly enlightening article. Thank you for investing the time to school us on this topic.

    • extremely, as i say they knock material to the ground and repopulate microbes. they are replacing the killed off wildlife. can be goats as well. but some form of animal impact is indeed necessary.

    • The indigenous cow is the backbone in agriculture in India, look for (Zero budget Natural Farming), you will see 1 desi cow (indigenous cow) can produce beneficial microorganism through it’s manure that can sustain up to 30 hectares of land!

  2. Pingback: A HOLISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON HOW THE FIRES IN PORTUGAL CAME TO BE AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE | A Permaculture Design Course Handbook

    • i had thought about it but wasn’t sure how it fit into the context as hemp is grown in more flat regions and often more humid landscapes. but i am all for it. just wasn’t sure if it fit. but i think growing it in alentejo is possible. i think water wise it will be fine if spanish can pull out sunflower in spring, portugal could do hemp and dry farm it? any thoughts on that?

      • Cdoug_e,first of all thanks,very inspiring,what we need.Lets all think how to grow hemp in the easy,legal way,i am shure we could do it and dry.But it should be lowscale not to get into unnessary problems.

  3. Cattle are no longer permitted into most of our National Parks in Australia to graze. Depending on how intense the fires were, the Eucalypts may regrow or re seed.

  4. Pingback: A Holistic Perspective on How the Fires in Portugal Came to be and Where we Go from Here – TreeYo Permaculture – Agricultural Regeneration of Mediterranean Landscapes

  5. Great article Doug! I don’t know if you remember me I did your PDC down in Sintra about 5 years ago?

    I concur with pretty much everything you say re: causes and solutions and I particularly like the finger always points at us! Like you say let’s pressure the politicians but let’s get on with it in our own back yard first and shift our own consciousness from separation to unity.

    Since I last saw you I’ve founded – with my husband Marko – the Awakened Forest Project based in Benfeita, Central Portugal. We were 15 miles from the fires and watch them from a local viewpoint. Apart from focusing on our interior consciousness we’re exploring and experimenting with sustainable agroforestry systems and replacing monoculture with diverse broadleaf forests. We are particularly interested in coppice agroforestry – it’s the future 😉

    If you’re ever in the area come and visit!

    Love Laura

    • thanks for the feedback and yes i have been following your fantastic work!

  6. Pingback: Top 10 Essential Mediterranean Climate Fire Resistant Trees - Mediterranean Permaculture

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