Neglected forests at the mercy of wildfires in Spain, Portugal

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Madrid (AFP) – With climate change making devastating wildfires more likely, experts warn that Spain and Portugal need to better manage their forests to prevent large swathes of land from being burned each year.

Nearly 200,000 hectares (495,000 acres) of forest in Spain have been destroyed by fire so far this year, more than any other country in Europe, according to the European Union’s satellite monitoring service EFFIS .

Portugal has lost just over 48,000 hectares to the blazes, the third highest number in Europe surpassed only by Romania.

The spread of forest fires depends on the weather, the type of vegetation and the topography of the land, said Monica Parrilla, forest campaign manager at Greenpeace Spain.

“Right now we have the perfect backdrop for very intense fires,” she added in reference to the scorching temperatures, high winds and drought conditions that Spain and Portugal have faced.

And the only factor humans have some control over is vegetation, Parrilla added.

“When it’s dry, it feeds the fire. We have to focus on this flammable vegetation,” she said.

Parrilla called for brush to be cleared in the woods, either manually or through controlled burns, and for more firebreaks – an open field barrier meant to control a wildfire.

fire resistant trees

To be more “fire resistant”, forests also need to be made up of a wider variety of trees, she said.

Most forest areas in Spain and Portugal consist of monocultures of eucalyptus and pine, which are favored by the paper industry but are highly flammable.

According to World Bank data, around 36% of the land mass of Portugal and Spain is covered by forest.

And about a quarter of Portugal’s forests are made up of eucalyptus, a fast-growing tree native to Australia.

According to figures from the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests, 83% of the land ravaged by the flames in Portugal between 2011 and 2020 was made up of pines and eucalyptus.

Environmentalists call for more fire-resistant native tree species, such as chestnut, cork and oak, to be planted in Spain and Portugal MIGUEL RIOPAAFP

Environmentalists in Portugal are calling for the planting of more native tree species that are more resistant to fire, such as chestnuts, cork trees and oaks.

Financial incentives should be given to small growers “so they can wait several years for these hardier trees to become profitable,” said Marta Leandro, vice-president of Quercus, Portugal’s largest environmental group.

This would save them from “systematically turning to eucalyptus”, she added.

Rural exodus

Dwindling rural populations also contribute to the neglect of forests, increasing the risk of fires.

Many fields are abandoned and undergrowth left in the wild because the owners are too old.

There are also fewer farm animals like goats helping clear the land of brush.

The biggest forest fires in Spain have been in less populated regions like Extremadura in the west and the northwest region of Castile and Leon.

Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, underlined the importance of people in rural areas on Thursday, saying they are “the true guardians of the earth who are on the front line in preventing fires all year round”. .

Similar views have been expressed by politicians in neighboring Portugal, where wildfires in 2017 killed more than 100 people.

Portuguese Interior Minister Jose Luis Carneiro said on Tuesday that “improving rural development” was key to “fighting the fires”.

While goats and sheep are already used in parts of Spain and Portugal to clear brush, environmentalists are calling for the development of extensive livestock farming.

While goats and sheep are already used in parts of Spain and Portugal to clear brush, environmentalists are calling for the development of extensive livestock farming
While goats and sheep are already used in parts of Spain and Portugal to clear brush, environmentalists are calling for the development of extensive livestock farming Pau BARRENA AFP/File

“Investing in prevention” is not an expense but an “investment in the future” because the cost of putting out a forest fire is “by far” higher, said Loures Hernandez of WWF Spain.

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