Portugal: wildfires and the eucalyptus curse

Portugal is Europe's third largest producer of wood pulp, an industry that relies heavily on the eucalyptus tree. In 2017, a devastating fire in Pedrogrão Grande ignited a debate on the industry's responsibility to prevent such disasters. In particular, the issue of biodiversity was brought back to centre stage. Reportage.

Published On: December 5th, 2023

An area of experimental plantations of native species in Pedrogrão Grande, surrounded by eucalyptus plantations. From the photograph one can see green-grey bushes, which are eucalyptus that are growing back faster than other species and therefore need to be uprooted so as not to compete with the native species. Photo: ©Davide Mancini

No one would guess that in 2017 more than 50,000 hectares burned in the hills between Pedrogrão Grande and Castanheira de Pera, in central Portugal. The vegetation is luxuriant again and a mantle of eucalyptus globulus (also known as blue gum) covers much of the mountainous landscape. These are plantations rather than forests, and its canopy already reaches a height of 10 or 15 metres. Although the trees are not yet ready to be harvested for the pulp industry, there is plenty of human activity going on.

“At the moment we are mainly processing pine wood, which we cut and export. This type of wood is used for pallets, furniture, biomass and fuel such as pellets. Cutting the eucalyptus is still about three years away”, says Sandra Carvalho, a small businesswoman and owner of one of the main sawmills in the area. In 2017, her family’s mill was completely destroyed.

Six years on, Sandra is running from one eucalyptus plot to the next to check on her workers’ progress in clearing the dense undergrowth generated by this plant, which is native to Australia but is now the primary tree species in Portugal. Eucalyptus covers 845,000 hectares in the Iberian countryside, or 26 percent of forests. Technically these are cultivations that feed the paper and cellulose sectors, with eucalyptus grown exclusively for pulp, which is used to make various paper products.

The species burns particularly quickly in fires, a factor that continues to generate debate among experts about its dangerousness.


Cutting a firebreak in a eucalyptus forest, between Pedrogrão Grande and Castanheira de Pera. Photo: ©Davide Mancini

Monoculture and the paper business

Sandra’s company provides its forest-pruning service through the association Biond, which works with the main players of the large Portuguese pulp industry. The group is financed by the European Union’s Recovery and Resilience Facility and the NextGenerationEU programme. One of Biond’s missions is the upkeep of this area of 1,400 hectares until 2025: “Currently, about 250 hectares of eucalyptus plantations have been pruned. We cut through the dense, highly flammable undergrowth that does not allow easy access to the forest in case of fire,” explains Sandra.

This preemptive maintenance is often neglected in Europe’s forests, especially in rural areas undergoing depopulation. It serves to protect against large accumulations of tinder that fuels fires.

In the case of the Pedrogrão Grande fire of 2017, many blamed the tragedy on a combination of factors: extensive eucalyptus monoculture; the accumulation of tinder between trees due to insufficient upkeep; and increasingly dry weather in the summer months. The explosive combination resulted in 66 deaths and hundreds of injuries.


Memorial dedicated to the victims of the fire on 17 June 2017. Photo: ©Davide Mancini

Pulp is an important industry in Portugal. Local and multinational companies have been involved in it for decades, including The Navigator Company, Grupo Altri, Renova, and DS Smith. Their products reach European consumers in the form of packaging board, paper sheets, toilet paper and paper towels. Portugal is the third largest producer of pulp in Europe, after Sweden and Finland.

The turnover of these companies, in a sector that generates more than €2 billion per year, is a major factor in the economy of Portugal’s depopulating rural areas. These include Castanheira de Pera, a municipality of 3,700 inhabitants, where the landscape has changed in parallel with the pulp industry.


Jorge is one of the few shepherds left in Castanheira de Pera, where pastoralism has been neglected for decades. Photo: ©Davide Mancini

“The landscape of these areas has changed due to state and private intervention. Before and during the dictatorship of the Estado Novo, the planting of pine trees on mountain slopes and uncultivated land was encouraged. Logging and wood-processing meant sawmills and some small industries,” says Manuel Antonio Cepas Rebelo, a councillor of Castanheira de Pera and author of a book tracing the history of his village up to the fire of 2017.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, eucalyptus planting began. The species required less maintenance and grew fast. Many people emigrated to the city and the small eucalyptus plots became neglected, with the owners only returning when it was time to cut wood to sell to the paper industry,” explains Manuel. Thus the management of many plots passed from small private owners to large pulp companies, which offered to manage the plantations in exchange for an annual income for the owners.

But the environmental NGO Quercus denounces the attitude of the local pulp companies. In its view, the Biond project is designed for the exclusive benefit of the industry. Quercus is also critical of the spread of eucalyptus in general.

“The pulp industry depends on eucalyptus plantations in this area. Together with the pressure on the government to expand eucalyptus acreage in Portugal, this means that there is no meaningful promotion of a diverse landscape that is more resilient to fires. When such landscapes are planted, or at least experimented with, it is in small areas near watercourses. There is nothing being done at scale to reduce the risk of fires,” says Domingos Patacho, director of Quercus.

The alternative to eucalyptus

Sofia Leal is a forestry engineer with the municipality of Pedrogrão Grande. She shows us a couple of reforestation projects with plants native to the area. They are like small islands among the tall eucalyptus, which have already grown back after the fire and are now far more mature than other species. The eucalyptus takes advantage of its fast growth rate after fires and, if left unchecked, will quickly dominate the new landscape. “We cannot ban eucalyptus because it is important for our economy. What we can do is show that it is possible to have an economic return from another type of forest,” says Sofia.


Area of experimental plantations of native species in Pedrogrão Grande, surrounded by eucalyptus plantations. The green-grey bushes are eucalyptus trees that are regrowing faster than other species. Grubbing them up is the only way to prevent them competing with the native species. Photo: ©Davide Mancini

Oaks, strawberry trees, chestnut, and other plants native to inland Portugal have been replanted in several areas totalling 30 hectares around Pedrogrão Grande. The municipality is creating a network of native forests “to preserve these areas, so that they function as slowing zones for fires, as well as a refuge for flora and fauna,” says Sofia Carmo, responsible for the environmental management of Pedrogrão Grande.

Carmo demonstrates the difference between two types of soil. One sample comes from land cultivated with eucalyptus, the other from that planted with native flora. The first sample is heavier but the soil is dry and has little organic matter. The second is much richer but is also lighter, which allows for better absorption of rainwater. This is particularly important given the increasingly long droughts brought about by climate change.


Two soil samples: on the left from eucalyptus plantations, on the right from forest with mixed species. Photo: ©Davide Mancini

In Castanheira de Pera, as in Pedrogrão Grande, there are still beautiful stretches of native forest which survived the great fire of 2017. They are rich in biodiversity and support rural activities such as pastoralism and honey production. Antonio Manuel believes that focusing on tourism and hospitality would reduce economic dependence on the paper industry: “The arrival of many foreigners in recent years has compensated for the depopulation caused by the fire, in which lots of second homes were destroyed. There is now more zeal in maintaining the areas between the forest and the houses (the so-called WUI, Wild Urban Interface). That means better security for those who live here. Our municipality is now among the most sought-after in the country in terms of the rural property market.”

The valley of the Pêra mountain stream has remained virtually untouched by the eucalyptus and pine monocultures. It makes for an enchanted landscape, and was untouched by the fire. The town council has decided to build a suspended promenade, to highlight what remains of the original biodiversity. The hope is that this landscape will one day return to the surrounding hillsides.

Original source: https://voxeurop.eu/en/portugal-megafires-eucalyptus-curse-deforestation/

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