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Portugal’s deadly fires show that the EU must rethink the way forests are managed

Forest fires in central Portugal, close to Pedrógão Grande, have killed more than 60 people and, combined with the fire of Góis, consumed nearly 50,000 hectares of forest in 2017. These fires have also exposed one of the pitfalls of schemes to offset carbon emissions by planting trees – as Fern’s Hannah Mowat explained: “The speed at which vast tracts of Portuguese forests were destroyed demonstrates that you only get resilient forests, capable of storing carbon over the long term, if serious attention is paid to ecological factors, including biodiversity.”

Portugal is one of Europe’s most forested countries, but a quarter of the forested area is covered by eucalyptus, an Australian species mainly grown for pulp and paper. Unlike species native to Portugal, such as ash and cork oak, eucalyptus evolved to resist fire in early stages of development, and be a major source of fuel for fire at later stages. Since the 1980s, forest fires have become an ever more serious problem in Portugal.

A ban on planting eucalyptus forests is a first step towards overcoming decades of mismanagement and neglect of the problems created by such plantations. Yet this law must be accompanied by support for rural communities in order to reduce their reliance on eucalyptus, for example, by reviving traditional forest industries that create fewer fire risks.

Quercus, a leading forest campaigning organisation, believes international sources of funding, such as payments from United Nation agencies, should be redesigned to encourage a shift towards more sustainable practices.

Photo - Glen Bowman - after forest fire in Riberio Frio Madeira