How the Eucalyptus Tree Empties Wells and Feeds Forest Fires in Portugal

Once upon a time in the mountains of southern Portugal, a British sociologist and apprentice peasant, Robin Jenkins, arrived in a hamlet called Alto. The year was 1976, a quarter of a century after a surfaced road had, for the first time, connected Alto to the little town of Monchique and thence to the World Outside.

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Dilapidated property for sale in the Monchique Mountains. The price of €790,000 for 6.26 hectares is set to appeal to the dreaming foreigner who has no need to live off the land — which can no longer feed a local population.  Photo: imoveis.mitula.pt/quintas-serra-monchique

Slowly the apparent opportunities and real demands of the World Outside reached Alto. Subsistence farming was replaced by cash crops, the most demanding of which was the eucalyptus tree. Robin Jenkins wrote about the transformation, which worried him deeply, in ‘The Road to Alto’.*

The new eucalyptus trees thrived on the mountain slopes, and after 10 years initially, then every six or so, each tree that is felled yields about 10 metres of timber. That is 25,000 metres from the 2,500 or so trees on one hectare. The timber left on lorries travelling on the road, and cash rolled in.

Unfortunately eucalyptus trees are extremely thirsty, and their roots syphon up the underground water, until springs and then wells dry up and farming is no longer possible.

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“Ten per cent of the Portuguese state has gone up in smoke in less than a generation” — eco123.info/en/, ‘Monchique and Eucalyptus in Portugal’, December 20th 2013. Photo: namb-ualg.blogspot.co.uk, April 24th 2009, ‘Algarve: governo duplica equipas de sapadores florestais’. 

The oils in eucalyptus trees are flammable, the plantations are dry as a bone, the winds blow in and a small spark becomes a raging forest fire.

Fire have obliterated thousands of hectares of eucalyptus trees around Monchique. The wells are empty, and soils where food crops used to grow are infertile, damaged by years of over-intensive application of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, products which were carried in on the road.

The peasants, who used to understand that they were part of the ecological balance which enabled them to survive, generation after generation, have mostly gone to the towns. Their mountains have been invaded by tourism, but tourists are afraid of forest fires.

The word ‘peasant’ is a colloquial term of abuse. There is no modern respect for knowledge which successfully sustained enduring local economies. Our modern knowledge has resulted in damaged soils, depleted water supplies, and raging forest fires. Clever, eh?

Pat Dodd Racher

* ‘The Road to Alto’ was published by Pluto Press in 1979.

More information about eucalyptus and forest fires in Portual from:

http://eco123.info/en/uncategorized/monchique-and-eucalyptus-in-portugal/

http://www.nerium.net/plantaeuropa/Download/Oral_Presentations/Simonson_P.pdf

http://www.iema.net/news/preserving-portugal%E2%80%99s-cork-heritage-next-generation

 

 

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