The Current State of the Forests of the Serra do Açor

The consequences of monoculture

The Serra do Açor is a small mountain range in Central Portugal. Smaller sister to the better known and grander Serra da Estrela it has it’s own wild beauty; large curving slopes, rocky outcrops, hidden river valleys. 

Once forested with a mixture of broadleaf species, such as sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) and oaks (Quercus spp.), the forest today is almost all pine or eucalyptus monoculture. The pine is mostly maritime pine (Pinus brava) which is native to the sandy coastal regions of Portugal. The eucalyptus or blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) is of course native to Australia. The maritime pine has been grown in Central Portugal in monoculture for several decades and eucalyptus since the 1970s. Now the exotic eucalyptus is the most abundant tree in Portugal, covering about 7% of the land.

Monocultures provide the perfect environment for pest population’s to explode (unhealthy plants plus a concentrated pest food source), so it is really no surprise that the pines are now suffering from infestation of a fatal pest called pine wood nematode - PWN (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus). The nematode is carried from tree to tree by beetles (Monochamus spp) where it can kill the tree in a matter of weeks, rendering the tree unsalable. As a result large areas are being clear-cut at the first sign of the trees dying.

This is further promoting the planting of the eucalyptus which is far more devastating ecologically than the pine. Eucalypts are allopathic, they release chemicals to deter other plants from growing beneath them, so there is little plant or animal diversity in a eucalyptus monoculture, it is effectively almost a one-species desert. They are non-native so of low value to native wildlife. They are well-adapted desert trees, they have a both a large network of very shallow roots (90% in the top 12” of soil) and a long, deep tap root so they are able to absorb rain and standing water and draw fossil water from the water table. At the speed they grow this is disastrous for the local water cycle and therefore regional climate.

Apart from ecological and meteorological consequences of these monocultures there is another devastating consequence. Both the pine and the Eucalyptus are extremely flammable, so every year Portugal, literally, burns. During the hot dry summers volunteer firemen (Bombeiros Voluntarios) lose their lives fighting these fires protecting people and property, forest burns and all of us in the region live with a background tension of the possibility of fire engulfing our land and our homes.

So why does this continue? 

The trees are grown for pulp and a large, corporate-controlled industry has grown up around the pulp industry in Portugal. A very few people profit handsomely from this and politically carry a lot of weight. There is a vested interested from those in power to keep the pulp industry going, despite the devastating consequences of the monoculture. The country is in economic crisis so government is unlikely to do anything to upset those making money, in fact there are tax incentives for planting eucalypts, rather than investigating alternatives, thus increasing the amount of land under monoculture. There is a vicious cycle of rural unemployment, poverty and lack of opportunity which means that people have left the countryside looking for work and opportunities in the cities and so there are few people left to take care of the land. Growing trees for the pulp industry doesn’t require much work force and looks like a good use of the now abandoned land, except for all of the reasons outlined above. 

A new potential

We see a far greater potential for the land and the residents here than this monoculture – mixed, broadleaf sustainable forestry. Broadleaf forest would once have covered this land. Broadleaf forests do not burn except in exceptional circumstances and even then usually in localised areas. They provide habitat for the potentially wide range of other plants and wildlife that this amazingly rich country contains. Water cycle and climate can be repaired and restored and we could have a cooler, wetter summers just by restoring the trees that hold and store water. Parts of Portugal have become semi-desert and this is not natural but is a consequence of the loss of broadleaf forest. And, very importantly, sustainable forestry has the potential to provide jobs and income for many people living locally not just a few, keeping incomes local rather than profits siphoned off to the corporate head quarters in Lisbon and abroad. The land can support the people again, in new and different ways to the past. We are not advocating a return to an old way of life but profiting from the best of the past and present technologies and taking these to a fairer, saner and life-affirming future.



Benfeita, May 1st 2017
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