The future of Portugal’s eucalyptus plantations

By Niclas Hoegel

After coming back from SERM’ 18, our Southern European Regional Meeting, that took place in Portugal this year I was curious to hear more professional opinions on behalf of Portugal’s problem with forest fires. On a panel about the main drivers of deforestation on the SB48 conference of UNFCC I was able to gather more information about this topic that I would like to share with you with this blog post.

Portugal is the European country with the highest density of forest fires and burned areas. Since the beginning of the official forest fire database in 1980, an increase in number of fires and burned area as well as appearance of large and catastrophic fires have characterized and formed Portugal’s landscape over the last decades. The area of forest fires in the 1980s with it’s 10.000 ha cannot be compared to the mega fires that occured in Portugal over the last years. In 2017 an extreme heat wave coupled with severe drought conditions sparked a series of uncontrollable forest fires in Portugal that caused serious ecological and socio-economical damage. In total a record high of 44,969 hectares of forest got destroyed and 64 people died through the fire. An area six times higher than the average of the last decade burned in only one year.

Oliver Munnion Co-director of Biofuelwatch says that it is undeniable that there is a correlation between the fires and the increasing number of eucalyptus plantations, which has more than doubled since the 1980s.

Portugal’s wood industry no longer relies on native species like oak and pine. Over the last decades more and more eucalyptus had to be planted to feed the pulp and paper sector, that is responsible for 10 % of the Portuguese exports.

Now the exotic blue gum is the most abundant tree in Portugal. Therefore Portugal has a greater proportion of its territory planted with eucalyptus than anywhere in the world by a significant margin and has more eucalyptus in absolute terms than anywhere else in Europe. A lack of enforcement of regulations and forestry planning has led to an increasing number of illegal plantations. But also the years of rural depopulation and abandonment has led to the replacement of diversely cultivated hillsides with eucalyptus monocultures.

Eucalyptus plantations are not only highly flammable and able to spread fires quickly over large distances, they are also a serious drain on the countries scarce water resources. In terms of biodiversity the eucalyptus monocultures in Portugal can be considered as „green deserts“ as they don’t provide any food or refuge for the domestic fauna.

Despite the hot and dry south of Portugal, it is the central and northern regions, with their high density of eucalypt plantations that are worst affected by the fires. It seems like the combination of climate change and forest fires doesn’t allow the pulp and paper industry to breath anymore.

Some studies say that in 20 or 30 years’ time there won’t be enough demand to justify these huge plantations of eucalyptus. But still it seems very unlikely that the landowners and pulp-producing companies will be willing to convert their plantation forest back into native cork forest. But diversifying the landscape between the plantations with fire resistant native species like the cork oak could be a first step into a forest fire free future.


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