Last Sunday I jubilantly finished 4th in my latest trail race of the season, but this race was like no other.
On the one hand, the child in me was reveling in mud, deep puddles and long climbs while the adult in me was proud to be a part of a race where 50% of race proceeds went to those affected by the wildfires in Portugal last summer. On the other hand, the race sadly revealed to my grown-up mind an uncomfortable truth about forestry and land management in Portugal.
The uncomfortable truth
The race took mud caked runners through dense woodlands, up steep hills and along meandering rivers in the region of Torres Vedras, which mirrors much of the landscape in the centre and north of Portugal.
To the untrained eye we were running through ‘wild’ nature, yet in reality we were among endless Eucalyptus or Pine plantations (the most abundant trees in Portugal, making up 49% of forested land), interspersed with putrid smelling battery hen farms and industrialised pigsties.
Like other mono-culture crops, these plantations were evidently devoid of any biodiversity in both native flora and fauna. To add fuel to the fire (no pun intended), the close proximity of planting, the oil produced by the trees, and the litter created by the falling bark, needles and cones make such forests a serious fire hazard.
Worse still, the hard-packed sandy soil clearly barren of nutrients, is unable to efficiently absorb water and so agricultural run-off fills the pathways and tributaries, which in turn causes river acidification and increased flooding.
Two sides to every story
Eucalyptus was first introduced to Portugal in the late 18th century by Sir Joseph Banks, a British botanist (those darn Brits again!) who’d found them to offer high growth rates, high adaptability to soils and climate, and ease of management due to its coppicing ability.
In a country that experiences a major forest fire every 10± years, the Eucalyptus and Pine, which are simple to grow and can be harvested every 7-8 years are economically viable alternatives to the native Cork tree, which can only be harvested after 20 years, and then every 9 years. It’s therefore easy to understand why so many Portuguese farmers have covered vast stretches of land with this species.
Fighting our corner
Of course, it’s very easy to point the finger and/or expect the government to incentivise farmers to grow native trees and increase the biodiversity of their lands, but this is unproductive and passive.
At Mossy Earth, like many other organisations seeking ecological equilibrium in Portugal, we’re fighting our corner by demonstrating how planting native trees in our Native Oak Woodland Restoration project can halt the spreading of wildfires, while showcasing how trees planted in our Rebuilding the Great Western Iberia Wild project can help build a nature based economy that is profitable for the farmer and the environment.