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In June 2017, deadly wildfires struck central Portugal. In the village of Nodeirinho, locals suspect ...
2020-02-19 15:00:00

Eucalyptus Is Burning Portugal
Trouble with Invasive Trees

Photo by Maria Dybcio
Eucalyptus Is Burning Portugal
Eucalyptus Is Burning Portugal

João stops the car and violently uproots a small green tree growing on the roadside. He comes back and stays silent for a few minutes, waiting to calm down. He’d gladly rip out all of them – the thousands of eucalyptus trees that are taking over the hills leading to Nodeirinho.

Read in 23 minutes

I meet him for the first time in the municipal garden in Pedrógão Grande. It’s July 2018. Everything is blooming; you can’t tell that more than 12 months have passed since the tragedy. João Viola is 62 years old, wearing a white shirt open at the top. He answers a few phone calls; from time to time, from various parts of the garden, people greet him in Portuguese. We’re sitting on a bench with a view of the entire square. “Here’s the tropical part, over there the Japanese part, a few metres away are the pines, past them the cactus zone, in the middle oaks that have been here for centuries,” he says, pointing out each in turn. He could tell you about each of the more than 300 plant species we see before us. He’s been working here for 20 years, and he doesn’t hide how proud he is.

In the garden in Pedrógão Grande there are no eucalyptus. But every day João passes them twice – on his way to work and on his way home. Several times a week he pulls out one or two trees. He spends his evenings with his wife, Dina, in Nodeirinho. Their neighbours often visit.

João Viola in July 2018. Photo by Maria Dybcio
João Viola in July 2018. Photo by Maria Dybcio

When I sit at the table with Dina, a neighbour comes in; she’s just made soup, and asks for a pot so she can leave them some for supper. That’s how it’s always been here, but it used to smell different than in other villages, because the spring in the centre never dried up, and lots of flowers grew around it. A few houses away lived Vasco, a cousin of João, and not far away an English couple, Steve and Susan, who moved in four years ago. When Susan used to look through the window, she could see pines and eucalyptus; in the summer, the birds sang loudly. In the centre of the village stands Maria’s house, right next to the cistern that pulls water up from the spring. It’s cold – João tells me to put my hand in and check. That’s where the ones who survived hid from the fire.

***

“We had learned to live with the eucalyptus; we didn’t know how it would end,” says João, as, on the road from Pedrógão Grande to Nodeirinho, we pass more of the trees. “We use it for sore throats and coughs; it makes you breathe easier; we write on paper from it. When you need to, it also cools your skin.” I read later that the eucalyptus was meant to be an ornamental plant, but later it dried out the soil. In the mid-19th century it was planted close to Aveiro, about 100 kilometres from Pedrógão Grande, but only in the 1970s did eucalyptus plantations start to replace the former olive groves and wineries.

The true eucalyptus revolution came only after the clove revolution. In the 1980s, eucalyptus appeared en masse in Portuguese fields. Maybe the guides will say someday that it was the beginning of a catastrophe.

Before the Portuguese overthrew their rightist dictatorship, for 40 years they lived in the light of the commandments of Antonio Salazar: God, country, family. The Portuguese man on the 1950s postcards that today you can buy at the thieves’ market in Lisbon used to dig weeds and graze sheep. The women wore headscarves, because it’s easy to get sunstroke in the field. The ideal person was to be modest and simple, with a small house and two to seven children. That’s what Nodeirinho was like, where João grew up. His family worked in agriculture. He spent his whole life in a 19th-century wooden house, from whose windows he can still see the entire village. Right next to the house stand cork oaks – powerful, not so easy to burn. As a teenager, João wanted to be a painter; his old paintings memorialize landscapes and animals. They still hang on the walls of his house, and new ones appear next to them. In 1974, he still didn’t know how the revolution would change his life.

Nodeirinho in July 2018. Photo by Maria Dybcio
Nodeirinho in July 2018. Photo by Maria Dybcio

Over time, it got quieter in Nodeirinho and the nearby villages. Some of the neighbours emigrated: on the 1960s streets of Paris and Le Havre, Portuguese was an increasingly common sound. In France, the immigrants became builders and butchers. Some left for Lisbon. At that time, outside the capital the Portuguese began to say: Lisbon is the centre, the rest is just the background. Some departed in haste, leaving their homes behind. Others sold their land – and it was quickly taken up, the first eucalyptus plantations started in the area. Eucalyptus is a good business, thought those who had a little more land. They planted a few trees, to cut them down and sell them after a few – or maybe 10 or 12 – years. They knew that after the cutting, they’d grow back another two or three times. They planned to plant more in their place. After a few years, some abandoned their plots and the trees on them. They left the village. And the trees grew on their own, spreading their seeds further.

João recalls how not long ago he woke up one morning, lay in bed and counted. “In 1973, 130 people lived in Nodeirinho.” He could recite their names, house by house. Today not many work the land, nobody clears the dry grass, and it’s also hard to find the owners of the land. Many of them don’t know they’ve inherited it. Portuguese forests are more than 85% privately owned; the state owns barely 2% of the land area, with the rest under the care of local communities. The Portuguese don’t want to work in the fields; they see their chances for a better tomorrow – and today – in moving to the cities. Occasionally the Germans and the Dutch will set up new farms, planting vegetables and fruits, sometimes forming religious communities, some of them not far from Nodeirinho. But there are some villages where nobody lives anymore; maybe just one or two couples. João thinks that soon central Portugal will become a green wilderness. Everyone will forget that somebody’s left there.

When João married Dina in 2012, the eucalyptus were everywhere – the hills you had to climb to get to the village were thick and green.

Portugal is covered by the most eucalyptus in Europe; on the global scale, the country is fifth after Brazil, India, Australia and China.

In 2016, eucalyptus was one of the most popular kinds of tree in Portugal; one-fifth of all eucalyptus were cultivated on plantations, and the rest on fields belonging to village residents. They surrounded Nodeirinho, Pedrógão Grande and Figueiró dos Vinhos.

Joaquim Silva, a researcher from Coimbra and a member of the Portuguese government’s team for monitoring forest fires, says the cultivated trees get out of the plantations and attack the neighbouring land. With his research group he’s checking which trees were planted and which spread on their own. They use maps and DNA tests. “Eucalyptus is a hardy tree; when you plant it, it’s not easy to get rid of,” he says. “It’ll stay if you cut it down, and if you burn it, it doesn’t just survive, it’ll spread further,” he says.

I read that when eucalyptus appears, almost everything around it dies out, because it doesn’t speak the same language as the forest. It grows fast, spreads out under the ground, and sucks up the water in a flash. Its leaves turn their sides to the sun, so they almost never give shade. The leaves are where the eucalyptus stores its oil. When they fall to the ground, it only takes a spark to ignite them. The explosion of oil is fast and loud. “There’s small explosions everywhere; you cover your ears and you still hear it,” say people who’ve heard it. Eucalyptus bark is light; on the ground, it easily transmits flames.

When a tree dies, dozens of new ones appear. That’s why the eucalyptus is called the tree of fire: it saves its seeds in woody pouches, releasing them in high temperatures. A strong wind carries them throughout the surrounding area. Then they sprout quickly on the ash-covered soil. The cause of everything that the fire brings is the first thing to grow back.

***

João had been planning this day for a long time. On 17th June 2017, the forest was calm; the cicadas played, and the bells of a church a few villages away from Nodeirinho rang out every half hour. A hot blue sky, not a single cloud. They say the fire broke out because of dry lightning. João remembers that the wind, strong as a tornado, started up only in the evening. Everything was planned: 2pm, the meeting of shamanists at the society in Castanheira de Pêra. During the full moon, João and the others sit in a circle; the rhythm played by the drums vibrates in their bodies. That’s how it was supposed to be that day. João always leaves his car at the top of the hill; he likes to look at the forests from there. This time he saw smoke over the pines. Everybody thought it would be like always: there’s a fire, it’s put out, something burns, nobody dies. At the meeting they ate sardines roasted on the grill; they drank wine. Two hours later the fire was immeasurable. João brought his wife, Dina, to their summer house, where it was safe. A little later he and his friend Jules, a photographer, drove toward the fire – in his house in Nodeirinho, João had left the windows open. They drove onto the ‘road to hell’. That’s what journalists called it later; that’s where 47 people died.

Earlier it was called ‘the highway’, ‘Route 236-1’, ‘the road home’. In the new life, the old names don’t apply. “It’s like before and after the birth of Christ,” says João. “I drove into the smoke, thinking it would be like that just for a moment, I mean it’s just nine kilometres,” he recites the memory quickly. The smoke was thick, dark as midnight, João turned on the lights, closed the windows, all around a rain of fire. He turned around, or else his Ford would have sunk into the melted asphalt, like the cars of those who died a few kilometres further on. “If I’d known what was happening, that those people who passed me would die, I’d have parked my car across the road, they wouldn’t have got past,” he says.

The forest in August 2017. Photo by Maria Dybcio
The forest in August 2017. Photo by Maria Dybcio

William, a British writer who’s lived in Campelo for four years, might have passed João on the road of death. “I was in the middle of hell,” he says. “I was driving through thick smoke, under a shower of sparks; I heard them bouncing off the bonnet of the car. Next to the road the trees were burning. I thought: ‘God, what have I done?’ I missed the turn, I drove another kilometre and a half; the road was blocked, because six or seven cars had piled up. They were burning. I turned around fast. I saw my turn-off, and I told myself if I can make it to the top of the mountain, everything will be fine. It wasn’t. Once again, winding paths, trees sliding down.”

William made it home that night. Now that it’s all done, he says: “It’s the height of stupidity, but also instinct. You want to stay where your house is, and that’s where you go back to. At that time, I also wanted to be in my village.”

In Nodeirinho, the locals stayed; the foreigners managed to escape. The Portuguese were already used to fires. They noticed too late that this time it was different. “Everybody was a firefighter that night,” says Pedro, a student who works in a bar in Figueiró dos Vinhos in the summer. On 17th June, he put out flames on his house.

That night João heard from a firefighter that he should forget where Nodeirinho was, that the village was gone. The next day the road was blocked. As he and Dina returned home, they passed burnt cars – some of which were still smoking – on both sides of the road. Many of them held corpses. They climbed up the hill toward their house. All around were only blackened trees, smoke. “When we got there, we saw people who were crying in the street, and the body of my cousin Vasco,” João says. “He was lying there,” he points. There’s still a black streak on the asphalt, a trace of his shoes, whose soles melted in the high temperature. João’s cousin was a big guy; after his death, his body was as small as that of a child. He didn’t burn. The water evaporated from his body.

“We started to find bodies,” João points further, remembering every place, every death. That night, 11 of the village’s 42 residents died. 12 people survived in the cistern, surrounded by fire for more than two hours. The cistern is a little over a metre tall; they stood in it bent over, close together. Some would get out for a while and come back. They heard the screams of those who were dying in other parts of the village. Less than 100 metres away, a grandmother died with her granddaughter. Bianca was four years old. Her mother escaped from her car by a miracle, taking her older son with her. Somebody found them unconscious on the road and brought them to the cistern. Later the villagers were sent toys from a collection organized throughout Portugal. What for? The only child in Nodeirinho had died.

The forest in August 2017. Photo by Maria Dybcio
The forest in August 2017. Photo by Maria Dybcio

João and Dina’s house survived, along with one goose. “We opened the door. I still can’t understand why it didn’t burn. The windows were open and inside there were eucalyptus leaves and lots of ash. You couldn’t see the furniture.”

***

Central Portugal burns often. Everybody’s kind of got used to it. If it weren’t for the death of 66 people, nobody would ask why. Fires break out every year; you can’t say anymore that the catastrophe couldn’t be foreseen. But in Nodeirinho, right after the fire there were no politicians. The officials sent funeral wreaths, and somebody came from Pedrógão Grande. Nobody wanted to answer questions. Dina wrote a message to President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. He came. Sometimes he writes to her and asks what’s new in Nodeirinho. In the area they call him “a good gentleman”. When João understood that the villagers don’t care about politicians, he decided they had to fight for the rights of the people who keep silent, otherwise nobody would get help. He and Dina created an association of fire victims. Right after the tragedy it was they who spoke with the press. That same day the front pages of Portuguese and world newspapers were full of pictures of Nodeirinho – a symbol of the fire. The articles included summaries of the tragedy; they wrote that almost 2000 firefighters had battled the flames on 17th June. It was the biggest tragedy since 1966, when the hills near Sintra burned, killing 25 people.

João thought the association would save Nodeirinho. He calculated how much was left to be done: “We need to create a safety zone, 100 metres from the village, free of eucalyptus, pine and flammable bushes. We have to plant cork and chestnut trees, and we also need a bigger cistern.” Unfortunately, when the members of the association got their compensation, they fell silent again. But some started to work on their own. 10 months after the fire, Susan and Steve set up a website where they talk about what to do to be safe in your home, and where they also explain the new laws. They feel like they’re still in danger – today, too, there are eucalyptus growing across from their house. “Once we barely escaped a fire,” says Steve. “If nothing changes, the situation will repeat, and in future fires more people will die.”

Cork oaks in Nodeirinho, July 2018. Photo by Maria Dybcio
Cork oaks in Nodeirinho, July 2018. Photo by Maria Dybcio

In October 2017, there was another huge fire in northern and central Portugal that burned in 500 places, killing 50 people. The forests burned for days, and a strong wind carried the smoke far beyond Portugal; black rain fell in Estonia. For a moment, something changed. People in Lisbon came out into the streets, Interior Minister Constança Urbano de Sousa resigned.

João doesn’t blame the eucalyptus. But he can’t forgive those who allowed them to grow around Nodeirinho. He doesn’t want eucalyptus to grow next to pines. They also transmit fire easily. He always hears the same opinion: a policy change is needed, to restore plant and animal biodiversity. But how can you remove the eucalyptus when there are so many; how can you shrink the plantations that bring gigantic profits? The Quercus (Oak) Association has an idea. Its members want to replace eucalyptus with native tree species: cork oaks, laurels and chestnuts. You could plant all of Portugal with them. Unfortunately, they grow a lot slower than eucalyptus. You can take a layer of bark off the oaks every nine years to make cork. You can do it for the first time when the tree is 25 years old. A year after the fire, the government made an offer to the owners of small plantations that it would finance a swap of eucalyptus for native Portuguese trees. But only around 100 farmers are taking part in the project. “It won’t do a thing,” says Joaquim. “Most of them don’t own more than a hectare.” But the changes could have been introduced long ago, to avoid the catastrophe, reduce its effects.

That’s certainly how it would have happened, if paper wasn’t so important for Portugal. The country is Europe’s biggest exporter of wood pulp – it accounts for 5% of total exports. The CELPA association of paper producers promotes a ‘better eucalyptus’ campaign on its website. They protest against government restrictions, like the ban on setting up eucalyptus plantations in new places. They warn that limiting eucalyptus cultivation will ruin the Portuguese economy, and they threaten mass layoffs, especially in rural areas. In a statement to Politico, they argued that eucalyptus itself isn’t a threat, but the problem is forest management and cleaning. They believe limits on planting eucalyptus will lead to a mass exodus from the villages. They know that abandoned land burns the most often. After all, it’s the fallen eucalyptus bark and high grass that carry the flames.

To prevent fires, the government introduced a requirement to clean up the areas around roads and houses. The rules say flammable plants can grow 10 metres from a road, 50 metres from a house, 100 metres from the entire village. Harsh penalties have been announced for those who ignore the new law. Some, fearing fines, have cut down everything, even protected trees.

Joaquim believes the reforms the politicians are talking about only appear to solve the problem. He notes that many fires wouldn’t have happened if the Portuguese had recognized the threat that fire brings with it every day. He believes the source of the fires lies deep in Portuguese culture. “In Portuguese, we call burning grass ‘tidying up’,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that in December 2017, I went to a village that had burnt in October. Everything was black. To get rid of the burnt branches, the owner of one field was lighting them on fire. That’s the tradition we live in, a culture of fire.”

***

In July, more than a year after the fire, not much has changed. The Portuguese don’t feel safe. Their heads are filled with promises, they don’t want to hear more. When we talk, they accuse the politicians: They were supposed to restrict eucalyptus plantations! They could have planted cork oaks! Where’s the money for the firefighters? Why are some people still living in trailers? Why weren’t they here when they were needed? The residents of local villages rattle off the names of those who made the most on the fire. Eddie, who lives and works on a farm near Figueiró dos Vinhos, says it’s the producers of firefighting equipment: firefighters will have to buy new uniforms, fire engines and helicopters. He believes the politicians are putting firefighting ahead of prevention. Pedro believes it’s about the wood, which can now be bought for nothing. Maria, a friend of João, chimes in that it’s the companies that clean the forests. She wanted to clean up the dry grass – according to the politicians’ orders, everybody is supposed to tend their own patch. A company quoted a price of €15 an hour for the work; the costs of cleaning exceed the value of the land. What are people supposed to do when their old age pensions are €300 a month? João is keeping tabs on a corruption scandal: as usual, the help isn’t going to those who need it. The owners of buildings abandoned years ago are now seeking compensation. They show documentation that they lived there before the fire. “Without sewage or electricity?” João asks rhetorically.

The Portuguese protested against eucalyptus only once. On 31st March 1989, 800 people gathered in the village of Veiga do Lila, in the north of the country. They wanted to destroy eucalyptus planted on 200 hectares of land belonging to a wood pulp processing company.

In the same place olive trees used to grow, but the Soporcel company got financing from the state to plant eucalyptus in their place. At that time, the government was banking on the profitability of the forests. It wasn’t the ecologists who started the protest, but the residents of several villages in the valley of Lila. 200 police officers were drawn up against them, but they didn’t manage to control the grassroots uprising. The protesters shouted: “Yes to olive trees, no to eucalyptus!” They were afraid the new trees would take the groundwater and lead to fires. Today there are no eucalyptus in the village, and for 30 years the forests haven’t burnt, either. But why haven’t protests broken out in other places; why aren’t the Portuguese protesting now that they’ve seen the flames?

“In some countries they fight, they destroy cars, plant bombs, organize huge demonstrations,” says João. “In Portugal we love the three F’s: fado, football and Fátima. It’s the country of the three F’s, the Portuguese don’t care about anything else. They’re good people, but sometimes you also have to be a judge,” he says firmly. Maybe the reason they don’t speak loudly is a legacy of Salazar; they’re still afraid somebody’s listening to them. When I ask why they don’t try to change something, they say that then their grandchildren won’t have work, because the authorities in small towns sometimes have huge influence. “You should stay quiet, or else you won’t get anything,” parents tell their children. The Portuguese believe a free person doesn’t trust politicians, but even so protests won’t change anything.

Although the voices of small-town residents seem to be in agreement, they don’t reach beyond the end of the bar. In Figueiró dos Vinhos, less than 10 kilometres from Nodeirinho, the residents sit in front of the television, watching reports of more fires; this time the south of the country is burning. Here, coffee costs 60 cents; soup is a little more than a euro. In front of the entrance sit firefighters in unbuttoned uniforms, talking, smoking cigarettes. In the small bar that’s also the only shop in Fontão Fundeiro, not far from Figueiró and Nodeirinho, there isn’t even a television. On the shelves are canned tuna, olives, soap, toilet paper, two kinds of cigarettes: Marlboro and Chesterfields. Wine is either added to liqueur in small cups, or poured into glasses. When I choose a glass, the owner, maybe 70 years old, smiles, because that’s what the locals do. On the walls are pictures of a victorious local football team, old calendars; on the windowsill, last week’s newspaper. In Fontão Fundeiro, the days pass slowly. A few residents sit at a table with the bar’s owners and talk. On a shelf over the bar stands a figurine. I’ve seen it earlier in small restaurants in Lisbon’s Alfama district, at the communist festival not far from Seixal, in the place where they make them, Caldas da Rainha. I thought at the time that it looked like a stocky Portuguese man giving a bras d’honneur. “Zé Povinho,” the owner says with pride as she gives me the wine, when she notices I’m looking at the figurine. Later João tells me that the Portuguese are like Zé, a figure created by caricaturist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro in the early 20th century. He’s a man of the people – he mocks politicians and takes the side of the weak. He doesn’t organize protests or stir up revolutions. The nation Zé represents is one that protests quietly.

 Fontão Fundeiro in August 2017. Photo by Maria Dybcio
Fontão Fundeiro in August 2017. Photo by Maria Dybcio

***

Every day, João looks at the eucalyptus growing next to the road, where Vasco died. When we stand on his terrace, I ask what he saw when he stood in the same spot a year ago. “Imagine it: everything was black,” he begins. “A few days after the fire, the fishermen brought us fish, the farmers brought lettuce seedlings; the people of Ribatejo, a tonne of potatoes. I told them then that we need flowers. When I got a few pots, I was so happy, because there was nothing green around.”

“The worst was the silence. Earlier there had been birds, deer; snakes came to the garden, and at night, owls.”

“I raised my chickens and a second goose. We watched for birds. Only one eagle and three crows survived. We started to feed them, and others are slowly arriving.” João is proud.

At first João couldn’t return to work at the garden in Pedrógão Grande: “I couldn’t work in a green place and live in a black one,” he says. The smoke rose over everything for months. João and Dina slept on the first floor; the air on the ground floor was too thick. He started to heal; he painted more than before. Today it’s better, though he still doesn’t take walks in the woods. He observes them on the way to town, or from the terrace of his house. He has a new car, but every so often he gets into the one he drove out onto the road to hell. João knows that a fire can melt the wires that run the electrical system in new car models, and then the engine will stop running. And if the car stops when you need to escape…

The memories come back to everybody. João tells of a neighbour who tries not to think about the fire, but sometimes in her sleep she hears the animals that died that night. She and her husband tried to let them out, but the fire came so quickly. The two of them hid in an irrigation canal, spending three or four hours there, while the animals died in the barn right next to them. She can’t find peace, she still hears these cries.

***

What happened can’t be hidden under a pile of new legislative proposals. João won’t let anybody forget about the fire, so on 17th June 2018 he unveiled a monument to the victims and to those who survived. He designed it himself, and the two-metre structure was made from pieces of melted cars and destroyed homes. It depicts a guardian angel, and it stands across from the cistern where the survivors hid. “We know the climate is changing, and in the future the temperatures will be higher, fires will happen even more often, killing people, destroying homes,” João says. “If the government is only going to look at Lisbon as if it were all of Portugal, as if the rest of the country were the moon or ‘the background’, all this sacrifice will be for nothing.” Only one politician is invited to the unveiling of the memorial: the president. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa admits that the fire was the effect of neglect that took place over the years. He repeats what they already know.

A month after the unveiling, the firefighters are preparing for another call. Carolina, an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter, jumps up when she thinks she hears the siren. “That’s not the signal yet, sit down,” says an older colleague who’s eating soup in the café next to the station. The Portuguese know that they can expect a tragedy, even though life in the small towns goes on as normal. They organize festivals, drink sangria, and water their plants. “Don’t say everything is burnt, it’s not; in some places the eucalyptus is two metres tall, sometimes even more,” says João, anticipating my question when it’s time to say goodbye.

***

“One more missed opportunity.” Two years after the fire, Joaquim is disappointed. “When over three years, from 2003 to 2005, almost one million hectares of forest burnt, everybody said: ‘It won’t happen again, we’ll change everything.’ After the events of 2017, almost nothing changed.” On 6th October 2019, the Socialist Party won the parliamentary elections with an increased share of the vote. But politicians rarely talk about the fires, maybe because they’ve already forgotten; maybe because they don’t want voters to remember.

Meanwhile, the eucalyptus grows on. In March, when I go to Nodeirinho, I see how on some hills there are rows of fresh, green seedlings. Slightly further on, next to small houses and dead pines, smoke rises from a field a villager is burning. The eucalyptus are growing along the road. They’re there in March, and in June when the participants in the annual meeting drive past them. The same a month later, when the forests are burning near Castelo Branco, an hour away from Nodeirinho. They’re tall and slim, their leaves smell as fresh as Portugal. When they’re at your side, there will never be enough shade.

Certain names in this story have been changed.

 

Translated by Nathaniel Espino

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