PORTUGAL — TORRES VEDRAS — Call it Portugal’s brush war.
The country’s great and good fanned out across the land at the weekend, seeking to unite the nation in a race against time to clean up the country’s forests before the summer heat and to head off a repeat of last year’s deadly wildfires.
“None of us remember such an effort at a national level to protect homes, villages and infrastructure,” Prime Minister António Costa said as he joined teams clearing undergrowth from a country road outside this western town. “It’s a huge task and it involves everyone.”
But the effort to cut back fire-prone brush is creating problems for Costa and his government, as critics lambast the administration for the way it notified property owners of their duty to clear land.
Besides Costa, over 20 government ministers, dozens of mayors, top military brass and other dignitaries crisscrossed rural Portugal to lend support to the bush-clearance drive.
“At least there’s no landowner now who can say they haven’t heard about it and don’t know that they have to manage the forests” — forestry expert Domingos Patacho
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa donned camouflage gear in the far north alongside some of the 1,600 military personnel engaged in what he called the “national cause.” The goal is to prevent a tragedy on the scale of last year’s fires, which left 115 dead and destroyed over 4,400 square kilometers of forest.
However, while there’s widespread support for fire prevention efforts, there’s less unity over how Costa’s government is approaching the problem.
“You’re the prime minister, you have to deal with this,” said local smallholder Norberto Rodrigues Júlio, who buttonholed Costa during his visit to demand more government support. “It’s always the little guy that gets screwed.”
He was complaining about a controversial government ruling issued in February demanding landowners clear trees and undergrowth around homes and villages by March 15 or face heavy fines — a policy the government has been forced to modify.
Rodrigues Júlio told Costa he had to cut down and uproot valuable eucalyptus trees — a mainstay of Portugal’s thriving paper industry — because the authorities had allowed homes to be built nearby.
“I’m 1,000 percent in favor of this clean up, but I sold my eucalyptus trees for €800 each, then had to pay €600 to have the roots pulled up. That’s not fair, the local council has to help out, so does central government,” he said to nods of support from neighbors.
The smallholders of Torres Vedras, a municipality of 80,000 in rolling fruit and wine country 50 kilometers north of Lisbon, are far from alone in contesting the government’s approach.
Conservationists, landowners, businesses and local authorities have denounced the government’s decision to use the Tax Authority’s database for a mass email campaign giving landowners three weeks to “clean undergrowth and cut down trees” within 50 meters of homes and 100 meters of villages.
Failure to comply, the government warned, could results in fines of up to €5,000 for individuals or €60,000 for companies.
“People were afraid of the fines and started cutting down trees that didn’t need to be cut down, including protected species like cork oak,” said Domingos Patacho, forestry expert with Quercus, an environmental campaign group. “There’s been a lot of confusion.”
He conceded that the campaign has succeeded in raising awareness of the need to remove fire-risk vegetation. “That’s perhaps the only positive part,” Patacho said. “At least there’s no landowner now who can say they haven’t heard about it and don’t know that they have to manage the forests.”
More scathing criticism has come from the Lisbon Property Owner’s Association (ALP), which despite its capital-centric name represents 10,000 owners nationwide.
The association is offering support for rural landowners to contest fines in court, accusing Costa’s center-left government of shirking its responsibility by shifting the burden for bush fire prevention.
“The Socialist government is again pointing its guns at Portuguese property owners in an ignoble attempt to pass the buck,” the group said in a statement. “The ALP will not allow the state to shift responsibility for protecting life and citizens’ safety.”
Costa has backed away from the March 15 deadline, saying fines for noncompliance with the clean-up rules will only be applied from June, but despite the gripes, state authorities say the massive clean-up is making good progress.
António Laranjo, president of Infraestruturas de Portugal, told Costa on Saturday his state-owned company was confident of meeting a target for creating 10-meter strips free of flammable vegetation alongside the 14,000 kilometers of road under its responsibility.
Cleaning up flammable vegetation along highways and around villages is, however, just part of the problem.
“We are working up and down the country from north to south, everywhere,” he said. “We are giving it top priority.”
Securing the roads is key to the fire-protection plan. Last June, 47 people died in or near their cars when flames swept across a rural road near the central town of Pedrógão Grande.
The prevention plan is on the right track despite the communication blunders, said forestry engineers overseeing the teams wielding electric brushcutters, chainsaws and bin bags to clear dry vegetation under a cluster of protected cork oaks during Costa’s visit.
“There’s not the human means to get everything done, but we’re doing all we can,” said João Duarte, an engineer with Advanced Green, a private company working on the clean-up. “This is a good measure. It should have been done earlier, because the laws have been there since 2006, but they weren’t applied. It needed a calamity to get things going.”
Cleaning up flammable vegetation along highways and around villages is, however, just part of the problem. Much of central and northern Portugal is a mosaic of smallholdings, where emigration and desertification have left land untended for years. Often local authorities can’t identify who owns patches of abandoned forest.
“The whole situation has changed. The interior of the country is more and more deserted. In the old days people with their livestock would clean up, now so much land has been abandoned,” said Duarte. “What we are doing will give the firefighters a better chance this summer, but if the climatic conditions are like last year, we will run the risk of more disaster.”