August 10, 2012

Portugal: forests of dubious sustainability.

Already at the end of 1996, an independent study, developed under the coordination of Jaakko Pöyry, diagnosed serious insufficiencies in the primary sector of forestry in Portugal. This was seen as a victim, simultaneously, of insufficient use of its potential and of an increasing pressure to furbish the industrial sector, worsened lately by the increasing demand for wood and biomass for energy production.

The increasing gravity of this situation of underuse and over-exploitation of forest areas limits a rational and sustainable utilization of Portuguese forest resources, which could portend great negative impacts for future generations. Portugal exports a large part of the goods produced from forest resources, essentially to member states of the European Union, in particular to Spain, France and Germany.

The maladjustment between demand and supply was, in 2011, the object of public denouncement by the highest responsible figure of the National Forest Authority, in foreseeing a situation of rupture in timber in less than 15 years. In order to face the lack of resources, the country presently imports approximately 2 million cubic metres of wood, some of which cause the preoccupation of the WWF insofar as their origin.

Faced with the constantly worsening situation in comparison with 1996, the present government recently revealed a disconnected wager on forestation, in particular in monocultures of fast-growing exotic species, concretely, of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus). However, national specialists, researchers and academics show that, according to data from the latest forest inventories, there has been an increase in the number of cases of deficiency or even absence of forest management in the two principal Portuguese forest species, maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) and eucalyptus. In the case of eucalyptus, the data obtained may even signify a sharp increase of abandoned eucalyptus plantations between 1992 and 2005.

According to specialists, the increase in production of woody material from maritime pine and eucalyptus to supply the transformation industries will not depend so much on the increase of their areas of occupation, as was seen at the beginning of the last century and seems to be the option of the present government. Instead, fundamentally, it will depend on the promotion of active management of forest areas, with the intent to obtain greater productivity per area. This priority is based on the fact that the numbers related to productivities of 5 and 10 cubic metres annually per hectare, respectively for maritime pine and for eucalyptus, have remained unchanged since 1928.

The absence of active management in a significant part of the Portuguese forest area is at the origin of an easier spread of forest fires in Portugal, as well as a more favourable propagation of pests and diseases. This fact is not unrelated to the increasing concentration of industry and the lack of competition in the three main forest chains, both that of the eucalyptus and of maritime pine but also that of the cork oak (Quercus suber). Each of these chains is dominated by a specific entrepreneurial group. At present, the authorities abstain from accompaniment of commercial relations in the different forest industry chains, leaving farmers and forest owners (retainers of approximately 90% of the forest area in Portugal) at the mercy of large industrial monopolies.

The country has had the support, since 1989, of European Community funds for forests. In this area, however, worrisome practical results have been evident as well as degrees of success that are always lower than expected or even ridiculous, such as those seen in the present period (2007/2013). Here, errant strategies, namely with the laying of priorities on new forestation without ensuring subsequent forestry management or adjustment to the markets, have given rise to very preoccupying situations. In the most serious case, that of the maritime pine, hundreds of millions of euros have already been consumed (1989/2005) just for new forest plantations. However, although one would expect the efforts of national and European taxpayers to generate thousands of new hectares of maritime pine, through the attribution of non-reimbursed subsidies, in reality there has been a move backward in terms of the area of this species, in this time period, of about 400 thousand hectares. In parallel, in the period between 1989 and 2005, the negative impact of forest fires in Portugal has grown. Could the taxpayers’ money be promoting the forest fire “industry”?

It is not for lack of strategic documents that the problems persist. At the moment, another one is being announced. Portugal has been prodigious in creating strategic plans for forests, among them the Plan for Sustainable Development of the Portuguese Forest (PDSFP) of 1997, or more recently the National Strategy for Forests (ENF) of 2007. All have had irrelevant practical consequences for solving the problems of lack of management, of underuse and of over-exploitation, as well as those of their consequences, the fires, pests and diseases.

Portugal, despite the weak political relevance of forests in the country, has great forestry potential, with potential productivities unparalleled in Europe. It has 1.5 to 2 million hectares of uncultivated soil, with favourable forestry aptitude. Portuguese wild areas also have high biodiversity, favourable to multifunctional forest systems less dependent on negative periods in commercial cycles. There is, however, a necessity and a political will for a change of paradigm. The country needs a clear stand on active and necessarily sustainable management of its natural resources, specifically, conveniently directed toward and centred on the hundreds of thousands of retainers of forestry-apt spaces that exist in Portugal. These people must see their economic expectations safeguarded so that they can develop their forestry activity, providing social advantages, with special focus on rural areas, and environmental advantages, in the conservation of soils, water resources, fauna and flora and in carbon storage. This is the strategy for investment defended by Acréscimo.

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