Irresponsibility. The fire to come

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2019-10-30

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(Previously published in Galician at Praza Pública. Translation: José Ramom Flores das Seixas, reviewed by Isabel Flores das Seixas & David Middelton )

For decades we have been witnessing a rather absurd debate about forestry policy due to the inequality of forces between the different interlocutors, among many other issues. This misnamed forestry model is in reality, an environmental, territorial, cultural, social and economic policy.

There are tons of information and knowledge at the disposal of whoever wants to enter the debate, also tons of misleading information, bias and, above all, conflict of interests. That is why I am not going to repeat arguments that are already known, except to call the attention of those responsible to two very specific issues: precipitation and energy.

The Sustainability Observatory has just released a report on rainfall in Spain over virtually the last 40 years. Although there has been no reduction or clear trend in the overall volume of rainfall, if we look at the details there are some important things to keep in mind. One of them is that rainfall has decreased significantly in a large part of Galicia. In addition it has declined markedly in the summer period. The forecast is that by 2050 rainfall will be halved throughout most of Galicia.

Obviously, the forestry policy dictated by interest groups prefers to ignore this kind of information about the immediate future. As is already known, the massive and continuous planting of eucalyptus in a large part of the country decreases the circulating water and aggravates the problems of torrential rainfall. It would be paradoxical to have restrictions on the use of water for domestic, agricultural or industrial purposes, let alone the maintenance of ecosystems to feed the eucalyptus dictatorship. I stress – in the immediate future.

This being a tragedy, it could still be worse. Planting pyrophytic species carries the risk that they do indeed burn. Many of us have explained the obvious ‒ that in order for the forest to burn, different factors must coincide, they are, fuel, humidity, ignition and meteorology or, if we wish to simplify it, there must be something that triggers the fire, appropriate weather conditions and fuel. Those who determine forestry policy –or let themselves be instructed– are only concerned about the first part, the ignition, that is to say, the famous debate on whether or not it is provoked. They say nothing about the other elements because they know that it goes against their perverse economic and short-term logic.

This means that fires in the coming decades will be more frequent and of unknown magnitude, if this policy persists. In fact we are already experiencing it, both in Galicia and in Portugal, as it is also being tragically suffered in territories with similar conditions such as California or Chile.

The fact that the fuel is planted continuously will cause Galicia to burn in the coming decades without there being any real chance of intervention. It does not matter how much we focus on police measures and social issues (who starts the fire…). What’s more, every year without wildfires means more fuel for the following seasons. I am not going to discuss the consequences here, because they are very well known.

The second issue is energy. A good part of the public has not consciously heard about the Peak Oil, but it is possible to hear the bells announcing it. One day we hear that diesel must be banned, another that an oil tanker has been hijacked, another that one country has been invaded because of its reserves, another that alternative oil can be obtained by disastrous techniques such as fracking… Many researchers tend to propose specific dates, but it is all so complex that actually providing them is a risky exercise. Yet the peak of conventional oil has already taken place at the end of the last decade. I bring all this up because policy makers and managing directors may not realise that wildfires are extinguished with oil. In other words, huge quantities of fuel are needed for vehicles on the ground and, above all, aircraft. Therefore, we cannot state joyfully or indolently that in the coming decades we will have enough energy available to deal with wildfires, in particular for aircraft.

It is worth remembering that we are talking about public resources, and that the liberalization of the negative externalities of the current forestry model, with protectionist policies on pines and eucalyptus, is not on the political agenda. As is often the case, public funds are spent on private businesses without a minimum of debate. Finally, I should mention that eucalyptus and pine trees are also processed, at an industrial level, by using oil. Thus in the near future the trees will remain in the ground, detracting land needed for natural spaces and farmland to feed the population, given that local food will be the norm for the same reason.

This cocktail for the immediate future is extremely risky. The immediate reality is absolutely tragic. We will wonder in astonishment how we were able to reach this point. I insist, this is going to happen in the immediate coming decades ‒ when the current president of the Xunta, to give a well-known example, can still contemplate the fruits of his efforts. A society with a little more consciousness and responsibility would be terrified of the surrounding continuous forest masses of pines, eucalyptus and acacias which are inflammable and inextinguishable, and would turn the policy of reducing and fragmenting them into a state issue.

Burned pine plantation in the community Manquo in Florida, in the zone of the wildfires near Concepción

Foto © Langelle/GJEP.

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Xabier Vázquez Pumariño

Environmental biologist linked to the environmental movement since the early 1980s, he works as an environmental consultant in different fields: ornithology, applied ecology, sustainable development and cooperation in Latin America. He collaborates with different media on topics such as ecology, conservation biology, peak oil, climate change and environmental policies.

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