A tree needs time to grow
by Uwe Heitkamp, Editor of ECO123 magazine
We should, all of us, try and bring ecology and economy together in a practical way, make peace. As awful as forest fires are, on a second glance, once the shock and trauma subside, they do provide a huge chance. Planting slow-growing mixed forests from scratch takes time, yet is eminently important. Many of the forests that fell victim to the heat and forest fires of the past few years had their roots in an era where the forest only served as a quick self-service for business. This is starting to change as we speak, whether the industry likes it or not. Here in Monchique the first eucalyptus plantations are being cleared and replaced by mixed forest. The first woodland owners are realising that the laws reigning in the forest are made by nature rather than by the market economy. Because what we are currently experiencing in many other southern European countries is the culmination of greed and ignorance. Our world is burning. Up to recently there was a high demand for wood, whether for construction, for fuel or for the transformation of wood to paper. Promising the fastest way to big yields, eucalyptus and pines were planted on a large scale. Over the past two generations, hardly anyone spared a thought for the mix and diversity of forest species, a balanced water supply, sustainability and resilience, much less for the consequences of the earth heating up.
The reforestation of our forests favouring more resistant species, towards biodiversity, will only become visible decades from now. However those with an interest in a robust and sustainable forest, those who want to stop the forest fires cannot ignore this transformation – away from large-scale monoculture plantations towards sustainably planted mixed forests. Not least in the interest of those who will want to inherit and continue to look after the forest – and yes, in contrast to the paper manufacturers who see the forest as a mere provider of cheap resources. After all, a forest may also simply be beautiful, right?
So, should the forest be completely reconfigured as it were to find the way back to nature? Yes. Having fewer groundwater-guzzling monocultures will bring back a natural balance to nature’s water supply system. The priority goal of minimising forest fires requires more deciduous forest and more diversity. These kind of demands are now becoming more vociferous. Woodlands planted as a mixed forest are shaped by humans. At the moment, the new EU “Green Deal” subsidies offer the one-off chance to turn the forest more resilient for the future – a forest that in southern Europe over the past centuries has long ceased to be a virgin forest.
There is a lot to be said for taking large parts of the Portuguese (Greek, Italian, Spanish) forests out of economic utilisation, giving them protected status as nature reserves. Every forest owner should think hard how best to replace eucalyptus monocultures: for instance by producing clean electricity, which is not only in high demand but also qualifies for subsidies. Why not use ten per cent of a burnt-down forest area for solar modules and produce electricity, supply it to the grid and make money? Why not reserve ten per cent for traditional olive groves producing high-quality olive oil, interspersing the trees with other species that need equally low amounts of water but yield valuable crops: carob, fig, almond, bay leaf or chestnut. However, a forest may also simply provide joy, as well as shade, and serve as a diverse habitat. And this brings us back to the cork oak and the medronheiro strawberry tree. At the end of the day this will always be about the coexistence of humankind, animals and the forest, about a sustainable, gentle use of nature rather than a relationship of dominance. For the ecosystem of the forest represents a gigantic natural capital of our country, a faithful and vital partner and true capital – if much threatened.
This is exactly why ECO123 is asking the candidates at the local elections how they will be stopping forest fires, or at least try everything in their power to avoid and minimise them, to transform and diversify a local economy catering to monocultures. Let’s take a peak at what these candidates have in mind? The challenge is to save humanity’s habitat. A forest fire destroys, making it the biggest climate enemy of our blue planet and its atmosphere. According to analyses carried out by the FAO, a single square kilometre of burnt forest emits 20,000 tons of CO2, as much as 4,000 residents of Portugal in a whole year of their lives (five tons per capita and year). In 2018, 280 km2 of forest burnt down in Monchique, responsible for 5.6 million tons of CO2. And the forest is burning not only in the south of Portugal. ECO123 is talking to all serious candidates to put the key question to them on what their political concept for avoiding forest fires looks like. The first candidate is José Chaparro. At 54, he is running for office on the PP/CDS ticket. Next week we’ll be introducing Bruno Estremores, representing the PSD. We’ll follow him up every week with a different candidate from a different party.
If you want to stay abreast of developments, why not follow the new podcast on this issue every Saturday? Together we have the opportunity to improve the world we live in; we do in fact still have this chance. And if you have concrete suggestions how we can stop forest fires and what could be the first step towards this do drop us an email with your ideas. We will publish them before the local elections here on this platform and discuss solutions. Why just remain part of the problem if you can turn yourself part of the solution?
Interview with José Chaparro
At 54 years of age, José Chaparro is the independent candidate to the mayoralty of Monchique City Hall for the CDS-PP. An engineer by profession, José is the Councillor responsible for Public Works. This interview was carried out in the former Rouxinol restaurant, destroyed by the last fires.
ECO123: What made you run for Mayor of Monchique?
José Chaparro: The most important factor behind putting myself forward for Mayor was the people of Monchique. Before taking the decision to throw my hat in the ring I was approached by people from various ideological and political sides (including some with no affiliation), who challenged me to take the decision. I am from Monchique and have experience both at professional level and at the level of local politics: I have held permanent office as an independent councillor for the PSD and spent four years in Lisbon City Hall.
Based on this experience of four years, and bearing in mind your manifesto, what are you hoping to achieve in case you are elected?
In this phase now I have my entire team working on the manifesto. We are running for office in Monchique and the parish councils of Alferce and Marmelete, and a good manifesto requires some time and ideas. However, I can reveal the general outline. In Territorial Planning, there will be a revision of the Municipal Master Plan (Plano Diretor Municipal, PDM), forest and urbanistic planning, urban regeneration, notably in the Rua Serpa Pinto, the gateway to our town …
Which changes are you proposing within the PDM? Do you have a proposal for the forest, one of the most important recourses of Monchique’s economy?
At the moment I can’t anticipate in any depth how the PDM will be, dispite as I was involved in drafting up others in the past. Monchique stands out, with a huge forest area, as well as an urban area. The team working on the PDM (a multi-disciplinary team of experts, from architects to engineers, biologists and farmers), will address the issues, and we’ll have the PDM we want. In fact, according to the law the PDM should have been executed over 12 years back. Feet have been dragging in terms of its revision, and this has meant a failure to create jobs in Monchique, as well as a Business Park … Certain industries were allowed to spring up all over the forest and today we see the resulting scars in the forest cover. Everything will have to be examined in great detail.
This aspect also holds a great danger: fires. This very place has over the past few years seen the fires raze much woodland and houses… Which measures are you planning to adopt to curb this problem?
This is a very deep question, which should be of concern not only to us Monchiquenses, but also to Portugal and, in short, the world, because it concerns the whole planet. My team includes specialists in this area and I can say already that measures will involve reenforcing the Cvil Protection team…
… the firefighters …
Not only. They are of course a key part, as they know the territory better than anyone. In addition, we have a Civil Protection Department within City Hall, which needs to be improved, to be able to respond more quickly and efficiently each time a fire flares up. It’s at the initial stage that great disasters are averted. We know what happened in 2018 and 2021. If you don’t fight back from the start you reach a point where you lose control of the situation.
What is your second major electoral goal?
This point is no less relevant than the first: we need to talk about birth rates and demographics. How do we keep the young people in Monchique, how do we create employment?
How are you planning to do this?
One measure involves the Business Park project which should have started ten years ago. This will allow to establish companies here, whether local or from outside because those headquartered outside Monchique will probably receive fiscal incentives to set up at this Parque Industrial.
Another measure involves the social support structure: promoting entrepreneurship, supporting the institutions of social solidarity, the support mechanisms for the elderly population and for those who suffered in the fires, as well as improving the department of Civil Protection Support.
And how about the health situation in Monchique… the hospital…?
The hospital is a fundamental part of our health in Monchique. It saddens me, I know of situations where people who no longer have a family doctor at our Health Centre were forced to use private entities which sometimes charge amounts that the elderly in particular have great difficulty in paying.
First of all we need to improve the Health Centre. The situation there is not dignified, it needs some paint, rehabilitation.
… and more doctors …
First we need to deal with the infrastructure, then call on the human resources who can respond to the needs of the population. And this will involve more doctors, more nurses, the whole body of people able to serve a population that has shrunk by approximately 500, but is impoverished and needs support.
Returning to the issue of local resources, which are the most important resources in your opinion?
Similarly to what’s happening in the private sphere, in a family or a local authority, the most valuable resource we have is human capital, and this involves providing the workers with good conditions, generating motivation and satisfaction amongst teams.
And what do you think about the balance between the elements of Earth and Water? Every year we have less water and a landscape invaded by monocultures. Any solutions?
Just looking at the municipality of Monchique, particularly its topographical relief and watercourses, we could build dams to contain the precipitation falling over our mountains. Monchique has a microclimate: the ocean winds go up the hills, hit the mountain and it rains. We have to retain this water and allow it to enter our subsoil, to create this balace. We have these orographic conditions, now we need to build the infrastructure to use the water well.
I arrived in Monchique when this was the green lung of the entire Algarve and Baixo Alentejo – a very diversified forest with only some 25 to 30% of eucalyptus monocultures. 31 years later nearly 80% is monocultures of eucalyptus and acacia; very few areas are reserved for chestnut, cork oak… Does this not worry you?
It is very worrying. Since I was little I used to go into the forest with my parents and grandparents, to play. I share your opinion. 30, 40 years ago our forest had a completely different biodiversity. That balance has been disturbed by the path of the fires, bringing invasive harmful species. And today we have situations such as in Caldas de Monchique where predictions give us ten years before we have a scrubland of acacia, difficult to resolve. These situations are veritable powder kegs.
Could you draw up a balance sheet for these four years as councillor? Why were you “asked to leave” by the current Mayoralty of Rui André?
You’re well informed! Three hours ago, when the City Hall meeting ended, I was confronted with this situation. It was ridiculous, because it is part of the democratic process – and regulations – that every time a Mayor takes proposals to the City Hall meeting, they have to notify all councillors, with due advance notice. Well, our Mayor did not inform them. With the session about to finish, he presented a proposal, unknown to the representatives – and relieved me of my functions.
After three mandates in Monchique, Rui André is now putting himself forward for the PSD for Portimão council. Maybe six weeks from now we’ll have a new Mayor, José Chaparro. Which issues are you planning to focus on?
Our manifesto includes the rehabilitation of the Monchique schools: Manuel Nascimento, Marmelete and Escola dos Casais. We are also planning to improve and increase their human resources, because the best thing we can have is human capital.
And in terms of the health of the children attending local schools? All of them still have asbestos roofs. Are you taking this into consideration?
Fibre cement contains asbestos, a highly carcinogenic product. This is well known. As part of my functions and responsibilities, over the past four years I took the initiative to remove the fibre-cement covering from the buildings with the largest areas – the municipal warehouses. But City Hall should have taken the initiative to remove it from the remaining buildings years back. The Escola Manuel Nascimento school, for instance, and the one in Marmelete are completely covered with fibre cement.
But shouldn’t the children not be in first place? They are our future. Why not start with the schools? If the population of Monchique should vote for José Chaparro, will the schools become asbestos-free over the coming four years?
This will form part of our programme. I was responsible for the rehabilitation and enlargement of the Escola Manuel Nascimento. In fact a contract was drawn up to remove the fibre cement from Block C. Strangely, the tender attracted no bidders – or there was a judicial problem – things outside my remit. Above me I have a Mayor called Rui André, as well as Councillor Arminda Andrés, who controls the financial portfolio. And I cannot do anything if this is not unblocked.
The same thing happens with the school at Marmelete. It’s a degrading situation endangering the health and safety of the children – deteriorated spans, the cold and rain entering the building, exposed armatures in the pillars, asbestos coverings – and during the 12 years of Rui André as Mayor nothing has been done.
Which place does this issue occupy in your programme, by order of importance?
It’s certainly at the top of the list. To give precedence to preserving the health and physical integrity of the people.
Would you like to point out some additional aspects?
Yes. On the infrastructure level, we have to quickly get the São Sebastião car park up and running. This will be have first priority.
… to earn our daily bread …
Correct. City Hall needs income. We can’t have over 30 illegal cars inside that car park. At the moment it’s sealed off, and nothing is happening.
The other point of great importance is the Serração sawmill, one of our iconic public works projects.
You are talking about the Casa do Povo de Monchique and culture in the municipality…
Exactly. The Casa do Povo will be restored and given back to the people. But we’d also like to take on the Serração – where the wood lot and the machine park used to be – and transform it into a multipurpose park for cultural and sports events, fairs… We’re also planning a museum, a pet project of mine.
To finish off I’d like to mention that we’re planning to finish the swimming pool in Marmelete, works that should already have gone ahead; proceed with the construction of the low-cost housing zone; improve the entire surrounding area; and to create a caravan park.
In Alferce parish we have the Castle which will continue to be explored archeologically. We’re talking about a project with a timespan of 15, 20 years. On the other hand we’d like to implement various walkways in Monchique. The passadiço of Barranco do Demo, in Alferce, will be one of the showpieces.
In the future will it be possible for a citizen of Monchique to enjoy cultural events in the municipality?
This is our intention. Also to increase the population of Monchique by between 30 and 60% within ten years. I am fully conscious of the value of this area, it’s a rough diamond. And it’s well probable that once we have created the assets, people from Portimão and other places will want to move to Monchique.