Protecting nature, prevent deforestation

Around a third of Portugal's area is occupied by forest. That's 3.2 million hectares, which face the danger of deforestation - in Portugal's case, mainly due to forest fires.

Deforestation is a global problem. In the space of 30 years, between 1990 and 2020, the planet lost 420 million hectares of forest – an area that roughly corresponds to the size of the European Union.

What is deforestation?

Deforestation refers to the loss or permanent disappearance of forest area, usually to make way for other uses or activities. However, wildfires are one of the leading causes of deforestation.

While it is important to manage forests sustainably and promote reforestation in impacted areas, it is also necessary to address the root causes of deforestation. One of the most prominent, along with wildfires, is intensive farming, such as palm oil farming. Can we nip deforestation in the bud by changing our habits?

The fires ravaging Portugal

Most of us are confronted with deforestation caused by fires during the summer. In Portugal, violent fires burned through 2.9 million hectares of forest, woods and agricultural land between 2000 and 2019.

Is there a difference between “fires”?

Fire is a controlled combustion in space and time, which can have beneficial characteristics, such as its use in silvopastoral production to renew vegetation and feed animals. A fire that gets out of control can turn into a wildfire, with negative characteristics and effects. 

These phenomena are fuelled by climate change and global warming. But what are the causes of these fires that become untamable? According to the Portuguese Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF), the main causes for wildfires in Portugal are:

  • Negligent use of fire in agriculture, forestry and pastoralism that end up getting out of control, such as the burning of forest and agricultural remnants, rubbish, and bonfires.
  • Intentional fire, that is, arson.
  • Accidental fires, caused by transportation, telecommunications infrastructure, and use of machinery.
  • Rekindling of extinguished fires.
  • Natural causes, such as lightning strikes.

Of the total number of fires in the country, 20 to 30% have intentional causes, comprising 40 to 50% of total area burned, 50 to 60% are caused by negligence, comprising 30 to 40% of area burned, and only a very slim percentage represents natural causes such as lightning strikes, which is responsible for about one forest fire per year.

Why do we need forests?

The simple act of breathing is largely due to forests, as they are responsible for the production of oxygen and the absorption of carbon dioxide. Among their many functions, forests shelter biodiversity, regulate the climate and the water cycle, give us food and medicinal ingredients and, in essence, contribute to the balance of ecosystems.

The Portugal Chama initiative, created by the Agency for Integrated Fire Management (AGIF) of Portugal and to which the Jerónimo Martins Group has been associated since 2019, aims to educate and alert the population to forest fires: how to prevent and how to act in case of fire.

Serra do Açor

Serra do Açor

Serra do Açor, a mountain chain in Portugal, lies between two other mountain chains, Serra da Lousã and Serra da Estrela, and covers the municipalities of Arganil and Pampilhosa da Serra. With over one million hectares, Serra do Açor is a mountain area rich in schist, crossed by picturesque streams and waterfalls like Ribeira da Mata da Margaraça and Barroca de Degraínhos, an area where natural erosion has led to several waterfalls such as Fraga da Pena.

The highest point of Serra do Açor, at 1,418 metres of altitude, is Pico da Cebola. The view is impressive there, with beautiful native flora such as the martagon lily or the English oak enriching the landscape. Fauna includes wild boars, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and about 240 species of butterflies. And, of course, the Northern Goshawk, whose Portuguese name is Açor, and after which the mountain gets is name.

Serra do Açor has been a protected area since 1982. Unfortunately, in 2017, this idyllic setting was the scene of one of the largest battles against wildfires in Portugal: about 80% of its forests and woods were lost.

A new hope for Serra do Açor

The black mantle that covered the forest in central Portugal in 2017 is gradually being renewed: in two years, from 2020 to 2022, the combined efforts for the reforestation of Serra do Açor added 445,000 new trees.

Serra do Açor replanted area

The project “Floresta Serra do Açor” (Serra do Açor Forrest) is financed by the Jerónimo Martins Group, in collaboration with the Municipality of Arganil, the common landowners’ associations and the Agrarian School of Coimbra. An association was also created, recognised as a Forest Management entity (F. S. A. – Floresta da Serra do Açor – Associação) responsible for the management of the whole project.

The reforestation of Serra do Açor is a 40-year project, spanning an area of 2,500 hectares and with a 5 million euros investment. One of the first goals is to have planted more than 1.8 million trees of native species by 2026, including the cluster pine, various oak trees including the cork oak, the Spanish chestnut, and the strawberry tree.

Tree species planted in Serra do Açor

  • Cluster Pine (Pinus pinaster)

    Also called Maritime Pine, it is native to Southwestern Europe and North Africa. It allows for resin extraction, helps with dune fixation and soil renewal, offers protection from the wind, and produces durable and resistant wood. It generates pine nuts, and its pine cones can be used as a renewable fuel.

  • Pyrenean Oak (Quercus pyrenaica)

    Native to the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, Pyrenean Oak provides quality wood. Their apples (or galls) are also a home remedy against wasp stings.

  • English oak (Quercus robur)

    Also known as pedunculate oak, it is a Eurasian species, which was once dominant in the Portuguese forest. It produces acorns, which serve as animal feed, and resist moisture, making it one of the most valuable types of wood in Europe.

  • Cork oak (Quercus suber)

    Endemic to Europe and Northern Africa, Cork oak is an important tree for the Portuguese economy since it produces the very versatile cork. Its acorns are used to feed cattle, namely Iberian pigs.

  • Spanish Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

    Also referred to as Sweet Chestnut or just Chestnut, it originates in the Mediterranean and produces wood that can be used in construction, carpentry, and basketry. Its fruit – the delicious chestnut – is appreciated as food and used in animal feed.

  • Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

    Don’t be confused by the name because this tree is not related to strawberries at all. This species is native to the Mediterranean Basin and Western Europe and is very resilient to temperature variations (up to -15 °C). Its fruit, the arbutus berry, bears some resemblance to the strawberry – hence the name – but is a very different fruit. The berry can be consumed fresh or used to produce liqueurs and brandies. Pollen from the flowers is used to produce honey (“Irish strawberry honey”, or in Portuguese “medronheiro” honey). Since it does not grow straight, its wood is used for firewood – and even for carving pipes.

Nevertheless, the regeneration of forests does not depend solely on planting trees. As such, the reforestation project has been divided into several phases and includes forest management measures such as continuous monitoring of species, replanting, pruning, and clearing. Other goals are wildfire prevention and promoting the local economy.

The initial phase, already underway, consists of planting cluster pines and other species in about 85% of the affected area. By enabling soil recovery, the cluster pine will help other species survive and take roots. Fifteen years from now, its wood, will be sold to the carpentry and shipping industries where it is highly valued. Proceeds will continue to fund the project.

A forest of cluster pine and other native species benefits water lines, helps control invasive species, is fire-resistant, has a great capacity for self-regeneration and regulates microclimates.

All in all, between 2020 and 2022, almost 450,000 trees have been planted in 356 hectares. Still, this is just the first step. The reforestation of Serra do Açor (and other parts of the world) is only possible with a sustainable long-term commitment. We all have a role to play in this journey, whether it’s avoiding risky behaviour, contributing to local tree planting, or simply enjoying what the forest has to offer responsibly.