We are finding fires that exceed the maximum extinguishing capacity of the resources that are being asked to control them by 4 or 5 times, which is nonsense, as well as recklessness. We should ask ourselves about our territorial, social and economic model for dealing with this situation so that we do not leave the fire-fighting services with this intractable and unsolvable problem.
Extinción de un incendio. EFE/José Luis Cereijido
"The era of forest fire extinction is over".
With this revealing phrase the curtain came down on the last Spanish Forestry Congress held a few days ago in Lleida.
However, forest fires have been causing great social alarm in recent weeks, with such sad and regrettable accidents as those we have seen, including the loss of human lives.
The problem is far from being solved. The forest continues to grow, both in density and extension, as a consequence of a new territorial paradigm, which took shape in the second half of the 20th century. From that moment on, and for the first time since the Neolithic, the forest began to dominate agriculture, which withdrew from the territory, as did human presence, in a deconstruction of a Mediterranean cultural landscape, classically an agroforestry mosaic, which had been shaped by humans for millennia.
We are faced with a profound territorial problem, which together with climate change brings us the collateral effect of large forest fires, which first appeared in Spanish statistics in the 1980s
During the 20th century we have witnessed a change of socio-economic cycle that has been successful in many respects, but which also has a series of cross-cutting problems, such as depopulation and rural abandonment, or the shift to a linear and externalised economy based solely on oil. As a result, we are faced with a profound territorial problem, which together with climate change brings us the collateral effect (among many others) of major forest fires, which first appeared in Spanish statistics in the 1980s, a few decades after the beginning of the rural exodus.
This problem is a monster that has become a big one for us and is linked to global warming, which is putting enormous stress on forest vegetation. Our extinguishing services can hardly be more efficient and there is very little room for improvement, both in terms of resources and technology, not to mention the paradox of extinguishing, which makes large fires grow as a result of greater efficiency in extinguishing them.
Even so, we are finding fires that exceed by 4 or 5 times the maximum extinguishing capacity of the resources that are being asked to control them, which is nonsense, as well as recklessness. It is clear that there is not a long way to go down this road, but we should ask ourselves about our territorial, social and economic model and how we can approach this situation from the right perspective, so that we do not leave the fire-fighting services faced with this intractable and insoluble problem.
We know that the amount and continuity of forest fuel is enormous and will continue to grow. Based on these certainties, strategies should be established to fragment the landscape and take steps to return to agricultural and forestry use of the land
We would have to correct some problems that originated in the 20th century with the perspective and knowledge we have today. We know that the new territorial paradigm makes forests the protagonists of the 21st century, once they have relegated agriculture in territorial importance. We also know that the quantity and continuity of forest fuel is enormous and will not stop growing. On the basis of these certainties, strategies should be established to fragment the landscape and take steps to return to agricultural and forestry use of the territory. It will not be an easy task, but there is no other option. Because immediate results and immediate magic solutions are not valid here. If measures are not taken to use the surplus biomass in the forests and its continuity, we are wrongly tackling the problem, because we are putting off until tomorrow the fire that we have stopped today.
Obviously, we have much more stressed forests and we have to regulate competition, which is becoming more and more intense in the face of rising temperatures and internal growth. There are very clear experiences of forestry adapting to climate change, with positive results.
It is not a question of cutting down all the forests, as some demagogic voices suggest, but of taking advantage of surplus growth and making the most of it, which, at the same time, protects the forest, improves it and also enhances its environmental services
But what is really important is to change the vision and create the conditions for a transversal value chain that makes this management viable on a territorial scale, as well as a legislative framework that allows rather than hinders it. It is not a question of cutting down all the forests, as some demagogic voices suggest, but of taking advantage of surplus growth and adding value to it, which, at the same time, protects the forest, improves it and also enhances its environmental services. The best way to prevent forest fires is to create an economy in the area. It is necessary to make the territory attractive, to create the conditions (services) for it, encouraging agroforestry management. Almost exactly the opposite of what is being done, that is to say.
It is not only (but also) a question of extinguishing the flame, but mainly of breaking the pernicious cycle of biomass-fire accumulation, which has become an increasingly catastrophic and repetitive spiral.
In general, the administration continues with the broken record of defending small-scale (and not landscape-scale) biodiversity and the ultra-protection and hyper-regulation of agroforestry territory by virtue of an overly long catalogue of protection figures and regulations that asphyxiate the rural environment where they fall. It should be pointed out that in the Valencia Region, for example, Protected Natural Spaces affect more than 50% of the forest territory, a third of which has more than one form of protection... so one might ask: so much protection... against whom?
This is approaching the issue from the wrong perspective, in the style of the Titanic orchestra. If the situation is to be reversed, it is rural societies that must be protected and not the territory or ecosystems in such a general way, because it is rural societies that guarantee territorial protection, and this has been historically proven. Ultra-protecting territory as a rule against its own inhabitants for the enjoyment of city dwellers and other overpopulated areas is an obvious targeting error.
I agree with Marc Castellnou when he says: "Farmers are the roots of our territory, and we should take our hats off, because against all odds, they continue to occupy it. Let's not tax them any more or put any more bureaucratic obstacles in their way"
And believe me, I am not just talking: I personally know the difficulties that some farmers have in recovering mountain terraces, cultivated for centuries, which after 20-30-40 years without use have been considered forestry. An activity as cross-cutting, praiseworthy and positive at the present time as the re-cultivation of olive trees on hectares that have already been terraced, initiating a cycle of land development and boosting the local economy by incorporating young people into the sector, comes up against so many administrative obstacles that it is inexplicable. An activity that should be promoted and rewarded (for its effects on fires, territory, biodiversity, economy and even innovation or disruption), turns out that, because it is on land that has been classified as forestry, it has to go through a very long process, with several sections of the administration involved and frequent incomprehension from the civil service.
I agree with Marc Castellnou when he says: "Farmers are the roots of our territory, and we should take our hats off, because against all odds, they continue to occupy it. Let's not tax them any more or put any more bureaucratic obstacles in their way". A recovery of a traditional crop, even if it is abandoned, cannot be considered a ploughing. Something is wrong here.
The territorial problem definitely goes hand in hand with depopulation and the abandonment of the rural economy in the face of the current linear economy concentrated in the cities. I have already said that there is no immediate or simple solution, because we have been moving in the opposite direction for almost a century. Tackling this issue requires bottom-up and top-down strategies, coordination and patience, but also a lot of determination and clear and bold measures, because it is urgent to start walking.
From urban areas, the current geopolitical centre of the country, it is urgent to address a change of vision, in accordance with the new paradigm we are facing, because it affects us all
But make no mistake: any measure that comes to exploit the territory again (projects carried out and charged from the city, which only affect the territory in terms of their environmental impact) will not change anything and will be more of the same: cheating oneself. It is necessary to promote the circular and local economy in the territory itself, in addition to all the measures that favour life there, especially for the youngest people.
From urban areas, the current geopolitical centre of the country, it is urgent to address a change of vision, in accordance with the new paradigm we are facing, because it affects us all. And if we really want this change in society's vision of the territory, we should start by including all these social and territorial problems in primary and secondary school textbooks.
I have been horrified for years to read the way our territory is transmitted in my daughters' textbooks. Not a trace of the Mediterranean cultural landscape, nor of rurality, nor of devertebration, nor of the rural exodus, nor of all these problems, but a clearly wilderness perspective that floods everything, where the most repeated words are "territorial protection", "natural parks", "ecosystems" and, therefore, the society that has shaped this territory since the Neolithic, in a constant and sustainable way, is marginalised.
How can we expect a change of vision that understands what is happening and provides an adequate response? We should start here.
To fight forest fires and face the great territorial and environmental challenges of the future, we urgently need a profound change of vision, one that responds to the new territorial paradigm before us. Beyond the overreactions and passing regrets for the terrible damage suffered in recent weeks, we should ask whether as a society we are capable of assuming this profound change of vision.