A Shared Misfortune: The social dimension of forest fires in Southwestern Europe

Posted in: Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking

Professor Ricardo García-Mira is currently a Member of the Parliament of Spain, and is the Spokesperson of the Commission for the Study of Climate Change. He is a Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology at the University of A Coruna, and a Visiting Professor at the IPR, as well as the President of the International Association for People-Environment Studies.

Last weekend more than six hundred fires and a death toll of forty people left the North of Spain and Portugal desolated and in mourning. Authorities signal an increasing rate of intentional fires, which is unsurprising if we consider the results of a research study carried out in 2007 by the People-Environment Research Group of the University of A Coruña in the Northern region of Galicia, Spain. The study revealed that 30.4% of the population attributed fires to intentional criminal actions and 22.5% to irresponsible behavior, while also pointing to the abandonment of forests and different forms of unsustainable land use as causes that need to be addressed through preventive policy.

Risk factors in Spain and Portugal have a clear spatial and temporal distribution, and particular seasons and conjunctions of meteorological factors can prove fatal. This part of the world is characterised by high environmental vulnerability, given its enormous biodiversity, but also high social risks, as more and more communities are affected by the consequences of an inefficient risk management model – evidenced by the increasing number of evictions that have become common in both countries and could be witnessed this past weekend. As these appear to be intentional acts, it might be difficult to prevent the occurrence of forest fires, but educating citizens can achieve much more in preventing their spread. Fostering a culture of caring for the forest based on models of community management and on the cultivation of attachment to natural spaces that are vulnerable to fires can go far in reducing criminal behaviour and slowing the rapid spread of combustion and resulting damage. Communities play an important role in the survival of forests, but such models require their involvement in the design of prevention and mitigation plans from the beginning, which in turn generate a sense of ownership and shared responsibility. In regions where unsustainable forestry is also a main source of income, community development of sustainable forestry models is the only sensible risk mitigation strategy. Cooperation between regions could be achieved through establishing networks of communities that share similar problems, such as those of Northern Spain and Portugal.

In the aftermath of disaster, governments pledge higher investments in fire prevention measures – but these pledges are often not preceded by detailed analyses of causes of spread or of the types of wide-ranging changes that are necessary for real prevention. These would have to include changes in soil usage and community-based approaches to forest management, as evidence shows they are effective risk mitigation measures as well as cost-effective in the long run.

A high percentage of this weekend´s burned areas were eucalyptus plantations. The growth of forest mass based on eucalyptus or pine has been associated more and more with the high incidence of fires, as evidenced by recent studies. The focus on short-term benefits in forest management is still the norm, unfortunately, leading to excessive exploitation of species well-known for their negative environmental effects and high contribution to the rapid spread of fires. These highly homogeneous plantations become large reserves of fuel, making control of fires a much more complex, expensive, and difficult-to-manage operation, as compared to models that would encourage higher diversity of forest species. Such species are also characterised by rapid growth and high consumption of water, leading to water shortage and dry soil. Climate change further brings in rainfall deficit, thus creating a deadly cocktail of high intensity unstoppable flames. Private interest in such short-term benefits continues to threaten the biodiversity and natural wealth of the heavily-wooded landscape of Spain and Portugal and calls into question the ability of their respective governments to deal with such a serious matter.

Posted in: Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking


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