By Em Luta, Portugal.
In this moment of pain and tragedy, we first want to express full solidarity to the victims and their families. These are people suffering from the loss of their closest ones, and many others who are injured, frightened and affected with personal and material losses by an entire region devastated by fire.
We also want to salute the popular mobilization to help them collect their goods, showing where the real strength of solidarity lies on: among workers and the poor people, which know the drama of a tragedy like this in someone’s life.
We cannot forget about the firemen, their courage, and determination, as they risk their lives to save people and the forest, even in a situation that repeats ever year.
But all this solidarity and courage will be pointless if we do not debate what has to change and who is responsible for this tragedy. To cry the victims and not look for the causes and necessary policies to change this, is just to prepare ourselves to cry future victims. We cannot let fear and impotence to continue ruling before the chronicle of a tragedy foretold, in a context in which –leaving aside Portugal’s particularities- the global warming and climate change indicate that the situation will worsen. And summer has just begun.
Thus, even while grieving, we need to have the courage of talking about what caused the problem and start posing solutions.
Natural, unpredictable tragedy, or identified structural problem?
In the case of Pedrógão Grande, there was, without a doubt, a complicated combination of elements: dry air and high temperatures combined with storms and strong winds. This has been what originated other fires, with different consequences, though. Therefore, the question is: in which context can those factors of risk become a tragedy like this, unprecedented in the history of Portugal? We do not aim here to name each and all factors, but we need to talk about some of them, to think of the future.
Regarding the structural problem, we know that most of our forests are not original regarding its diversity nor its capacity of climate adaptation, and specifically to this particular combination (like it would be the case of the cork tree, the oak, or the chestnut). It is of public knowledge that monoculture of eucalyptus and pines –prevalent species of the reforestation policy for the central region- is potential fuel for climate conditions favorable to fires.
We also need to say that monoculture is directly linked (specifically in the case of eucalyptus) to the interests of the celluloid industry –one of the most powerful ones in Portugal-, which continue to prevail over the public interest of “healthy” forests. For example, at the beginning of the year, the government signed contracts for $125 million Euros with the Celtejo factories, in Vila Velha de Ródão, and Celbi, in Figueira da Foz, while the one responsible for the Alti Group affirmed that “as part of several myths and demagoguery, the eucalyptus forest is demonized and, with it, the entire creation of wealth that it provides, especially for the rural region. Economic development is not incompatible with the preservation of biodiversity, but quite the opposite.” In the same line, the old Portucel used to threaten that its investment in the country depended on the new eucalyptus law. So it is clear which interests prevail to maintain this culture, disregarding the environmental and forest impact of it.
There is also a problem with the forests maintenance: only 3% is in hands of the State; most of it is divided between private owners and its maintenance is completely inexistent. The systematic destruction of specialized forest services – for instance, the reduction of forest guards among the GNR [National Republican Guard] is part of the essential comprehension of the negligence in regards of our forests –and therefore, 30% of the national territory-, and of the unaccountability of the State.
Also, we need to talk about the conditions to deal with fires in Portugal. Currently, the equipment to deal with fires will be fully prepared only in July. We have a firefighting policy completely separated from the fields and populations that live and work there the whole year, and who are not part of the firefighting system. And then, we have the firemen, many of them volunteers, who bravely fight the fires at that moment, but who lack equipment –and many times even wages- during the rest of the year.
So, without approaching the structural problems, it will not be possible to give a solution to this matter as for to prevent future tragedies.
The “there is no money for prevention” speech
Before the tragedy of Pedrógão Grande, important studies made after 2003 (when many fires took place and thousands of hectares burnt) came to public, with several proposals to fight it. Based on these studies, it was elaborated, back then, a proposal in defense of the forest which was focused on prevention –as we can see, the problems had already been identified-, but the essential measures of the plan were not implemented, instead focusing on the attack to consequences and not in changing the prevention policies to avoid this to happen again.
It is worth to mention that it was during a PS government that the Forest Guards Body was eliminated, in an attempt to diminish the State’s responsibility.
The Minister of Internal Administration, when the plan was proposed, was António Costa, responsible for Civil Protection. The PS government of which he made part had the possibility of implementing a prevention policy to avoid tragedies like this one, but they refused. According to a news in Público [newspaper]: “To implement the entire plan, it would be necessary to invest almost 700 million Euros until 2010. The government’s response was that ‘there is no money’.”
The truth is that “lack of money” is a political choice. With the current government, we clearly see the same policies: to religiously pay the debt, to rescue banks and low the deficit at the expense of reducing public investment –through cut of public services; by not hiring the necessary workforce; by keeping the salaries without raise, and more precarious each time; and, above all, by not making the necessary investments in forests and other structural sectors like health, education, transportation and housing, because “it costs money” and “increases the deficit”. The austerity continues and it affects the forests, the fields, the city and the periphery; it affects, above all, the workers and poor people, which continue to suffer.
It is good to recall that the austerity policy against workers and against the structural interests of the country have short and long term costs. We now see the consequences of the lack of a forestal policy, and in a few years we will see the consequences of the attacks on teachers and public education, or to health workers and the SNS [National Health System], even when it was the public policies for these structural sectors which allowed us to reach the high-quality standard we used to have.
Let’s demand them to take responsibility
Solidarity is not enough. Because we have a left-wing government, many try to avoid the necessary debate on the responsibilities for this tragedy.
Regarding the forests, there is not only structural negligence but a political choice with faces and names. There is a historical responsibility –of decades- of the PS and PSD governments, which systematically refused to face the structural problems of the forests and recurrent fires while capitulating to the interests of the celluloid industry and to the EU demands for cuts in public investments.
Regarding this specific case, we cannot affirm –as the President of the Republic did- that everything went out well and they did everything that was possible when 61 people died and 135 were injured (unprecedented numbers). Most victims died on a street which should have been closed preventively, given the hard atmospherical conditions, already known and foreseen. Why did they not do this? It is not a matter of who’s head will roll, but we need to investigate the case, determine what were the mistakes, and not be afraid of demanding responsibility for a tragedy never seen in the country’s recent history. The Ministry of Internal Administration has to investigate this, as this is the only way we can make justice for the victims.
A change is needed for a tragedy not to happen again!
We cannot help the climate issues and some of its most dramatic circumstances that originate fires. But it is, yes, possible, to have a forestal policy to prevent the fires from reaching catastrophic proportions and have dramatic consequences, in human terms and regarding the sustentability of the country. We need to think what country we want; not only immediately but long term, and what political choices we are willing to make to achieve that. We do not aim to raise a full, complete solution for this matter, but we do consider some things cannot be left aside.
The responsibility on the forests is essentially collective, and, therefore, of the State. Its protection should not be private, individual responsibility. [The State] has to generate conditions to avoid our forests to become a powder keg. To it, it is necessary to break with the corruption of interests by the celluloid industry, which makes us hostages of their profits, ignoring what is strategic for the country. In this regard, it is essential to have a public policy of limitation and restriction of eucalyptus and pines culture.
It is necessary to have a public policy for forests –with investments and specialized workers dedicated to it- for its management, cleaning, and maintenance, which includes the local populations as part of it. It is necessary to make a mapping of the fields, the forests situation, and maintenance, to nationalize all the abandoned or neglected forestal territories to guarantee the application of a public policy for the sector. And this will only be possible if we break with the EU logic of payment of the debt, deficit limits and inclusion of Portugal, in a European division of work, restricted to tourism and services.
It is necessary to demand from the Government to financially support the affected populations as needed, especially the families of the victims – instead of only bringing Civil Solidarity, as it has done so far.
It is necessary for the unions and workers’ organizations to organize solidarity with the affected populations from their workplaces. These organizations, together with social and environmental movements, must promote a great shift of the Portuguese society towards a change, once and for all, of the policy that makes our forests burn.
Lastly, before municipal elections, we need to demand from the candidates a different policy for municipalities too, to prevent and fight fires.
3 – Jornal Público: https://www.publico.pt/2017/06/18/sociedade/noticia/o-que-e-que-falhou-no-sabado-tudo-como-falha-ha-decadas-1776101; see also, by the same author: https://www.publico.pt/2016/08/11/portugal/noticia/uma-decada-perdida-mais-uma-1740952.
5 – According to Henrique Pereira dos Santos, landscape architect: “We do not have a choice to have fires or not. The option is between having the fires as we want, or not. This means: to burn during the winter; to pay shepherds to move the cattle; to make use of the fuel reduction strips and, then, to have a professional firefighting structure for the entire year, which was already involved in the fuel reduction processes and knows where are the tracks to stop the fires.” https://eco.pt/2017/06/18/incendios-o-que-temos-no-territorio-sao-torneiras-do-gas-acesas/
Originally published @ EM LUTA