Portugal’s Wildfires: A Result of the Timber Industry

June 22, 2017: For Immediate Release From The Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees

Wildfires in Portugal have been called “the worst such disaster in recent history.” Dozens of people burnt to death in their cars while trying to escape the inferno.

But this horrific tragedy was human-made. One-quarter of Portugal’s forested landscape (more than 812,000 hectares or 2 million acres) has been replaced by non-native eucalyptus plantations.  On top of that are expansive pine plantations.

Oliver Munnion, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch, lives in Portugal’s wildfire zone. “We spent last night in a local school after some 30 villages were evacuated in our area. News reports say that a quarter of the municipality has burned. We’ve been lucky so far and still have our home, but many others have lost so much.

“It’s time to face up to the reality that Portugal’s vast eucalyptus and pine plantations, and the corruption and profiteering that comes with them, are the main reason that the country burns, every year. Coupled with the impacts of climate change, bringing hotter temperatures and drought, our area stands little chance. And the summer has only just begun,” he added.

Photo by Orin Langelle

Just like wildfires that devastated parts of Chile in January—the worst in their history—the fires in Portugal were the result of a reckless and poorly regulated timber industry, as well as international policies that mislabel industrial tree plantations as “forests.” [1]

“In the fires in both Chile and Portugal, the culprit was industry lobby for state subsidies for timber plantations,” stated Felipe Grez of OLCA in Chile. “Flammable, water-sucking eucalyptus plantations have been expanding all over the landscape thanks to these dangerous state subsidy schemes, which in Chile came about under Pinochet. Plantations reach right up to the edge of roads and towns making fire disaster unavoidable. We not only condemn this blatant disregard for life, but also industry’s future desire to use genetically engineered trees–which will make these problems even worse.” [2]

The Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees [3] warns that a new threat is emerging from genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus plantations.  GE eucalyptus are being developed to grow faster, resist toxic herbicides and/or tolerate freezing temperatures.  These traits would exacerbate the impacts of eucalyptus plantations and spread them to new regions currently too cold for eucalyptus to grow.

GE eucalyptus were approved in Brazil in 2015 and now the US Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement that recommends approval of the large-scale release of GE eucalyptus plantations across the U.S. South.

“Both of these tragedies in Chile and Portugal should sound the alarm regarding plans for genetically engineered eucalyptus plantations in the Southeast U.S.,” added Anne Petermann, Executive Director of U.S. based Global Justice Ecology Project and International Coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. “This region already suffers from repeated droughts due to climate change.  The proposed development of one million acres of flammable, invasive, water-draining GE eucalyptus plantations in this region is a clear recipe for wildfire disaster.”

 

CONTACTS

Tess Ipolito, Media Coordinator, Campaign to STOP GE Trees, tess@globaljusticeecology.org +1.716.867.4080(mobile) +1.716.931.5833 (office)

Oliver Munnion, Co-Director, Biofuelwatch (Portugal) oli@biofuelwatch.org.uk +351 963235732

Skype: olivermunnion [English, Portuguese]

Felipe Grez, OLCA (Observatorio LatinoAmericano de Conflictos Ambientales) (Chile) felipe@olca.cl +56.9.7140.6617 skype: fgrezm [English, Spanish]

Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project; International Coordinator, Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees
anne@globaljusticeecology.org phone: +1.716.931.5833 / Mobile: +1.716.364.1188 skype: annepetermann [English]

 

NOTES

[1] The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sets the legal international definition of forests.  This vague definition (Land with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10 percent and area of more than 0.5 hectares (ha). The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of 5 meters (m) at maturity in situ.) enables the destruction of forests and their replacement by tree monocultures.  Yet this is not considered to be deforestation even though all the biodiversity is gone.

There is a global petition demanding the UN Food and Agriculture Organization change its definition of forests to exclude tree plantations.  The petition has over 130,000 signers, yet the FAO refuses to take any action.

[2] In March 2017 OLCA (Observatorio LatinoAmericano de Conflictos Ambientales) organized a delegation of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees to examine the impacts of industrial tree plantations in Chile, including tours of the wildfire-burned region.  They also spoke with local organizations, community members and Mapuche representatives about these impacts and about the predicted impacts of using genetically engineered eucalyptus or pine plantations in the future.  Earlier this month, OLCA helped organize protests and counter-events against the International Union of Forest Research Organization’s (IUFRO) Tree Biotechnology Conferennce in Concepcion, heart of the wildfire region.

[3] The Campaign to STOP GE Trees is a global coalition of organizations and networks dedicated to protecting forests, biodiversity and forest dependent communities through the global rejection of all genetically engineered trees.   It includes geneticists, foresters, ecologists, biologists, plant scientists, Indigenous Peoples and other experts on the impacts of monoculture timber plantations. These experts have been working on the problem of GE trees and monoculture timber plantations for decades.

Organizations in the Campaign include Biofuelwatch (U.S. and UK), Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Field Liberation Movement (Belgium), Friends of the Earth Melbourne (Australia), GE Free New Zealand, Global Justice Ecology Project (U.S.), Indigenous Environmental Network (North America), OLCA: Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales (Chile), and World Rainforest Movement (Brazil and Uruguay).  Geneticist Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher of EcoNexus and the Federation of German Scientists is the scientific advisor to the Campaign.

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