Portugal: Forest Fires, Tragedy and Strategic Opportunities

2017 has been a terrible year for Portugal, with numerous forest fires devastating one of Europe's largest forested areas, destrtoying 80 per cent of the historic Pinhal de Leiria, the Pine Forest which provided timber for the carracks which set out to discover the seven seas, the heart of Portugal gone up in flames. A tragedy but an opportunity.

Until the Revolution on April 25, 1974, Portugal was a country known mainly to scholars in history books, a grey eminence straddling the West coast of Spain, practically an Albania in Western Europe, misunderstood, ignored almost; and this despite the fact that five hundred years before Portugal had set out on a course of discoveries and encounters which saw Europeans reaching Japan, India, Indonesia, probably Australia, both sides of Africa and Latin America. Or rather, the Portuguese, while the Spanish concentrated their lot in central and later South-West America.

The former influence of Portugal was largely invisible after decades of stagnant economic autarky under Salazar (the model practised largely in Iberia and Latin America at the time) while Portugal was isolated in a bubble of its own making, the pluri-Continental State stretching from Portugal in Europe, through Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Principe Isles, Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Goa, Damão and Diu in India, East Timor in Indonesia, Macau in China (and at one time Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Malaca in Asia and Brazil in Latin America and a number of other city states and vassal states from Ceuta to Macau, witnessed by three thousand Portuguese fortifications in total).

Today, and in under fifty years, Portugal is on the map and mostly for the right reasons. The tourist routes have discovered a pearl lying off the East coast of the Atlantic with an extremely varied offer of products from the sun, sand, sea package of the beaches to virtually undiscovered swathes of land stretching along deserted coasts, across plains and up into mountains with hospitable villages, singular towns and cities, each with their own culture and gastronomy and folklore. Basically there is something for everyone. Madonna chose to live in Portugal for a good reason.

Apart from the beach, there are golfing holidays, there are walks and hikes, there are cultural tours of museums and galleries, castles, quality hotels, whose 4-star quotation on the market would be five plus anywhere else, an amazing panoply of wines and savouries and cakes/sweets; the Isles of Madeira and Porto Santo, where Christopher Columbus lived (it is claimed by some that he was in fact born in Cuba, Alentejo, south-western Portugal), the central Atlantic archipelago of the Azores, nine islands again with a unique touristic offer, all in a country with one of the highest quality of living and second-to-none public security indices, excellent weather practically the year round and a competent, unobtrusive yet highly professional and very welcoming service industry.

So much so that surveys show that expectations from visitors were by far surpassed upon exit. No doubt since 1974 Portugal has made huge strides in placing itself firmly on the map in a competitive globalized world and the first benchmark achieved was the World Expo in 1998, which opened up a hidden and degraded area of the city, to the East, turning it into an area of reference, a transportation, residential and commercial hub, and from there, the city opened up its waterfront from east to west, stretching for thirty kilometers from Lisbon to the (former) fishing village of Cascais.

The beauty of Lisbon, lying like a mermaid alongside the salty sea which the Portuguese call the tears of so many sailors and their families, is as staggering as it is breath-taking, as the city emerges from sea mists offering thousands of years of history up to its belvederes bedecked with bougainvillea; one can almost hear the cries and shouts of the Phoenicians who discovered the city eight centuries before Christ and baptized it Alis Ubo, or Safe Port (from there, Olisippo, or Iulia Felicitas Olisippo, the full Roman name), mingling with stories and laughter and tears of joy and despair shed by pre-Roman tribes, then mingling with Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Vikings, Moors, Crusaders, Africans, Indians, Latin Americans. Some say it was Atlantis.

Recently, the tourists have discovered that Portugal is not only Lisbon and countryside and the number of city breaks to the city of Oporto in the north, to the University city of Coimbra in the centre, the Peninsula of Setúbal below Lisbon and elsewhere from north to south, from the coast to the hinterland, scores of tour operators work day and night filling hospitality places to near-full capacity the year round.

It is not by chance that Portugal is "in"

With this sustainable offer, and it is not by chance that these days Portugal is in fashion, it would be easy to state that the country is riding the crest of a wave. In the cities, it is but there is another Portugal, which most tourists, or even Portuguese, do not see. It is the old folk living in the countryside hundreds of kilometers away from Lisbon, in an isolated village, eking out a living on a miserable pension looking after a few sheep and goats and tending chickens and rabbits to put food on the table, going out to the orchard and kitchen garden at all hours and in all weathers. While their grandchildren party in Lisbon in wine bars or the new flashy gin and tonic venues, their Portugal is dying and being burnt alive. These noble and long-suffering people are being incinerated as they hurry to save their hens and roosters and pigs and bring them to safety, then get cut off by flames and have nowhere to run.

As year after year forest fires devastate the interior of the country, with them villages and memories are destroyed and lost forever, and already semi-deserted spaces become empty, hollow and void. This, the Portugal which grew the timber to make the ships which took heroes to the four corners of the Earth, is prostrate, defeated beyond tears and moribund. Today most of it is a smouldering pile of ashes, soot and dust and this year alone has claimed around one hundred lives lost in the panic of fleeing a raging inferno, so powerful that it races through forests faster than a fire vehicle can drive, spraying incandescent materials flying for kilometers around, starting multiple foci of flames, fanned by the tremendous fire-winds which these monsters create. For the viewer on SKY News, "Ooh, wow! A fire devil!" For those on the ground, the Devil incarnate which takes all away, destroying a lifetime of work and a family in thirty seconds

The Portuguese have been speaking about fires for decades, how terrible they are, something must be done, so many lives lost. Another year, another tragedy. Two years without fires. All is forgotten. Then another bad year. Then a wet Summer. Memory is a fickle thing. Then suddenly, the monster rears up and appears again, like in 2017, with one of the driest summers on record creating tinder-dry conditions which are easily ignited by a stupid schoolboy with a lighter, a drunken troglodite with a can of gasoline, a flash of dry lightning, a cigarette tossed from a car on an untendered stretch of forest by the roadside or into a pile of dead leaves and pine needles waiting like fuel in the middle of a forest, more probably composed these days by fast-burning and foreign eucalyptus trees than by the auctoctonous species.

This is at the same time a tragedy and an opportunity. It is an opportunity not only to get something done, finally but also for some strategic and long-term planning, something the Portuguese are capable of when they want to, but something which is easily swept under the carpet of political opportunities as governments and political colors change, then plans head for the shredding machine, to be replaced by studies financing consulting groups staffed by cousins and brothers and wives and concubines, which in turn head for the shredder or meet a derisory sneer from a Minister who should know better, but does not.

Protecting the heritage and respecting the past

It is unacceptable to think that the country which divided the world in half at the Treaty of Tordesillas, which controlled the trading routes from the West coast of Brazil, around Western Europe, Western Africa, the Cape, Eastern Africa, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, round Arabia, round Persia, round India, round China all the way to Japan and Australia and who knows where else, is incapable of protecting the trees and lives which made this possible.

With António Costa, whether or not one wears his political colors, Portugal has a Prime Minister for once with some emotional intelligence; with the broad agreement of the political Left, (Socialists, Communists, Greens, Left Block and PAN - People. Animals and Nature), Portugal has a platform to rise above the sickening and nauseating political bickering which holds the country back and the hard-working people down, or else forces them to move away and a President (Marcelo Rebelo de Souza) enjoying a wide public acceptance and acting like a President and behaving like an executive rather than a failed party political animal, Portugal has the political climate to make something happen.

Not only solving the problem of forest fires, because a fire in a forest is a constant factor and is going to happen, but to reduce the dangers and incidence and human and material damage, turning the forests into a sustainable source of revenue - why not launch forestry tourism? - and now the ball is rolling, use the new wave of long-term strategic thinking and surf it to other areas of activity. For this, the executive departments have to become divorced from political paymasters. This is Portugal's main challenge today.


Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey


Twitter: @TimothyBHinchey

[email protected]


*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications, TV stations and media groups printed, aired and distributed in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe Isles; the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications. He has spent the last two decades in humanitarian projects, connecting communities, working to document and catalog disappearing languages, cultures, traditions, working to network with the LGBT communities helping to set up shelters for abused or frightened victims and as Media Partner with UN Women, working to foster the UN Women project to fight against gender violence and to strive for an end to sexism, racism and homophobia. A Vegan, he is also a Media Partner of Humane Society International, fighting for animal rights. He is Director and Chief Editor of the Portuguese version of Pravda.Ru.

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=185058


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey