Fire censuses: deserts of people, seas of flames

Demographic disease infects the landscape

Photo: Rui Bento | Sul Informação

Still barely redone in Castro Marim, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António, and thousands of burned hectares, we see the shock and the losses due to the fires in the Algarve return, in a new episode, through the fire that, again in Monchique – where already this year it was – climb its foothills to the north, coming from Savóia.

This authentic telenovela, like so many others, lives on a well-worn plot and bad performances. However, it seems to continue to surprise a lot of people.

Looking back on what happened in Sotavento, just a few days ago, warnings about the favorable conditions that the torrid heat created were launched, more than celebrated, and the deflagration zone was perfectly identified as one of the most dangerous (understanding the concept here as the product of probability of occurrence and susceptibility) and the most carefully monitored, in the context of the Municipal Plan for the Defense of Forest Against Fires of Castro Marim.

When the flame was lit, the fire followed the course dictated by the strong wind that was felt, fueled with plenty of fuel and packed with convenient air temperature and humidity, spreading to neighboring counties. And, very importantly, with little and hardly anyone to hinder your progress.

It was then time for reality to do what it always insists on doing, which is to impose itself on the fiction of plans and theories.

That fire, having the particularity of having already loomed large after being considered dominated, still gives rise to a scorching aftermath, in the endless discussion about what was the combat, its organization, lack of it, scarcity or abundance of resources, commitment and assistance to the populations , among many other aspects of the specialty.

However, these dramas that are repeated annually (sometimes, as in 2017, with catastrophic consequences – more than a hundred dead, for those who may, with lightness, have forgotten or want to erase from memory), are less and less stories of fire, and more landscape stories. And of people, because people and landscape are inseparable.

And, specifically, of landscapes in growing imbalance, precisely because of the lack of people.

The appearance of fire is practically inevitable, for a variety of reasons, whether criminal, accidental or otherwise. We live under the influence of the Mediterranean climate and plant material grows with particular strength and continuity. Add to that the adaptations of the vegetation that covers areas like these – the rockrose, for example, from the labdanum (leaf gum) to the integument of most of its seeds – and we find a close relationship with fire. The conditions for the progression of this fire are what dictates the subsequent dynamics.

In the context of our landscapes, it is inescapable that, without people present, there is no management and, in this way, the conditions are created, by accumulation and continuity of fuel and simplification of the landscape mosaic, to flood the seas of flames like the one we've seen, and that will populate many people's nightmares for a long time.

And the substrate does not matter. The vegetation cover of the Serra de Monchique and the Alta Mora area represent completely different worlds, but they share destiny.
What then is the link between these realities? The 2021 Census explains, even if only through its provisional data.

Looking at the municipality of Castro Marim, we see that it is very representative of the Algarve reality, in terms of the emptying of the “interior”, despite the relativity of this concept in the Algarve, where the maximum distance to the coast is measured in half a hundred kilometers and, as António Pereira said, the sea is always at the end of the street.

According to provisional data from the last censuses, the total population of this municipality decreased, in round numbers, by around 5%, compared to 2011. If, to have a more comprehensive idea of ​​the dynamics, we look back to the 60s of the last century, the loss would grow to 36%. In the last decade, in the parish of Castro Marim, there was a centesimal increase, but in the rest, population decline is the rule, culminating in 25% (!) of the parish of Odeleite, where the fire started. In this parish, the population density is currently 4 inhabitants/km2, and in Azinhal, immediately to the south, it is 7. Even if we do not consider the population concentration in built-up areas, the dispersion (and resilience) of the occupation is clear.

If we add age to the quantity, we find that in 2011 (for 2021 the information is not yet available, but let us assume, optimistically, that the scenario at least remains), 27% of the population of Castro Marim was 65 years old or more – when, again, in the 1960s, this age group corresponded to 10%.
Monchique has lost 10% of its population in the last decade. In relation to 1960, it lost 63%. In 2011, 32% of its population was over 65 (11% in the 60s of the last century).

A look at traditionally rural activities, such as agriculture and livestock, which occupy people and make the landscape more dynamic, tells us just that.
Since the entry into the 40st century, in Castro Marim there has been a reduction in the herd of cattle by an average of 75% (according to data taken from the National Institute of Statistics), reaching XNUMX% (pigs), accompanied by an almost total disappearance cereal and horticultural crops – even if these have never been particularly significant.

In Monchique, there is the same very significant reduction process in areas occupied by crops associated with food for the population, such as olive groves, pulses, grain, beans, corn, rye and wheat. Also in terms of livestock, there are tremendous reductions in the number of heads, with pig farming being the notable exception.

And, transversally, a reduction in accessibility to services of general interest (health, compulsory education, employment and training, social housing, nurseries, long-term care, social assistance services, public transport, security, justice, energy, communications, etc. .). The minimum services of dignity, if you will.

These patterns may not necessarily translate into a causal link. But neither can they be ignored in reflection. Because, dehumanized and aged, these landscapes witness the progression of processes of social and economic depression.

Demographic disease thus affects the landscape and, for most reasons, competitiveness, territorial cohesion or, as in this case, risk management. And we are treating this chronic disease with aspirin and anti-inflammatory drugs, which end up resulting in very expensive placebos, which we pay not only with money, but also with a future.

The deep revolution in the landscape that the independent technical commissions diagnosed as fundamental, in the wake of the tragedy of the 2017 fires, never advanced – perhaps they should, provocatively, have proposed the reactivation of the Junta de Colonização Interna. Too laborious, costly, unappealing – if not contrary – to the dominant interests, the idea was left to separate measures, that the Landscape Transformation Program is an example, without any framework in an integrated approach to the problem of spatial planning and development .

We will thus continue to draw up “forest” plans (even where there is no forest or similar) or of another sectoral nature, detached from a process of revitalization of rural landscapes that manages to reverse the abandonment trends, revealing Portuguese territorial cohesion as a mythological creature that survives very badly outside the role of strategies, plans and speeches.

It is here that it is important to have a very wide collective debate, to clarify what we want, after all.

If we are willing to accept things as they are, it will be unavoidable to internalize a certain conformity with the recurrent sacrifice of vast portions of the territory, which we assume lost to great fires and other phenomena that are beyond our control. On the other hand, if we want to demand new solutions to try different results, we have to mobilize and commit, collectively, as everyone, directly or indirectly, ends up being of concern to everyone.

This reflection, in search of the best model of reconciliation between landscape, population and economy is a project for the future, complex, shared, shared, of large investments in things that seem small (such as ecosystem services, which do not fill the eye or leaflets campaign), full of things we don't know and others we don't even know how to ignore, mistakes to make, and over generations. As such, be wary of anyone who claims to have “silver ammunition”, which you carry in any bazooka.

None of the choices that lie ahead are easy. But they are increasingly urgent.


Author Gonçalo Gomes is a landscape architect, president of the Algarve Regional Section of the Portuguese Association of Landscape Architects (APAP).
(and writes according to the old Spelling Agreement)