Rooting for a greener and more fireproof Portugal

GEOTA has already planted 1 million native trees – and now they need your help to plant 2 million more.

Portugal is a hot topic. This beautiful country holds some impressive records for things like long bridges, cork production and sunny days. But, sadly, it’s not always in the news for such positive reasons. Since 2010, the nation has tragically endured the burning of more than 1.5 million hectares of land, making it the most fire-affected country in Europe during the 21st century. Indeed, anybody living in the Algarve surely remembers August 2018, when Europe’s most destructive fire engulfed the Serra de Monchique.

Serra Monchique

From the ashes

Since 2019, a non-governmental environmental organisation called GEOTA (Group for the Study and Planning of Territory and Environment) has been on the ground ‘planting back better’. Through their Renature project, they have successfully planted a total of 1 million native trees in the Serra de Monchique, the Natural Park of Serra da Estrela, and the National Forest of Leiria.

GEOTA aims to not only reforest the burned areas but to simultaneously support the local communities and increase forest resilience to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

How can we prevent fire?

Well, it all comes down to what we plant. Around 98% of the forest affected is private or communally owned, and there is a financial incentive for local landowners and farmers to plant fast-growing trees that aren’t native to the country.

Eucalyptus, for example, comes from Australia and can be grown quickly. It is used in the construction industry and to make paper. Although perfectly fine here and there, it tends to outcompete its local neighbours for resources. These kinds of monocultures are highly flammable, and their leaves blowing in the wind help spread fire.

Bringing back the natives

It turns out that a certain kind of protective magic happens when the plants that are supposed to live here are given the opportunity to grow happily and harmoniously together. This is due to a variety of reasons:

More moisture: Native trees and plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions, which means they are better at retaining moisture. This can create a more humid microclimate within the ecosystem, making it less prone to drying out and igniting.

Can’t see the wood for the trees: Native vegetation tends to grow in diverse and dense formations, creating natural barriers that can help slow the spread of fire. Bushy bushes can prevent flames from reaching the tree canopy, where fires can become more intense and difficult to control.

Forged in fire: Many native tree and plant species have evolved adaptations to survive and even thrive in fire-prone environments. Species like oak trees – all wrapped up in their cork jackets – are extremely fire-resistant. Other species may have specialised growth patterns or chemical compositions that make them less flammable.

Soil stop: Native plants contribute to soil health by adding organic matter, improving soil structure, and enhancing water retention. Healthy soil can act as a natural firebreak, slowing the spread of flames and reducing the intensity of wildfires.

Basically, when native trees and plants grow together in symbiosis, they create a resilient ecosystem that is better equipped to withstand forest fires and recover faster from them.

Meet the locals

Throughout the various projects, GEOTA have been planting a mix of local trees, including carvalhos (oaks), sobreiros (cork oaks) and castanheiros (chestnut trees) and medronheiros (strawberry trees).

There’s been a special effort to replant the majestic carvalho-de-Monchique (Monchique oak), a tree emblematic only to the Serra de Monchique region and the Rio Mira basin. According to the Red List of Vascular Flora of Continental Portugal, it has sadly become critically endangered.

In Leiria, a city in central Portugal quite close to the coast, a pine forest – the Pinhal de Leiria – was famously planted by King Dom Dinis in the 13th century. It did not only serve to protect the king’s castle from sandstorms but also served as a barrier against the advance and degradation of the dunes.

There have been many fires over the centuries, not to mention the famous cyclone that hit Portugal in 1941, but nothing was ever as bad as the huge fire that tragically burnt down an estimated 80% of the pine forest in 2017.

To help bring the king’s pine forest back, GEOTA has been replanting the pinheiro bravo (maritime pine) and the pinheiro manso (stone pine).

Nature’s guardians

More magic happens when nature’s symbiotic miracles are supported by people – working happily and harmoniously together, too. GEOTA has been devoted to connecting communities in that same spirit.

Throughout the Renature projects, about 700 landowners are already being supported in an intervention area of 3,000 hectares. And, to help boost the economy of the regions where the Renature projects are being carried out, the team of around 50 people are all sourced locally – as well as all the materials and plants used. 

How can you help?

To continue the work started in 2019, GEOTA has set the goal of planting another 2 million trees by 2027. To do this, they are asking you to please dig as deep as you can, as your donation will help ensure that the first 250,000 trees get into the ground and start growing as soon as possible.


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