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Spotlight on: The Greater Côa Valley, where nature restoration is reinvigorating Portugal's fire-prone, depopulated interior

Spotlight on: The Greater Côa Valley, where nature restoration is reinvigorating Portugal's fire-prone, depopulated interior Jacob Dykes
13 Sep
2021
In Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley, rural abandonment has taken root, and a hotbed of organic fuel for wildfires has emerged on ungrazed lands. An alternative model for land-use is emerging – one that looks to harness the region’s natural heritage, to create more resilient landscapes capable of luring back the absent young

Storm clouds menace overhead, distant thunderclaps billowing. Each minute, the skies awaken with lightning. As the vehicle races through the granite theatre of Portugal’s Côa Valley, an ebon cloak of charred lands starts to stretch over the ridge beyond the village of Pinhel – the remains of a wildfire that tore through the area just weeks ago. Stepping from the vehicle, charred soils crunch underfoot, as the scent of cindered scrub hits the nose. A lone mare, lucky in its escape, traipses through blackened bush, its silhouette outlined in ash.

‘You can see how close the flames came to these olive plantations,’ says Miguel Pontes, fire surveillance monitor at Rewilding Portugal. His boots rake against the debris as he parts gnarled branches that reach up from the ground. ‘This is the old way of doing things – just burn the land to keep it clear.’ Each day, Pontes sets out into the valley, scouring the ridges for plumes of smoke – often, the marks of deliberate landscape fires ignited to clear saplings and scrubs. ‘When I first came across this fire, I found three red-legged partridge chicks, their feathers burned, looking completely lost.’

Miguel Pontes Portrait spottedMiguel Pontes, Fire Surveillance Monitor at Rewilding Portugal, in a recently burned area. Image: Jacob Dykes

With the storm brewing, Pedro Prata, project leader at Rewilding Portugal, has reason to be nervous: he grew up on farmland in the Serra da Estrela Mountains during the 80s. In the shadow of the Carnation Revolution, people regularly ignited fires to clear pasturelands, and Prata would spend summers in fear of the fires that would inevitably come. In the face of modern social and environmental change, wildfire-prone conditions have swept through Portugal’s interior. Across the Côa Valley, 20 per cent has burned in the last decade; in one area, Val de Madeira, landscape-scale fires come every 2.7 years – far higher than the natural background rate.

The Greater Côa Valley is a 300,000 hectare expanse in northern Portugal, scored by the Côa River, which breaks off from the Douro in the north, arcing southward through sun-scorched valleys and sierras. The region’s story is an example of how years of social change and problematic environmental policies can blend with the modern pressures of climate change, leaving people in need of alternative approaches to land-use.

Modern wildfires are becoming more frequent across the world with rising temperatures, but in the Côa Valley, outsized fires rise from social and political embers. Portuguese wildfires are tied to the asymmetry in opportunities between rural lands and urban centres. Beginning in the 1960s, Portugal experienced waves of migration away from rural regions and into cities, both home and away. Between 2011 and 2014, when the nation underwent an international bailout during the EU’s debt crisis, around 50,000 people a year left the country – many of them from the younger demographics. Unemployment climbed to a peak of 17.6 per cent, and the welfare net was stretched to breaking point, leaving more than 40 per cent of under 25s out of work.

‘Rural life was hard, that’s what we need to be conscious about,’ says political and social scientist, Maria Almeida. ‘When young people had the chance, they left to go abroad or to the big cities.’

Many abandoned agriculture. With lands unused, fire-prone vegetation rose up. ‘Amidst economic hardship, farming has become less favourable for the young,’ says Prata. ‘That has left a lot of pastureland without grazing. We’re seeing so much bush and scrub come up. If someone starts a fire here, the land just lights up.’

Burned landscape Pinhel spotted

As the land rover presses down the valley’s dirt roads, dilapidated farmhouses enter view, schist walls crumbling onto parched soils. Terraced croplands of almonds and olives have grown thick and unharvested. In northern Portugal today, 74 per cent of active farms are managed by people over the age of 55, and results from the General Agricultural Census show that, during the peak of rural exodus, agricultural holdings in rural Portugal dropped by 27 per cent within a decade.

Fires are also an unintended consequence of a mass reforestation programme, initiated to stimulate the timber and resin industries. In the 1960s, the Portuguese government attempted to reforest 320,000 hectares of rural landscape. As dense monocultures grew, so did exports of resin and paper, and eucalyptus now accounts for 57 per cent of Portuguese timber exports. But the sector’s growth, unwittingly, came with a price: plantations of pine and eucalyptus – species evolved to disperse with fire – are prone to burning. ‘They are not even indigenous to the region,’ says Almeida. ‘With the monocultures, the fires are bigger and uncontrolled. We see now that it was not the best choice of species.’

Plantations themselves are susceptible, but many also believe that the reforestation project helped to push shepherds and pastoralists off grazing lands; over the ages, that pressure mixed with the depopulation issue, which left areas around monoculture plantations bereft of domestic herbivores. In result, the seeds of planted eucalyptus and pine dispersed, rising up on abandoned tenures to extend a carpet of fire-prone vegetation.

Twisting through the valley, dense patches of artificial forest adorns the hills. At the roadside, burned tree trunks lay splintered and charred – scars of Portugal’s worst wildfires in recent memory, which claimed 106 lives in 2017. ‘Local municipalities were supposed to clear the areas near roads, but they didn’t because the population was too sparse to even apply the political pressure to do it,’ says Almeida. ‘“Clearance is expensive, so why should we spend money if there’s no one there?” is a question that often comes up.’. Today, frustration with the government’s response to fire-risk has prompted many local people to attempt their own control initiatives through risky burns that can spread rapidly.

Crossing the Côa river, a lone eucalyptus tree – just meters from the road – straddles a thin line between blackened soils and intact grasslands. Its leaves lay deckled, half scorched by the heat that welled from beneath.

 

Burned euc spottedA eucalyptus tree, half-scorched by a recent wildfire. The fire-prone species, originally non-native to Portugal, has expanded its range as grazing land has become depopulated. A lack of grazing pressure from both wild and domestic herbivores has helped to extend a carpet of fire-prone vegetation. Image: Jacob Dykes

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A NATURAL ALTERNATIVE

Despite its challenges, the Côa Valley is a place of rich history, where wild, granite-walled valleys trace the Côa’s southward journey; where griffon vultures soar like satellites overhead; where cork and holm oaks rise from terracotta soils; and though persecuted, where fragmented wolf populations still range. Rewilding Portugal believe that this sense of wildness is the Côa Valley’s greatest asset, and that when the ecosystem functions at-scale, natural processes can be the answer to land abandonment and the fire-prone conditions that have followed.

Working with NGOs Associação Transumância e Natureza (ATN) and Zoo Logical, University of Aveiro and Rewilding Europe, they aim to create a 120,000 hectare corridor for Iberian wildlife, where vegetation is stuttered by natural fire breaks that are engineered by herbivores. Their strategy: to purchase abandoned and marginal lands that abut existing Natura 2000 areas, with private and public funds from the Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP). They are reinstalling grazing to the ecosystem – not with livestock this time, but with controlled releases of wild and semi-wild herbivores – which will create a patchwork of fire-resistant vegetational structures.

Their approach, they say, can help to restore some of the natural processes that are currently missing from the Côa Valley, which would have once been the passageway for migrating ibex, red and roe deer, as well as larger populations of Iberian wolf and lynx. With the agriculture contracting, they see a perfect opportunity to vivify the land’s capacity to self-regulate. In turn, they say, fire management can become less reliant on local governments – who are often too underfunded to mount an effective response – and regulated more naturally by the interplays between fauna and flora. And through conservation, Rewilding Portugal believe that wildlife comeback can help to lure international tourists to a region where economic depression has taken root.

RETURN OF THE GARDENERS

‘People often say that fires are a natural function of the ecosystem – yes, but not when the ecosystem is missing crucial functions. “Where are the herbivores?”; “where are the natural forests?”; these are questions I often think about when I hear that,’ says Prata. Wild horses, ibex, red and roe deer once roamed throughout the diverse forests and grasslands of the Iberian Peninsula. Over the centuries, their populations became fragmented due to hunting pressure and habitat encroachment from intensified agriculture.

Since many of those agricultural regions now lay abandoned, Rewilding Portugal and local NGOs are seizing the opportunity to restore wildlife and natural processes. The Faia Brava reserve is the model from which a lacework of protected areas is now emerging. Since 2006, around 45 wild Garrano horses and herds of tauros have been released into the 1000-hectare protected area.

Crossing the Côa River into Faia Brava, the herbivores start to leave their marks on the vegetation – subtle to the untrained eye, but obvious to ecologists. Field biologist at ATN, João Neves adjusts the brim of his hat, and kneels down to inspect the ground. ‘These are wild hare droppings – that’s a promising sign. Here is tauros, and this is from the wild horses. All this dung is effectively the nutrients and biomass that would otherwise have been burned through expensive and risky control operations. Grazers deliberately snap and break younger trees to create more open conditions – like gardeners, managing their landscape,’ he says. ‘They disperse seeds in their movement, and their trampling creates niches for insects; dung beetles come in and spread the dung to fertilise the soils so that the vegetation can diversify. In the absence of grazers, none of these processes are able to take place.’

Joao portrait spottedField biologist at ATN, João Neves, explains that herbivores play a critical role in recycling nutrients through the ecosystem. Their work on the landscape diversifies the vegetation structure, allowing a rich seed-bank of more resilient species to develop. Working with Rewilding Portugal, ATN and other local and academic partners have embarked on a rewilding project to restore the natural processes to Portugal's Côa Valley. Image: Jacob Dykes

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Faia Brava bears early signs of their transformative role. Grasslands stretch out before stands of more diverse scrub and trees; young cork oaks, wild pistachio, and junipers rise up from mossy soils, many of their branches twisted and gnarled by hungry mouths.

Before the advent of monoculture plantations, intensive agriculture and habitat loss, this feedback between herbivores, vegetation and all the agents in-between, would have happened at larger scales across the Côa Valley. ‘If you have grazing back, you are not cutting or burning the scrub, bushes and young trees; their nutrients are being recycled back naturally into the land,’ says Prata.

‘The native forests that were historically in northern Portugal – the chestnuts, holm and cork oaks, crabtrees – they were all naturally more resistant to fire,’ says Almeida. Many of these Portuguese natives evolved thicker cambiums – the growth-giving section of the trunk – that act as fire retardants. However these species arise only in the later stages of vegetational succession, largely dependent on the diversifying role of grazing herbivores. ‘We have to remember that vegetation and herbivores evolved together,’ says Neves.

The approach of reuniting them therefore serves a dual purpose: to diversify the vegetation toward the later fire-resistant stages, while creating functional habitat for a more diverse suite of species. ‘All of these processes take time. Purchasing land for conservation is a way to buy that time, and to set these natural processes in motion,’ says Prata.

Since the early days, the method’s reach has expanded. In May 2021, a herd of Sorraia horses was released into Vale Carapito, and Rewilding Portugal are working to be part of a reintroduction programme of roe deer and ibex in the coming years. As more of the Côa Valley’s vegetation is regulated by released herbivores, Rewilding Portugal believe that currently fragmented wild populations will again use the corridor, contributing to the landscape’s management.

HELPING THE ECOSYSTEM TO HELP ITSELF

Collaborating with Universidade de Aveiro and the Instituto Superior Técnico of Lisbon, a team of biologists are now sedulously observing how the ecosystem responds to herbivores. They are monitoring vegetation structure, soil composition, pollinator levels, populations of species that form the prey base for Bonelli’s eagle, Spanish Imperial eagle and Iberian lynx, and the most divisive of all – the Iberian wolf.

As the sepia light of afternoon strokes its way across the distant mountains, my binoculars train on them, hoping to spy the silhouette of the Iberian wolf. ‘You know none of us have ever even seen one, right?’ says Prata. ‘I heard one as a child, but that’s it.’

With my enthusiasm dampened, Prata explains that in the 19th and 20th centuries, the chances of a wolf sighting would have been much higher. But in the modern day, habitat loss, poaching and infrastructure creates barriers to wolf movement. The last census showed that there are just nine wolf packs south of the Douro river – 14 per cent of the total Portuguese wolf population. Problematically, they have little presence in Natura 2000 protected areas, meaning they often encounter human settlements.

The LIFE WolFlux project, funded by the EU’s LIFE programme and coordinated by Rewilding Portugal, aims to promote the conditions for connectivity between wolf populations north and south of the Douro. Success hinges on two factors: expanding the prey base within the corridor, and reducing conflict with humans.

The former is the more ecological challenge. According to one 2012 study conducted in a region nearby in northwestern Spain, an improved availability of wild prey – red deer, roe deer and ibex – can drastically reduce wolf appetites for livestock. ‘The key to all of this is the habitat,’ says Prata. ‘If we improve the vegetation in the corridor, more prey will migrate – then you start to see the ecosystem function as it should, with natural fire frequencies, predation, scavenging, herbivory, and hopefully, less damage to livestock.’

The second challenge is social. As prey numbers declined with pastureland expansions and hunting, domestic livestock became a surrogate. At the peak of attacks on livestock, there were 149 incidents across the Côa Valley within a single year. In 2012, one wolf pack arrived to Almeida, either from the Spanish side of the Systema Central or from the Western Portuguese packs. They were the first to settle in the area in 27 years. Government payments to local farmers for wolf-related damages were insufficient, sometimes taking years to arrive. Locals did not feel that the government were bringing adequate solutions to coexistence. After 5 years, wolf numbers dropped, with locals saying that many had been killed to prevent further livestock damage.

Modern compensation mechanisms are a vital tool for coexistence, but they are often slack and creatively exploited, say those working with Rewilding Portugal. If they are to be effective, schemes should complement traditions of coexistence. ‘Although wolves have always been here in the Côa Valley, their reduction in numbers south of the Douro has meant that the old ways of living with them have been buried,’ says Sara Aliácar, conservation officer at Rewilding Portugal.

Miguels Montado spottedMiguel Galán, traditional Montados farmer, and recipient of one of Rewilding Portugal's Serra da Estrela mountain dogs. His dog will help to guard his cattle herd from wolves migrating through, and possibly establishing in, the local area. Image: Jacob Dykes

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To resurface them, Rewilding Portugal have initiated a programme that gives livestock owners guard dogs from the traditional breed, the Serra da Estrela mountain dog. Studies show that they are a surprisingly effective deterrent for would-be attacks: During one 2004–2008 study of farmers south of the Douro, 50 per cent of those with livestock guarding dogs went without an attack during the four year period. As part of the LIFE WolFlux project, more than 370 livestock breeders in the Greater Côa Valley have been given almost 650 dogs of national breeds. Silvia Ribeiro, who oversees the guard dog program, says: 'the use of quality, properly, bred livestock guarding dogs can be very useful to achieve coexistence with the wolf, as it allows for a reduction on the wolf's impact on cattle.' 

We arrive to the property of one recipient of Rewilding Portugal’s programme, Miguel Galán, who operates a traditional Montados farm, where cattle graze an Arcadian pasture of almond and olive trees. ‘We are yet to experience an attack,’ says Miguel, but his brow furrows, fearful of the prospect. This year, wolf attacks were confirmed on neighbouring farms to the west and north of Miguel’s property. He gazes out across the Spanish border, to the mountains of the Systema Central beyond, where wolves disperse into Portugal’s Côa Valley. His dog bounds over, but halts halfway, stuttered by an instinct to stay with the herd.

Miguels Montado Scene 1On Miguel Galán's Montados farmland, his livestock guarding dog Antonia watches over the herd. When wolves pass through the area, Antonia will be there to defend the herd. Image: Jacob Dykes

A NEW LAND-USE SYSTEM

Yellow sunrays stir the region awake the next morning, as the land rover carves down snaking roads on the Côa Valley’s shoulders. Although vast tracts of agricultural lands have been abandoned, this area brims with neat, terraced monocultures of quince plantations. ‘All this began after the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was revised in 2018,’ says Prata, a sea of ordered zig-zags flashing past the land rover’s windows. ‘You can see how far these monocultures extend.’

The Portuguese Rural Development Programme (RDP) – an arm of the CAP that aims to increase the contribution of rural regions to the economy – allows farmers to access agricultural incentives worth 8 billion euros. One objective of subsidies, outlined in 2020, is to ‘support sectors at risk of abandonment or with no cultivation alternatives’. Farmers are eligible to receive up to €900 per hectare per year in subsidies for fruit trees, like quince. ‘They need support, but here the use of the CAP is not really an agricultural policy; it’s a social one, designed to keep people economically active on the land’ says Prata. ‘And it has huge implications for how the entire landscape is used.’

Almeida has a similar opinion. ‘The government wants to bring economic results to the rural interior. That equates to high export numbers and intensive production, so agriculture is financially stimulated.’

View of the Coa Valley spottedThe Côa Valley landscape is a patchwork of subsidy-driven agricultural tenures, many of which now lay abandoned. Like the blackened ridge to the right, wildfires can easily tear through monocultures and abandoned tenures. Image: Jacob Dykes

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However, Rewilding Portugal’s enterprise officer, Daniel Veríssimo, says ‘subsidies create dependencies.’ He believes that farmers often pivot their crops to those that draw the highest handouts. ‘Every time the music of the CAP changes, so does the dance of rural communities.’ Amidst economic depression, many remaining farmers have extended monoculture plantations to drive subsidy income – often onto marginal lands. This, say Rewilding Portugal, is a short term solution – one that offers farmers little autonomy, while encroaching on marginal space that could otherwise contribute to the health of the local environment.

‘Rural Portugal is in dire need of support and investment. But we’ve seen some creative uses of the CAP subsidies in the Côa Valley,’ says Veríssimo. There has recently been a balloon in the number of companies registered in the region. Good news on the surface, but digging down, Veríssimo’s research has shown that, to increase subsidy income, many farmers split their land into different registered companies, often with three or four registered companies representing just one farming unit. ‘Around 80 per cent of these companies are pretty much dependent on their subsidies,’ he says. ‘It’s no long-term route from economic depression.’

Such issues might lend credence to the hackneyed oversimplification in the rewilding debate, which pits rewilders against farmers. Here at least, it is not the farming traditions that are being critiqued by conservationists, but the political mechanisms designed to keep them economically productive, which impact vast tracts of land on which the ecosystem’s health depends. Here, dense monocultures of forests, and handouts to farmers for intensifying agriculture have reduced the space available for natural processes to influence the land, limiting its capacity to self-regulate. ‘Our vision is about creating a longer-term land-use strategy than the short-sighted approaches of central governments in the past: one that benefits local people and nature alike over a longer period of time,’ says Prata. They believe that a mosaiced landscape with space for nature, for traditional small-scale agriculture and domestic grazing, will serve a broader base of people.

One suggestion to help tilt farmers away from intensification is for ecosystem services like water retention and carbon sequestration to be subsidised within the CAP. Almeida has heard governments speak of payments for ecosystem services, but for now, she believes words come cheaper than action: ‘It’s been spoken about lots, but governments have failed to implement the idea so far.’ Still, many are embracing Rewilding Portugal’s vision for revived landscapes, and believe it is only a matter of time before rural land-use strategies are significantly altered in the face of the EU’s ambitious climate targets, which will require landscapes of higher carbon-storage potential.

Social scientists say such an impetus could increase the political power of rural spaces – which have long been subjected to an imbalance of opportunity and investment. The poverty gap between rural and urban areas in Portugal has been continually widening, and as Almeida’s research shows, half of public expense goes to Lisbon’s Metropolitan Area, where residents possess double the purchasing power of the rest of Portugal. ‘Rural depopulation has weakened interior territories’ social, economic and political significance,’ Almeida believes.

In the face of such inequality and political neglect, many are calling for rural spaces to adopt a new purpose that fulfils government’s ambitions for climatic and environmental restoration. Environmental economics researcher Stanzi Litjens of Lund University, calculates that across just 36,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the Côa Valley, the creation of mosaiced grasslands and scrub through natural grazing could bring 90,000 carbon credits to market per year, valued at €2.1 million annually. Allowing local landowners to break into the voluntary carbon market could provide farmers with a greener alternative to subsidy-driven intensification.

Many believe that a new environmental purpose can be crucial in repopulating abandoned rural regions with young blood. According to EUROSTAT, the median age in Portugal’s northern rural interior is rising: it was 43.8 years in 2016, but rose to 45.7 in 2020. ‘Population decline requires a reconversion of rural space,’ write Portuguese social scientists Tamara Lorente and José Braga in the 2020 book Social problems in southern Europe.

Yet, despite calls for such land-use reform, opposition persists. Targeting marginal, abandoned lands is complicated – for one, Portugal’s land registry system was only officiated in 1954 and is irregularly updated. Debates over who owns what are often subjective, and land interest from conservationists can unearth truculent voices claiming ownership. ‘Most of the time they have little use for the land, but simply mistrust modern conservation,’ says Prata. ‘Often these people aren’t even local, but they think we’re jeopardising their chances of getting subsidies in the future.’

As many are embracing Rewilding Portugal’s vision of wildlife coexistence, an undercurrent of resistance has followed, highlighting the cultural challenges ahead. Some farmers have planted rumours that the NGO is clandestinely releasing wolves into the Côa Valley – pernicious hearsay that Aliácar says represents ‘the modern disconnection with the old ways of sharing the land with nature’.

Catarina Rosa, a conservationist working on a separate project in northern Portugal, believes that we’re at an inflection point in the environmental crisis, where such intransigence to share space with nature will eventually be supplanted by a more environmentally friendly young generation. ‘Grandparents who had tough lives in rural areas have transmitted that to their children,’ she says. ‘That has historically propagated the mentality that these are just places of hardship. But now there is a cultural shift – it’s taken many generations, but it’s starting.’

A younger, nature-based economy in the Côa Valley is already burgeoning: Star Camp, Casa da Cisterna, Wildlife Portugal and Miles Away are all new nature-based tourism businesses started by Côa Valley locals. The European Safari Company operates popular tours in the Côa Valley, bringing in flush tourists and therefore a customer-base for new types of businesses. Local enterprise is being lifted by Rewilding Europe Capital (REC) – a financing mechanism for nature-based enterprises, which is part-funded by the European Investment Bank (EIB). EIB have already approved a €6 million loan to Rewilding Europe Capital, which has helped enterprises like Casa da Cisterna to get off the ground.

However, the challenge will be to demonstrate that the model can be effective at-scale, and to unstitch dependencies on agricultural subsidies. As Almeida believes, there are other urgent problems that will need to be resolved to see the rural uplift that Rewilding Portugal envisage: ‘The dialogue has focused on tourism being the saviour, but there needs to be broader government investment: stable industries of locally produced materials, basic communications infrastructure; schools – if tourism ramps up, there needs to be a parallel investment into basic services, and that’s political.’

Castelo rodrigo 1The traditional architecture of Castelo Rodrigo offers a beautiful roost for nature-loving tourists. Rewilding Portugal are helping to launch ecotourism businesses across the Côa Valley; Casa da Cisterna, a traditional hotel run by an ex-ecologist, is already luring tourists to an area with growing populations of keystone species. Image: Jacob Dykes

DAMMING OF THE COA

Back on the road and travelling south into the valley from Foz da Coa, Prata points across to a concrete line that juts like a scar across the gorge. ‘You see the dam’s foundations there? That’s how close we came to losing this whole landscape,’ he says.

Contemporary land-use debates would have been settled long ago if the proposed construction of the Côa dam had gone ahead in 1995. Were it not for the discovery of a string of paleolithic engravings, and the activism of locals that followed, the dam would have stopped the Côa’s natural flow, and the reservoir would have flooded the valley. While the archaeological history carried the bulk of political influence, Prata believes that what was really saved was an ancient, linear record of the valley’s natural history; a symbolic connection to the land and the nature that sustains it. ‘The people achieved something wonderful by connecting with this environment’s heritage,’ says Prata. ‘Look at what could have been.’ Some say the Côa dam saga highlights a choice made long ago: that the region’s natural heritage is not to be overwritten. Prata believes that same natural heritage can be called upon to enhance a region in need of revitalisation. To him, the scars of the dam, etched halfway into the landscape, mark a line between two possible futures.

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