Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles: This interview is 14 years old but could have been given today

original article in portuguese: https://visao.sapo.pt/actualidade/portugal/2017-06-20-Goncalo-Ribeiro-Telles-Esta-entrevista-tem-14-anos-mas-podia-ter-sido-dada-hoje by ALEXANDRA CORREIA


In the first 15 days of August 2003, about 300,000 hectares were burned in our country. The strong fires of Oleiros, Sertã and Aljezur made the headlines of the newspapers (and of VISÃO) and the themes are always the same: the forest of eucalyptus and pines, the failures of civil protection, the lack of working conditions of our firefighters. Fourteen years have passed and we continue to talk about it. So this interview that we did at the time Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles, landscape architect and “father” of the Portuguese ecologism, did not lose a moment of actuality. It is worth re-reading his words and realizing that we have learned nothing from History, we have no lessons from our mistakes, continuing year after year in the permissiveness of the celebration of the eucalyptus.

VISAO: What are the causes of this calamity?

GONÇALO RIBEIRO TELLES: The great cause is a bad planning of the territory, that is to say, the extensive afforestation with pine and eucalyptus, from wood to celluloses and to the civil construction. The problem was a bad idea for the country, that Portugal is a forest country. The idea was raised that, taking 12% of fertile soils, everything else has only economic possibilities in terms of industrial forest stands.

V: Where does this idea come from?

GRT: It’s an old idea that began in the 1930s with the destruction, also by an extensive forest, of the mountain communities of Northern Portugal, which had their economy based on livestock. The difficulties involved in agriculture led to the transformation of large areas of the country to 36% in industrial forests. This campaign transformed forestry, which was the basic profession, into a forestry profession, to respond to major economic interests. There was yet another campaign, the one of the wheat, in which the Country was organized in function of this culture, that was based on the myth of the independence of Portugal in bread. Besides the land for wheat, everything else in a system of economistic agriculture has to be forest, wood production. The result is in sight.

V: We became a forest country.

GRT: The Romans divided the territory into three areas, besides the city: ager, which was the intensely cultivated field; the saltus, the pasture, the less intensive agriculture; and the silva, the wood-producing forest and protection. All this ordering has been transformed, the silviculture has ceased and the forest worship has begun, which we do not have. If we go to the field to ask where the forest is, they only know the Red Capuchin, because what they have in their land are woods, bushes, etc. In the 19th century, the pine tree came to respond to the needs of the railroad that was in launch. Later comes the resin, the wood industry and cellulose. What is worse is that the country has become uninhabited territory and, given the Mediterranean characteristics, it burns with dry thunderstorms.

V: How should the territory be reordered?

GRT: The Country is completely messed up. On the one hand, an agricultural policy that does not consider the Mediterranean mosaic, with agriculture, livestock, irrigation and horticulture, bushes, woods, a mosaic interconnected and ordered. In Mação, for example, the population traditionally lived in agriculture in the valleys and in the ships.

And in the mountains there were the grasses grazed by the goats, by the cattle. From the matos, the honey, the aguardente of medronho, the hunting and the aromatics were removed. 
France, in the bush areas, has a policy of aromatic supplies to the perfume industry. The question today is to create a forest that produces wood, but that integrates in agro-systems, a sustainable, multipurpose landscape and never repeat, as they already want, the planting of eucalyptus and pinewood. The populations are tired of this and should be called to testify. And there have to be two fundamental ecological intentions: the circulation of water and the circulation of organic matter, taking advantage of it to improve the capacities of water retention of the soil.

V: Excessive division of territory (in half a million owners) makes forest cleanings difficult?

GRT: Clearing the forest is a myth. What is cleansed in the forest, organic matter? And what is done to organic matter, lying down, burning? Before it was with this matter that was maintaining the agriculture in good conditions and improving the quality of the soils. And, at the same time, sufficient quantity was kept in the forest for a greater water retention capacity.

With thorough cleaning we have transformed the forest into a mirror and the water runs faster and less is retained in the forest, so the room is drier.

V: If the woods were very clean did they burn in the same?

GRT: They burned in the same and the capacity of retention of the water did not give, there was a torrential system. Cleaning has to be understood as an agricultural operation. But this monocultural forest of resinous and eucalyptus trees, clean or not clean, is for nothing more than to burn. That forest lives not to have people. If there were more people there that would not burn like that.

V: Defends a forest with what kind of woods?

GRT: Pulpwood is difficult because we now have strong competition in the rest of the world. The eucalyptus, to be more profitable, could only be in the Minho, where it rains more than 800 ml a year. Eucalyptus needs a lot of water and Portugal can not compete with Brazil and Africa in terms of cost. Only if we transform the Minho into a eucalyptus. You can choose the quality woods of the Mediterranean culture like all oaks, cork oak, holm oak and pine trees carefully distributed.

V: They are not so profitable …

GRT: The oak, for example, accompanies a whole range of yields such as cork, livestock, honey, aromatic, hunting.

V: Is there a limited view of what can be profitable in the forest?

GRT: It’s very good for celluloses and very bad for the people and for the Country, which is devastated. The rural world was considered obsolete, as anything that will disappear. Look at the nonsense that was the policy of diminishing assets in agriculture. It contributed to the increase of the suburbs, the slums, the emigration. Did you bring anything better for the province? No. Just a big deal for cellulosics and for loggers.

V: Are populations alerted to this multiplicity of cultures?

GRT: Fully alerted; who do not seem to be politicians and technicians. Because they got lost in a forest of “numbers.” Who knows the statistics says that we are the third country in Europe in absolute number of tractors, only surpassed by Germany and France. We are a country of tracto res because the subsidies give for this, because it interests the importation of this whole machinery. The people were led to investments, in the name of progress, which had no rationality.

V: If we increase the agricultural areas, do we have farmers to handle them?

GRT: We have. They are diverted, they were convinced that they were labregos. There was a whole politics of desprestígio of the rural world being based on the idea that it was inferior to the urban world. We emptied the fields and these people came to the city. Today, he faces unemployment. They have forgotten that the man of the future will increasingly be the man of the two cultures, urban and rural. Today, 30% of people who practice economic agriculture in Europe are not farmers. It’s people who live in the city, have their office there and have a homestead in the countryside where they go on weekends. Urban expansion increases and we can not live without agriculture, otherwise we starve.

V: What can the State do, since 84% of our forest is in the hands of the owners?

GRT: You can make integrated landscape planning plans. The state does not totally dominate the urban expansion when it wants, does not make general plans of urbanization? One should not be able to plant what one wants because one can not build what one wants. It builds badly because sometimes the state falls asleep. There are no general plans for landscape planning, which the current legislation does not contemplate, although it has already instituted the Municipal Ecological Structure through Decree-Law 380/99. The Basic Law of the Environment has the concepts and principles for a landscape planning plan, everything is written there, but they have never been regulated.

V: Does current legislation favor monocultures?

GRT: It favors the so-called “modernization” of agriculture is a scandal of incompetence. The universities of Agronomy in Portugal had a period of great intellectual vigor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now, they seem to have surrendered to economism.

V: Should the state support with subsidies and tax benefits?

GRT: Absolutely. The owner has a rope in his throat, he does whatever he can to give him money for the year. Therefore, limits and standards must be established for systems, not for cultures, but without taking people the freedom to take risks.

V: And promote forest associationism, as in Spain, for example?

GRT: We have made good progress with the forging “urban communities”, small metropolitan areas of parishes and villages, I think very well. We are in a Mediterranean culture and we can not translate the development into economic units of large volume production of two or three products. It is the polyvalence, the multiplicity of products and the harmony of the landscape that results in the possibility of having a population installed in conditions of dignity.

These communities must synthesize all interests. Because when we begin to highlight interests by sector, the systemic vision disappears and the interests of the community pass to companies that cross their borders and compromise the sustainability of the region.

I do not believe that there is an agricultural sector and a forestry sector, for me it is exactly the same: agriculture completes the forest and the forest completes agriculture.

V: The Socialist Party has once again referred to regionalization as the most effective way of ordering the territory. Do you agree?

GRT: I defended a regionalization for a long time, which gave rise to a document that the big parties made a lot of mockery. It divided the country into about 30 natural regions, areas of orderly landscape, which were already organized historically and geographically. 
They are the lands of Basto, the lands of Santa Maria, the lands of Sousa, Bord’água do Tejo, etc. The country is this and it is nothing else. This regionalization could contribute to the implementation of landscape planning plans, with a democratic participation of the respective populations.

V: The Government agreed late for the calamity of the fires?

GRT: What could the Government do? Evil comes from afar. But I’m not sure if you’re going down the right path now. They are already saying that they want to reforest everything as it was. I’m horrified when I hear that. It means they want to go back to the pines and the eucalyptus trees. Ask the victims of the fires that were left without the houses if they want pine trees again at the door. They destroyed the gardens … Why do the houses burn? Because the pine tree is in the yard.

V: Looking to the future, can fires provide an opportunity to reorganize the territory?

GRT: Also the earthquake allowed Manuel da Maia, at the command of the Marquis of Pombal, to make the Baixa Lisbon. I do not want an earthquake, but do not miss this opportunity. The future of the country and its cultural identity and independence is concerned.

(Interview published in VISION 545, August 14, 2003)

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