Galicia, Spain- Joam Evans and his family live in Froxan, a small village in the mountains of Galicia in the autonomous region of northwest Spain.

In order to get there, people must drive through a maze of empty country roads lined with oak, chestnut, pine and a large number of eucalyptus trees.

Due to the heat wave sweeping southern Europe, it has been very hot in recent weeks, but when the reporter went to the area, it was drizzling and a thin layer of mist enveloped the entire landscape.

Wearing military uniform and heavy boots, Evans smiled to receive volunteers.

“I think the rain will respect us,” he said in the local language, Galician, with a gray cloud above his head.

Volunteers come from all over Galicia, where there are about 3 million people.

They have contracted to work on public land around Froxan to remove eucalyptus and other “invasive” species.

This will make room for the growth of local tree species, and they hope to help protect the village from wildfires, which is a growing concern here.

Despite being the wettest region in Spain, Galicia has become a wildfire hotspot in recent years. Between 2001 and 2015, nearly 40% of the country’s fires occurred here.

Experts pointed out that the increase in the number of eucalyptus in this area is one of the reasons.

Eucalyptus is native to Australia and is highly flammable. It is rapidly expanding in Galicia.

The area covered by eucalyptus jumped from 28,000 hectares (69,190 acres) in 1973 to more than 300,000 hectares (741,300 acres) in 2018—more than tenfold in 45 years.

In 2016, in Froxan, a fire spread to the canopy of eucalyptus trees on the land surrounding the village.

A man is trying to put out a forest fire in Arbo, Galicia, northwestern Spain, on August 11, 2016 [File: Miguel Vidal/Reuters]

According to Evans, the only reason the fire did not destroy their houses was that an oak forest acted as a firewall, including the flames. After this, they decide what they need to do to protect their village.

In 2017, the community teamed up with a local NGO to appeal to volunteers for help to remove eucalyptus from their land.

About 20 people showed up.

Since then, more than 1,000 people have participated in the so-called “de-eucalyptus trip” on public and private lands in Galicia.

In this August day, volunteers are a diverse group-young and old couples, students, middle-aged people and retirees. Many people bring children and pets. Most people have met from previous activities, but there are also newcomers.

Manuel, a volunteer, plucked the bark from the sapling of an invading acacia tree [Ignacio Amigo/Al Jazeera]

Environmental activist Manuel is a frequent visitor-this is his sixth trip.

He said that every time he and his wife went hiking, they would eventually remove the eucalyptus from the small plot of land on the trail.

“We even developed a term for this. We call it’forest gardening’,” he joked.

Controversial species

Until the second half of the 20th century, eucalyptus trees were rare in the Galician landscape. But in the late 1950s, the central government began to promote the planting of fast-growing tree species in the area and opened a state-owned pulp processing plant.

This happened during the urban migration period, when many people fled from the countryside to the cities in search of better living conditions.

Planting eucalyptus is very convenient; the plantation requires little care and the trees can be sold after 12 to 15 years of growth.

As agricultural profits decline, it is a safe economic investment to convert agricultural land to eucalyptus monoculture.

Over the years, seeds have naturally spread to nearby plots and forests, replacing local tree species in the wild.

Today, eucalyptus is the most abundant tree in Galicia.

This ubiquity has a knock-on effect on the biodiversity of the region. Adolfo Cordero Rivera, an ecologist at the University of Vigo, said that eucalyptus has evolved in a completely different environment and has little natural interaction with local animal species.

“Their leaves are not eaten by deer, cattle or other local herbivores. The only animal that eats them is the eucalyptus weevil, another Australian invasive species,” said Cordero-Rivera.

This severely limits the biodiversity that eucalyptus plantations can support-which is why they are often referred to as “green deserts.”

A 2019 study found that compared with native forests, the number and diversity of birds in Galician eucalyptus plantations is lower.

Looking ahead, the situation is unlikely to change in the short term.

Earlier this year, the Galician government approved a new forest plan in the area to develop land use guidelines for the next 20 years.

The plan aims to reduce the planting area of ​​eucalyptus by 5% by 2040.

But as for their role in wildfires, the situation is complicated.

Researchers agree that eucalyptus is easy to burn and can effectively re-germinate after wildfires. But they also noticed other key risk factors.

“Forest fire [in Galicia] It is not only related to the existence of eucalyptus. They are also affected by climate change, population dynamics and inefficient forest governance models in regulating land use,” says Helena Martinez-Car, a researcher at the University of Santiago de Compostela who studies the intersection between eucalyptus plantations and life. Brera speaks of the conditions in the rural areas of Galicia.

She explained that the lack of support for people in rural areas has made the area more vulnerable to wildfires. The expansion of eucalyptus and the abandonment of traditional land uses such as agriculture and farming are the consequences.

“In fact, if you look at the fires in Galicia, you will find that the area that burns the most is not the area with the most eucalyptus, but the area most affected by population abandonment.”


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