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Environment : On Iberian Peninsula, a Protest Grows Over Trees : Eucalyptus trees to be exact. Farmers say groves of them are a threat to their lifestyle and are pulling them out of the ground.

December 04, 1990|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LISBON — Huge man-made forests of fast-growing eucalyptus trees, blue-green strangers from Australia and Tasmania, are changing the face of the Iberian Peninsula. It is good business, but not everybody thinks it is a good idea.

In remote, often backward villages of Portugal and Spain, new forests that promise profit also challenge history. They threaten folkways and homespun lifestyles that have endured for centuries. In Iberia, the eucalyptus awakens great passion.

The 300 inhabitants of Tazones, a Spanish village on the Bay of Biscay, revolted against eucalyptus. By night they crept into the surrounding countryside and uprooted thousands of seedlings planted the day before. The same thing happened in the Asturian village of Luarca.

Near the town of Valpacos in northern Portugal, 2,000 farmers battled police to destroy intruder eucalyptus in what had been an olive grove. In another Portuguese village, farmers chained themselves to tractors to stop land from being cleared for eucalyptus.

In Iberia, where eucalyptus for paper pulp is an increasingly important cash crop, farmers are joined in their opposition by environmentalists and leftist political parties. They say it is ruinous to the environment, and to the fabric of rural society, turning farm towns into ghost towns. The eucalyptus is nicknamed the "fascist" or "capitalist" tree in Portugal for the wealth it supposedly brings land owners and industrialists at the expense of peasants and their land.

Iberia's furor over a tree is testimony to a continental reality muted amid West Europe's avid rush to integrate: The majority may benefit but a minority will suffer.

"Many of our peasants are poor and ignorant. They don't know they can get together and have some say. Then the cellulose company comes in, full of money and pressures, and they sell out," said Carlota Lagoa, a director of Portugal's League for the Protection of Nature.

Between 2 million and 3 million acres of eucalyptus are now growing in Iberia, with most plantations sown in postwar decades. It grows well, but in tumult.

"There's a lot of hostility, Spain worse than Portugal, but it's the same as in every country where eucalyptus has been planted as a plantation crop. Everywhere, people rise up against it at first," acknowledged Richard Howson Jr., the American chairman of Caima, one of four cellulose companies in Portugal that build clean, efficient and profitable eucalyptus forests for the paper pulp they produce.

In Portugal, an environmentalist group called Quercus, which has organized protests against eucalyptus, argues that large-scale planting of a single, fast-growing genus dries up water sources, causes soil erosion, ruins the beauty of the landscape, destroys wildlife and drives peasants from the land.

"Portugal has an archaic agriculture that uses a lot of manpower. The spread of the eucalyptus plantations makes men idle and forces them to migrate to other regions," said Armando de Carvalho, vice president of Quercus.

In Spain, where environmentalists complain that eucalyptus is crowding out indigenous forests of native oak and beech in Galicia and La Coruna, ecologists say that traditional rural lifestyles, while not as profitable, provide more employment. By one study, an Iberian olive grove requires 199 worker-days per hectare (2.47 acres) to maintain each year, vineyards 128 worker-days and a eucalyptus plantation four worker-days.

Landowners are usually receptive to eucalyptus, but farmers hate to see land worked by their forefathers surrendered to a big company's quiet trees. Shepherds don't like to lose pastureland. Towns even resent the departure of sunshine from once-open land now still and forest-shaded. Eucalyptus forests are clean, and they are dull. Oil in the tree discourages bugs, which means fewer birds. There is no undergrowth in a managed forest, and little wildlife.

The introduction of a eucalyptus species will cause the landscape to change within five years, notes Lars Kardell, a Swedish professor of environmental forestry. "The people of Portugal have seen their olive plantations and vineyards replaced with 20-meter high, blue-green eucalyptus plantations, and it is easy to understand their criticism."

Producers, which include government cellulose companies in both Spain and Portugal, say their forests do not damage the environment but instead promise a bright future for rural areas with indifferent soils that have been bypassed by Europe's unprecedented prosperity.

"The problems come from remote and backward areas where the people have low levels of knowledge and low levels of income and from ecologists--who tend to be city people," said Jorge Casquilho, director of planning and studies for Portugal's National Forest Service.

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