Galicia, Spain – Joam Evans and his family live in the small village of Froxan in the Galicia Mountains, an autonomous region in northwestern Spain.
To get there, one has to drive uphill through a maze of empty country roads lined with oaks, chestnuts, pines, and a plethora of eucalyptus trees.
Recent weeks have been sweltering as a heat wave swept through southern Europe, but when this reporter traveled to the area, there was drizzle and a thin layer of mist blanketed the landscape.
Evans, dressed in military clothing and heavy boots, greets the volunteers with a smile.
“I think the rain will respect us,” he said in Galician, the local language, overshadowed by gray clouds.
Volunteers come from all over Galicia, which is home to about three million people.
They have signed up to work on the public lands surrounding Frouxane, removing eucalyptus trees and other “invasive” species.
This will make room for native tree species to grow, and they hope will help protect the village from wildfires, a growing concern here.
Despite being the wettest region in Spain, Galicia has been the epicenter of wildfires in recent years; Nearly 40 percent of the country’s fires between 2001 and 2015 broke out here.
Experts cited the increased presence of eucalyptus in the area as one of the reasons.
Originally from Australia, eucalyptus trees, highly flammable, are rapidly expanding across 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 Frouksan, in 2016, a large forest fire spread through eucalyptus canopies on the land around the village.
According to Evans, the only reason the fires did not destroy their homes was because a piece of oak served as a firewall containing the flames. After that, they decided that they needed to do something to protect their village.
In 2017, the community joined forces with a local NGO and issued a call for volunteers, asking for help in removing the eucalyptus tree from their land.
About 20 people attended.
Since then, more than 1,000 people have participated in so-called “eucalyptus brigades” across Galicia, both on public and private lands.
On this August day, volunteers are a diverse group – young and old couples, students, middle-aged adults, retirees. He brings a lot of children and pets with them. Most of them know each other from past events, but there are also newcomers.
Manuel, environmental activist, regular – this is his sixth trip.
He says that every time he goes for walks with his wife, they end up removing eucalyptus from small tracts of land on their paths.
“We came up with a term for this. What we call ‘forest gardening’.”
Until the second half of the 20th century, eucalyptus trees were rare in Galician landscapes. But in the late 1950s, the central government began promoting the cultivation of fast-growing tree species in the region, with the opening of a state-run pulp processing plant.
This happened at a time of urban migration, when many rural areas fled to cities in search of better living conditions.
Eucalyptus cultivation was convenient; The farms need very little maintenance and the trees can be sold after 12 to 15 years of growth.
As farming became less profitable, converting farmland to eucalyptus monoculture was a safe economic investment.
Over the years, the seeds began to expand naturally into nearby plots and forests, displacing native tree species in the wild.
Today, eucalyptus is the most abundant tree in Galicia.
This diffuse presence has a ripple effect on the biodiversity of the region. Because it has evolved in a completely different environment, eucalyptus has few natural interactions with native animal species, said Adolfo Cordero Rivera, an ecologist at the University of Vigo.
Its leaves are not eaten by deer, cows or other native herbivores. The only animals it eats are the eucalyptus weevil, another Australian invasive species, Cordero Rivera said.
This severely limits the biodiversity that eucalyptus plantations can support – which is why they are often called “green deserts”.
A 2019 study found that birds found in eucalyptus plantations in Galicia, compared to native forests, are fewer in number and diversity.
Looking ahead, the landscape is unlikely to change in the short term.
Earlier this year, the Galician government approved a new forest plan for the region to set guidelines for land use over the next 20 years.
The plan aims to reduce the area planted with eucalyptus trees by 5 percent by 2040.
But as for its role in wildfires, the situation is complicated.
Researchers agree that eucalyptus trees burn easily and can reproduce efficiently after a wildfire. But they also cited other major risk factors.
“Forest fires [in Galicia] It is not just related to the presence of eucalyptus. They are also affected by climate change, population dynamics, and a forest management model that is not really effective in regulating land use, said Helena Martinez Cabrera, a researcher at the University of Santiago de Compostela who studies the intersection between eucalyptus plantations and livelihoods. Conditions in Rural Galician.
She explained that the lack of support for people in rural areas makes the area more vulnerable to wildfires, eucalyptus expansion, and the abandonment of traditional land uses, such as farming and farming, from the consequences.
“In fact, if you look at the fires in Galicia, you’ll see that the areas most burned are not the ones with the most eucalyptus trees, but the ones most affected by demographic abandonment.”