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Fighting forest fires with cork in Portugal

WWF is restoring areas in Portugual destroyed by forest fires by planting fire-resistant cork oak trees.

Lisbon, Portugal – WWF, together with the Reforestation Commision in Algarve, launched the first initiative to fight large-scale forest fires in Portugal.

Through restoring burnt areas and implementing appropriate forest and land management, the initiative aims to support both biodiversity conservation and economic development in the region. Following two consecutive summers of devastating fires in the country and a particularly dry summer season expected this year, there is an urgency to act quickly. 

“It is the first time in Portugal that such an initiative is being implemented to tackle the dramatic destruction of thousands of hectares of forests by fires," said Luís Neves Silva, a project coordinator in Portugal. 

"We hope this project will help reverse the accelerated loss of biodiversity and economic resources in Algarve.” 
Known as the Cansino project, the initiative will focus on Monchique, a key area in the Algarve which was badly hit by fires in the last two years. With more than 70,000ha burnt, this was the biggest surface ever destroyed by fires in Portugal. 

The cork oak forests of Monchique, as well as nearby Caldeirao, cover more than 40,000ha. While Caldeirao still has extensive cork oak forests, in Monchique, the natural landscape has almost disappeared due to agriculture, expansion of eucalyptus plantations, and fires in the last few years.

Monchique's remaining natural cork oak forests are the richest in Portugal, providing habitats for the endangered Iberian lynx, Bonelli eagle, as well as many endemic plant species. The Monchique forests also contribute to the country’s economy, through the exploitation of eucalyptus, cork oak forest products, and ecotourism. 

The Cansino project involves restoring the burnt areas and re-designing forest landscapes in order to make them more resistant to fires. Cork oak trees will play a key role as they are naturally resistant to fires. Patches of natural cork oak trees will be planted in key eucalyptus plantations as barriers against fires.

The project will be implemented over a 4,000ha zone within the next three years. In the longer term, WWF aims to plant more cork oak as well as other tree and shrub species in order to restore the natural cork oak landscapes in the region. 

“Key to the success of the Cansino project is participation by everyone, from forest and plantation owners, to local authorities," said José Rosendo, engineer at the Reforestation Commision in Algarve.

"The project is a unique opportunity for developing solutions for nature, people and the economy.” 


• According to the European Forest Fires Information System, the 2003 heat wave in Europe saw over 25,000 fires, with burnt forest area totalling 647,069ha. More than half of this area was in Portugal, making it the worst forest fire season the country has faced in the last 23 years. Portugal estimated the financial cost of the 2003 fires exceeded €1 billion. 
• In the Monchique and Caldeirao mountains of Portugal – among the ten forest hotspots in the region identified by WWF – forest fires have destroyed the habitats of the Iberian lynx, the Bonelli eagle, and many endemic plant species. 

• Every year, the Mediterranean region is struck by more than 50,000 fires which burn up to 800,000ha of forests. Ninety-five per cent of the fires are deliberate or lit accidentally by people. However, a WWF study on forest fires in Spain shows that only 1 per cent of offenders are prosecuted for criminal offenses.  
• According to WWF, large-scale forest fires throughout the Mediterranean have increased dramatically during the last few decades, due mainly to development, land conversion, rural mismanagement, and overexploitation of natural resources. In addition, climate change is provoking longer summer droughts and extreme weather events such as periods of high temperatures, very dry air, and strong winds, along with sudden storms with heavy rainfall.  
• WWF launched a 5-year cork oak landscapes programme in July 2004 to protect, manage, and restore the natural wealth of cork oak landscapes by influencing the policies, practices and markets that affect them. WWF’s programme addresses key challenges by promoting sustainable markets, improving governance, changing policy, building capacity at local, national and international levels, and demonstrating solutions through field projects. The programme will first focus on Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. 

For further information: 
Chantal Ménard, Communications Officer
WWF Mediterranean Programme Office
Tel: +39 06 844 97 417
E-mail: cmenard@wwfmedpo.org