Spain Burns: The Price of Austerity (Videos)
Spain, stuck in a recession and with almost a quarter of its workforce unemployed, has experienced some of its worst forest fires in almost twenty years this summer with 24,710 acres of land left blackened. Cuts to rural firefighters are being blamed for a number of deaths and for the loss of forest landscapes.
As the Guardian notes, “several wet years, followed by a dry winter and hot summer” have created “perfect wildfire conditions.” But also bearing a huge part of the blame are “official negligence, rural population flight and disappearing herds of sheep and goats.”
Robert Rubio, a forester, ecologist and professional firefighter from Andilla, 12 miles from Alcublas in Valencia, tells the Guardian that only a tenth of the usual number of temporary local summer firefighters were hired this year (officials claim otherwise). Other regional governments, in northeastern Catalonia and northwestern Galicia, are spending 20 percent less than two years ago.
Even more, decades of people leaving the countryside and restrictions on using public land have meant that populations of sheep and goats that once kept grass and underbrush in check have dwindled. Rafa Casaña, a member of an Alcublas conservation group, says that there are now only 300 sheep and goats in the hills in his region; in the 1920s, there were 30,000. All told, 28 percent of Spain’s sheep and goats — seven million — have disappeared in just the past four years.
In July, a French man with disabilities, Pascal Couton, and his 14-year-old daughter, Océane, died when they tried to jump into the sea, where scores of people had fled to escape fires consuming a cliff-top road in Girona, in northeastern Spain. A rural firefighter and a forestry agent lost their lives earlier this month in fires in Torremanzanas, in southeastern Valencia.
This video shows the fires in Girona and another in Portbou that left three dead, many wounded and thousands of acres burnt.
The fires have been burning in the Canary Islands, as seen here on the island of Tenerife. A local official has called the wildfires on the island of La Gomera an “ecological disaster.” About 5,000 people were evacuated from the island whose unique woodland ecosystem is thought to be millions of years old. Some 1,853 acres, about 25 percent of the Garajonay nature reserve (a Unesco World Heritage site) have been destroyed in the fires fire. The area measures about 750 hectares (1,853 acres).
Fires in the mountains have meant that the sound of helicopters has been constant in the Tenerife mountains, as shown in this video from earlier in August.
High winds and “tinder-dry vegetation” only fueled the flames, says the BBC, and Morocco has sent helicopters to help fight blaze.
Ecologist Rubio is seeking to reintroduce sheep flocks. Shepherds, whose numbers have certainly declined, once played an important role in sighting wildfires. Rubio says that the “economic crisis helped us persuade four men to start flocks and go back to shepherding, and we even have a 19-year-old shepherd.” He also says that selling firewood has been a way to pay for cleaning up the forest.
Such measures won’t be the answer to Spain’s economic crisis but such sustainable solutions (and ones that can provide some employment) seem a step out of the ashes and devastation towards a hopeful direction.
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Photo by Mataparda