Spain prepares for forest fires as beef farmers battle red tape

By | March 2, 2024

By David Latona and Vincent West

OVIEDO, Spain (Reuters) – Across Europe, farmers have blocked roads, burned tires and dumped manure in protest against a host of pressures that threaten their livelihoods and way of life. In the province of Asturias, Spain, authorities are preparing for worse.

Last spring, nearly 300 wildfires erupted across highways in an unprecedented blaze, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents and reaching the outskirts of the regional capital Oviedo. Authorities blamed many of the fires on farmers.

Decades-old grievances over government interference with traditional farming methods are combining with climate change to create tinderbox conditions, authorities say.

The regional government, prosecutors and environmental groups say some ranchers deliberately set last year’s fires to free up cheap grazing land – fires that have grown out of control due to exceptionally warm, dry conditions. The farmers deny this.

Four unnamed people have been arrested and 31 are under investigation for the alleged arson, police said.

Alejandro Calvo, head of the fire prevention and extinguishing department in Asturias, told Reuters that the region has increased its budget to prevent and extinguish forest fires by almost 20%, to 70 million euros ($75.7 million), and more firefighters and has hired forest rangers to provide 24-hour surveillance systems.

According to authorities, the cause of the problem lies in farmers’ age-old practice of deliberately burning bushes. The chestnut-colored cattle that roam the mountains and valleys of Asturias date back to the Iron Age. Their grass-fed meat is prized by gourmets, and their free-range meat is prized over intensively raised meat.

If left unchecked, vegetation grows chaotically across grasslands, limiting access for cows, which cannot digest woody or thorny plants. A carefully timed fire can clear the area, generate new areas of pasture and deter predators.

But bureaucracy and warmer weather have changed that story. Since 2004, a permit has been required by law to carry out controlled burns: to obtain one, you must provide, among other things, a detailed plan, a topographic map of the area and documents proving land ownership.

And Calvo says the region has seen a consolidated rise in average temperatures of two degrees over the past decade – part of a wider trend across Spain confirmed by the meteorological office – making traditional burning more dangerous.

“There is… a clear link between areas where there is more livestock farming and the incidence of fires,” Calvo told Reuters in an interview.

On the other side of the argument, Jose Ramon Garcia, head of the farmers’ union UCA, blames the authorities.

“They always try to blame the ranchers, saying we do it to generate pastures and that’s a lie,” says Garcia, better known in Asturias as Pachon, the nickname he inherited from his father.

He said the regional leadership is not managing flammable brush well enough, meaning most major fires have natural causes. Intentional actions cause limited harm, he argued.

“We have so much undergrowth that every lightning strike causes large fires that threaten people and destroy everything in their wake,” says Garcia, 59.

He himself was convicted by a local court in 2016 of illegally starting a fire that destroyed 38 hectares, which he denies. The Spanish Supreme Court overturned his prison sentence on appeal, but upheld the conviction.

According to the latest official data from the Spanish Ministry of the Environment, events such as lightning are the cause of fewer than five in every hundred fires in the region. This data shows that almost eight in ten fires in Asturias are deliberately set.

DEPOPULATION

Fire chief Calvo, 49, knows the old methods of firefighting from experience. As the son of a ranching family who grew up in the area, he said he would see farmers setting fires to combat overgrowth. He remembers how, as a child, he helped collect ferns to reduce risks, and how he helped put out the fires himself.

But now, he says, as more young people move to the cities, there aren’t enough people in the region to clear brush or keep an eye on fires as they start to smolder. Instead, his department conducts public awareness campaigns about the dangers of intentional burning.

“We are trying to make people understand that this is not acceptable, that it can be a crime and therefore must be prosecuted,” Calvo said in his office in Oviedo.

In Asturias, controlled burning of up to 10 hectares per day is only allowed during the day, when wind speed is low and at least one regional official is present, until no smoke is visible for two hours.

Months after last year’s fires, a group of elderly residents sitting on a bench in the town of Navelgas said they had never seen anything like it.

“I was driving down the road with smoke coming up from both sides and I just wanted to cry,” said one man, who declined to give his name.

Navelgas was a center of gold mining in Roman times. The gold is long gone, livestock farming is its mainstay, and the population is only 720. Last August, Spain’s National Institute of Statistics counted the settlements in the country where only one person lived and found that most were in the mountainous northwest, including 337. in Asturias.

The region’s economic frustrations date back to Spain’s accession to the European Community in 1986, which led to a rapid adjustment away from a primarily agricultural society.

Agriculture now contributes just over 1% to the region’s economy. In 2000, this sector employed less than 6.5% of the population and has fallen significantly, according to regional government data.

EU subsidies including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) helped soften the effects, but a European Union survey in October 2023 found the bloc’s small farmers are struggling to finance their operations through banks.

It found that the unmet financial needs of farmers across the EU have almost doubled since 2017 to €62 billion and said small farms and young farmers are hardest hit, with almost one in two failing to meet their needs .

Garcia, the head of the farmers’ union, says a future in the countryside is too precarious for his children.

“There is no generational change,” he said. “Those of us who have worked on farms all our lives, since we were children, cannot advise our own children to continue running the farm.”

He has led several farmers’ protests in Oviedo and has spoken in the regional parliament to demand greater subsidies for farmers. He said he had invited a local expert to give lectures to regional politicians, the environmental prosecutor and the police’s rural and environmental crime unit, “to somehow prevent Asturias from completely burning down.”

PROTECTED PREDATORY FISH

In addition to generating pasture land, fires also help deter wolves and bears.

Calves – the source of veal, an Asturian delicacy of which Spain is a leading producer – are being eaten by an out-of-control wolf population and farmers are bearing the brunt of the costs, Garcia said, pointing to official data showing compensation levels at less than half of the market value.

According to the national government, in 2020 – the last year for which data is available – 2,928 unspecified farm animals were affected by wolf attacks, resulting in compensation of 834,262 euros – an average of 285 euros per head.

Adult cows have an estimated market value of between 5,000 and 7,000 euros per animal, while calves fetch between 1,600 and 2,200 euros.

In 2021, the Spanish Socialist government in Madrid classified the Iberian wolf as an endangered species, imposing fines or prison sentences on those who harmed them.

Asturias is also governed by the Socialist Party, but its wolf protection policies are unpopular with farmers in this region. In the July 2023 general election, parties seeking farmers’ votes – including the far-right Vox party and the centre-right People’s Party (PP) – supported removing wolves from the protected list.

In May, there was a sign of the power of feeling: two freshly decapitated wolf heads appeared on the steps of the town hall of a small village, just before the regional president came to visit.

The Socialists lost ground to the PP candidate in Garcia’s village, despite generally retaining power.

Montserrat Fernandez, also a cattle farmer, is the new mayor. She said rural municipalities need more funding from regional and national authorities to help extinguish fires – using tools such as water taps – and controlled forest fires more often.

“It is completely unfair to blame farmers for the fires,” she said. Ultimately, farmers help prevent fires, she argued, because their animals remove flammable material by eating it.

Calvo agrees, saying the push for more local control is welcome, but farmers must adhere to the licensing system.

“There is an underlying feeling in rural areas that things would be better if local society were more involved in managing its resources,” he said.

“I completely agree with that. We are trying to develop governance tools so that village communities can decide on forest management plans and adopt them.”

($1 = 0.9246 euros)

(Reporting by David Latona and Vincent West; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Sara Ledwith)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *