Photo: NUNO VEIGA / LUSA

Farmers beset from all sides

Drought is decimating crops, while fires threaten to destroy them altogether

Portugal’s farmers are suddenly beset from all sides. What isn’t threatened by fires this summer, is being decimated by drought.

Almost 70% of the country is in a state of severe drought; 28% by extreme drought. The panorama has never been this bad – and there is no rain expected any time soon.

Crops of all kinds have been, and are being, impacted

The worst of the situation is no-one can see where this ends: explains Luís Mira of CAP, the confederation of Portuguese farmers, there is no magical insurance policy that will protect against drought (as insurers point out, drought is not a risk, it is a probability, and no-one insures against probabilities). 

Vines, apples, pears, cereals, hay: everything is suffering – while livestock producers see nothing growing with which to feed their animals.

With streams drying up, and pastures rock hard and sterile, the nation’s focus for now has been fixed on wildfires. Once the fires are out, agriculture will be the next ‘drama’.

In Bragança’s Natural Park of Montesinho, for example, the landscape looks very much like parts of Africa.

Shepherd Manuel João do Cubo explained to journalists from Lisbon that for the last few years, the country really hasn’t had any winters… “Winter these days is like spring”, he said. The last three to four years have been marked by lack of sufficient rain, and then this latest year has been “the worst”.

This is a year where the shepherd says “there has been nothing” in terms of useful growth in the fields: “minimum hay, only a few oats” – and when these meagre supplies run out, how is he going to keep his flock of 400 sheep alive?

There really don’t appear to be any answers.

But on a day when politicians were limbering up for a ‘State of the Nation’ debate led by prime minister António Costa later this afternoon, there is plenty of criticism – with media commentators particularly saying the government’s restrictions on farmers in the name of reducing fire-risks has been nothing short of obscene – the real culprits being criminals, who continue to sabotage the landscape for their own dysfunctional thrills.

In an opinion article written for SIC television news last night, political/ financial journalist José Gomes Ferreira said: “Directly or indirectly, through publicity made for with the money from our taxes, António Costa accuses everyone who uses mechanical cutters, electric cutters, chainsaws, electric saws, threshing machines, baling machines as being the cause of rural fires.

“Objectively, the prime minister spend his days offending everyone who works in the fields of Portugal, accusing them of being odious arsonists. Worse, he has decreed that they cannot work at determined hours of the day – and even worse, for various days on the trot, during times for cereal harvests or the treatment of crops.

“This rage against those who work on the land has a serious lack of focus at its origin: António Costa does not understand anything about life in the countryside, in agriculture, in the forest. He doesn’t know that the rare ignitions caused by agricultural implements are absolutely marginal in relation to the real number of fires; nor that when these happens they are as a rule immediately extinguished by the workers themselves”.

In José Gomes Ferreira’s mindset: “when small rural landowners are considered benefactors of the community, and subsidised to keep forests green, by towns and cities – namely through the Environmental Fund, and by property speculators and construction companies – only then will we finally start winning the war against wildfires”.

The veteran commentator used his article to visit the shadows of suspicion over who (and what) could be behind the wildfires that devour Portugal’s countryside every summer – this year a summer that is proving so much worse due to the ominous situation of prolonged drought.

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com