Above photo: By Orin Langelle.
Wildfires in Portugal have been called “the worst such disaster in recent history.” Dozens of people burnt to death in their cars while trying to escape the inferno.
But this horrific tragedy was human-made. One-quarter of Portugal’s forested landscape (more than 812,000 hectares or 2 million acres) has been replaced by non-native eucalyptus plantations. On top of that are expansive pine plantations.
Oliver Munnion, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch, lives in Portugal’s wildfire zone. “We spent last night in a local school after some 30 villages were evacuated in our area. News reports say that a quarter of the municipality has burned. We’ve been lucky so far and still have our home, but many others have lost so much.
“It’s time to face up to the reality that Portugal’s vast eucalyptus and pine plantations, and the corruption and profiteering that comes with them, are the main reason that the country burns, every year. Coupled with the impacts of climate change, bringing hotter temperatures and drought, our area stands little chance. And the summer has only just begun,” he added.
Just like wildfires that devastated parts of Chile in January—the worst in their history—the fires in Portugal were the result of a reckless and poorly regulated timber industry, as well as international policies that mislabel industrial tree plantations as “forests.” 
“In the fires in both Chile and Portugal, the culprit was industry lobby for state subsidies for timber plantations,” stated Felipe Grez of OLCA in Chile. “Flammable, water-sucking eucalyptus plantations have been expanding all over the landscape thanks to these dangerous state subsidy schemes, which in Chile came about under Pinochet. Plantations reach right up to the edge of roads and towns making fire disaster unavoidable. We not only condemn this blatant disregard for life, but also industry’s future desire to use genetically engineered trees–which will make these problems even worse.” 
The Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees  warns that a new threat is emerging from genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus plantations. GE eucalyptus are being developed to grow faster, resist toxic herbicides and/or tolerate freezing temperatures. These traits would exacerbate the impacts of eucalyptus plantations and spread them to new regions currently too cold for eucalyptus to grow.
GE eucalyptus were approved in Brazil in 2015 and now the US Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement that recommends approval of the large-scale release of GE eucalyptus plantations across the U.S. South.
“Both of these tragedies in Chile and Portugal should sound the alarm regarding plans for genetically engineered eucalyptus plantations in the Southeast U.S.,” added Anne Petermann, Executive Director of U.S. based Global Justice Ecology Project and International Coordinator of the Campaign to STOP GE Trees. “This region already suffers from repeated droughts due to climate change. The proposed development of one million acres of flammable, invasive, water-draining GE eucalyptus plantations in this region is a clear recipe for wildfire disaster.”