Constância (Portugal) (AFP)

Every morning, Pedro Simoes and his men put on their yellow and green fireproof uniforms and board their helicopters to protect the eucalyptus forests of central Portugal, owned by their employer.

They are among the 250 private firefighters paid by the paper industry to ensure that its raw material does not go up in smoke in this country regularly devastated by deadly forest fires.

In most countries, the protection of forests against fire is provided exclusively by the State. In Portugal, the two main national paper companies, Navigator and Altri, pooled their resources to create, in 2002, their own fire brigade.

Mobilized during the summer months, the Afocelca has an annual budget of 3 million euros, an amount equivalent to that spent on off-season fire prevention work.

The sector, the country's largest forest owner, has 150,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations, such as those overlooking the town of Constancia and its pulp mill, located on the banks of the Tagus River, about a hundred kilometers to the north. is from Lisbon.

Private firefighters often intervene to help civil protection, which this year amounted to 6,000 volunteer firefighters supporting some 1,500 full-time professionals.

"The ideal is to fight the fire outside our properties," AFP Rui Ventura, regional coordinator of Afocelca, told AFP.

- The eucalyptus in accusation -

The Portuguese pulp and paper industry uses mainly eucalyptus, and is often singled out by conservationists, who consider that the proliferation of this species is one of the factors favoring wildfires, such as those that have killed more of one hundred people in 2017.

The species, which owes its profitability to its rapid growth, now occupies a total area of ​​about 900,000 hectares, a quarter of the country's forests.

Many experts, however, point out that it is not only particularly flammable but that its leaves and bark can be washed away, accelerating the spread of fire.

"The fires are more and more intense, but it's not the fault of the eucalyptus," replies Pedro Simoes, leader of one of the three helicopter teams of the Afocelca, based between two hills covered with young eucalyptus growing in rows regular, separated by paths raked.

"In the woods of our companies, the fire is not advancing so fiercely.It is the abandonment of forests that causes the great fires," says the 39-year-old consultant, former volunteer firefighter passed by the special units of civil protection.

However, the shock of 2017 has pushed Parliament to limit the total area that can be devoted to the planting of eucalyptus, much to the chagrin of an industry that accounts for 4.6% of Portuguese exports.

- Abandoned forests -

That year, a historic record of about 500,000 hectares burned, damaging 6% of the properties of the paper industry against 2% annual average.

Paulo Pimenta de Castro, president of the association for the promotion of a sustainable forest Acrescimo, is among those who denounce "the epidemic of eucalyptus" as one of the factors causing ever more devastating fires.

"About two-thirds of the nearly 900,000 hectares of eucalyptus are abandoned," he says. Without maintenance between two cuts made every ten years, the vegetation invades the undergrowth and the forest flares up easily, explains the agronomist.

Critics of the pulp and paper industry are not so much concerned with their own eucalyptus plantations as they are buying from hundreds of thousands of smallholders who are not investing in fire prevention.

The sector, the third largest pulp producer in Europe, is making a "permanent effort" to increase its production area, says a spokesman for the Portuguese Paper Industry Association. But, he says, in a country where 78 percent of the forests are owned by small landowners, it remains "limited by their availability" to give it land.

© 2019 AFP