Cheap paper is all around us. It’s flushed down toilets, taken away in cups, wrapped around online orders, photocopied, printed and discarded. Paper may be a renewable resource, but it has to be grown somewhere. For the European market, this somewhere tends to be Portugal, which produces about 50% of Europe’s paper.
Portugal’s paper forests consist of precisely one species: Eucalyptus globulus, one of the several hundred eucalyptus varieties that koalas tend to get high on. It will lodge itself into the stoniest, most barren ground imaginable. It is fast-growing, reaches groundwater down to a depth of 30 metres, its essential oils make it pest-resistant, and it can be harvested three times from the same rootstock. All these qualities make it into an ideal, cheap raw material for a cheap product. They also mean, however, that eucalyptus depletes the water table, provides zero habitat for wildlife and is extremely difficult to get rid of. Simply cutting the trunk won’t kill off the root, which resprouts like the heads of a Hydra.
It is an invasive species, and an extremely flammable one at that. People in Portugal call it the petrol tree. Think essential oils and loose, flaming bark that builds up enormous fuel loads and literally spreads fire on the wind. While most of Portugal’s native flora has developed flame-retardant qualities to withstand what ecologists call the Mediterranean fire ecosystem, eucalyptus’ strategy is to actually encourage fire, to thrive on it: its seeds will germinate after intense heat. A eucalyptus-induced forest fire usually means more eucalyptus.
Portugal’s deadliest fires so far ravaged the Pedrógão Grande region in the parched, over-heated June of 2017. When a dry thunderstorm – itself made more likely by climate breakdown – hit the area’s fuel-laden paper plantations, the resulting blaze killed 66 and injured a further 200. In the tiny, whitewashed hamlet of Nodeirinho, 11 of the 33 inhabitants died. The ones that did survive took turns submerging themselves in the village’s tiny open water tank, the only place that made the intense heat and smoke bearable. And the fear, I imagine. The village was surrounded by a hellscape of burning eucalyptus slopes on three sides. Most of those who died were trying to escape on a road fringed by combusting paper forests on both sides, the trees coming down to the very road verge. Even the tarmac melted.
I have come to a eucalyptus hillside between Nodeirinho and Pedrógão with a group of Portuguese ecologists to inspect what progress has been made in the epicentre of the 2017 fire. “After this fire, the government had to do something. So they passed laws to restrict the creation of new eucalyptus plantations, and a road safety margin became mandatory,” says Domingos Patacho of environmental NGO Quercus. The Portuguese pulp and paper association Biond (formerly Celpa) strongly resisted even these rather timid measures: “Restricting the most important raw material of the paper industry would dramatically affect its competitiveness and the country’s trade balance,” the association groused at the time.
Given that eucalyptus is now running rampant on 1 million Portuguese hectares, 2/3 of which are abandoned or unmanaged, yammering about ‘restriction’ has the whiff of the hysterical. Proportional to its size, Portugal has the largest area of eucalyptus plantations in the world. What is really at stake here, one suspects, is the industry’s ability to dictate prices at will in the face of an over-abundance of eucalyptus. The Navigator Company alone rakes in 6% of Portugal’s corporate tax, and its personnel moves freely between the paper industry and politics. Faced with the skewed competition, Portugal’s other pulp and paper giant, Altri, threatened to cease investment in the country altogether.
The plantations we’re visiting are advertised as a demonstration project for state-of-the-art forestry practices by Biond, agronomist and environmental campaigner Mónica Casqueira tells me: like all plantations managed by the association, it will apply for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Encountering a Portuguese eucalyptus plantation is like walking into a bluish-green dystopia. There are no birds, and no wildlife, because no animal feeds on these plants; not even goats will touch eucalyptus. There are no other plants either: eucalyptus is the only vegetation here. Where the stems have been harvested, the ground looks like the site of 20th century trench warfare. Eucalyptus oil inhibits soil microorganisms and prevents the growth of any herbs or shrubs in between the uniformly-spaced rows of globulus. Nothing really breaks down eucalyptus leaves, so there is no humus. The ground turns into a hard, compacted mass that the rains will hardly penetrate.
To me, the hardest thing to bear is state of that soil. This ground was once an ecosystem with living soil that could sustain complex life and took millennia to build up. To the pulp companies, for whom only profit margins matter, it’s no more than stratum to hold the roots extracting water; it could be plastic particles for all they care. Dead matter. They bulldoze those dead particles of dirt into whatever shape suits them, dredging the subsoil out on top. And while the trees do capture carbon, the ripping up and contouring of the soil releases it on a massive scale. Add to that the machinery, the fertilisers and pesticides, and the paper production process itself, and it’s little wonder that The Navigator Company is Portugal’s biggest emitter of carbon, with Altri following closely behind. And lastly, the the wildfires: the 2017 Pedrógão blaze alone added about 775.000 tonnes of CO2 to the vicious cycle of warming and fires.
The site may be marketed as an ‘emblematic initiative for the country’ by Biond’s PR material, and it may be better managed than other monocultures, but it still bears a greater resemblance to an open pit than to an actual forest. Well-managed plantation woods can take some pressure of natural forest ecosystems, which was one of the guiding ideas behind the Forest Stewardship Council initiative. However, the FSC principles will not prevent the planting of eucalyptus monocultures in fire-prone Mediterranean ecosystems, or the carving up of soil, or the steady spread of eucalyptus across Portugal. Yet even though the plantations turn fertile agricultural land into ecological and social deserts, they can – and do – receive the FSC label. After all, FSC only certifies individual sites and says nothing about tree species or their relative national abundance.
Half a year ago, Mónica Casqueira, Domingos Patacho from Quercus and the forest engineer Paulo Pimenta Castro from the University of Lisbon called out the plantation for violating several government regulations. Today, they’re back to check if anything has been done. It hasn’t. “The designated access road is not wide enough for two fire engines to pass, and there’s no safety margin between the road and the trees anywhere,” Monica tells me. Imagining the trees around us on fire – not difficult – I can see what she means: the place would become a death trap. At the time, Biond expressed “surprise and indignation” that “there may be occasional non-compliances on the ground,” and that “if any characteristic of the project was altered after its plantation” this should be “immediately restored”. More than six months later, nothing has happened – and neither Monica, nor Paulo or Domingos are surprised.
Theoretically, the FSC scheme should be a safeguard for responsible paper production. Compliance with national law is one of its stated criteria. “In Portugal, we know that controls aren’t rigorous, that owners will ask for lax controllers. It’s not a robust system in Portugal because the controlling agencies are too close to the industry. They take advantage of the fact that the certification process is being paid by the paper companies themselves,” says Pimenta Castro. This, of course, is a flaw inherent in the FSC certification scheme. Since controllers compete for assignments, a race to the regulatory bottom line is practically built into the system. “The Portuguese FSC office is housed in the same building as Biond’s headquarters. In fact, they sit just one floor apart, and I think this tells you something about their relationship,” he adds.
We approach the GPS coordinates of a supposed strawberry tree regeneration project, as advertised in Biond’s Re/Nascer Pedrógao video. On an extremely steep slope, the topsoil has been ripped open, forced into barren terraces and planted with…. eucalyptus. You can almost watch the soil as it erodes down into the Zezere River. Along the bulldozed access path, a single sorry line of tiny medronhos has been squashed into the compacting dirt. Everything else is eucalyptus globulus, right down to the shoreline. Because the plantations are sprayed with pesticides, they should be kept at a safe distance from waterways, and the Zezere at the bottom of this illegal plantation is Lisbon’s water supply. But during the 2017 fires, Lisbon’s tap water tasted of ash.
Plantations on areas not previously planted with eucalyptus have been banned since the 2017 fires, but converting scrubland to plantation is cheaper than actually going to the trouble of taking out exhausted eucalyptus roots and replanting from scratch. Instead, the paper companies use ‘regenerative schemes’ like this one to acquire new, cheaply plantable areas. On paper, they might plant native species or propose a plantation in line with current regulations to get official approval. In practice, the forestry engineers and contractors in their employ will pretty much do whatever the company tells them to. What’s perhaps saddest about the whole thing: the site actually did support native strawberry trees before Biond felt the urgent wish to engage in regenerative forestry. Monica takes one of the ripped-up medronhos home to plant in her garden. For now, it’s all we can do.
Forestry extension services have been economized into non-existence in Portugal, the Department of Forestry and Environmental Protection have actually merged. In the absence of proper public control and enforcement, eucalyptus is happily taking over. It thrives on neglect, loose legislation and lobbying, and successive Portuguese governments have – with plenty of stimulus from the pulp industry – created a Wild West of paper production. By now, the country is littered with thousands of illegal eucalyptus plantations, and plenty more do not fulfil basic safety standards. Professor Castro checks new plantations regularly, listens to tip-offs from concerned residents, and raises the alarm. Meanwhile though, eucalyptus has become entangled with local politics: “A woman from Mosteiro who reported an illegal plantation received death threats, her business was boycotted. In the end, she had to move out of the area,” Mónica tells me. The plantation belonged to the town’s mayor.
Altogether, the 2017 fire season cost Portugal 1.5 billion euros, and Biond paid 4.6 million combined for the 66 Pedrógão victims. But the ecological and psychological cost, and the cost of human lives, are too vast to quantify. Paper is easier to measure: In 2018, The Navigator Company and Altri – Portugal’s two biggest paper players – made a combined profit of 415 million €. Not deducted from this are the regular, seven-digit subsidies poured into the industry by both Portugal and the European Union.
Paper exports are earning Portugal a trade surplus of about 1.2 billion, while the people whose homes, fields and businesses burned for paper have received hardly any governmental recovery aid. Effectively, wealth is draining out of the area with every fire. While the Portuguese state is gaining something from paper and the shareholders some more, the paper territories as a whole are actually getting poorer. And then there’s the plain maths of it: 1 million hectares of eucalyptus for 3,000 jobs and 1.5% of Portuguese GDP. Unless, that is, there happens to be a large fire like the 2017 one.
To me, it seems pointless to burden consumers with the responsibility of avoiding paper packaging. Being a responsible consumer must be a full-time job by now, what with all the necessary research into the working conditions and environmental load of every single bought item, finding truly ethical alternatives, sniffing out the greenwashed consumer labels and avoiding plastic, palm oil, out-of-season veg, unethically sourced products, and, apparently, paper. FSC certification was supposed to help with that, but it seems that in Portugal at least, the label has been hijacked and turned it into a greenwashed marketing trick for a highly extractive industry.
At the heart of FSC is the assumption that market mechanisms can fix capitalist over-extraction. But like all labels, they can only ever improve a segment of the market – the segment for which certification is profitable. Rather than volleying the responsibility for fixing the over-exploitation inherent in capitalism back to individuals, governments should get down to the tedious job of establishing and enforcing decent standards for paper. A well-designed and independent FSC label might assist, but it certainly won’t save legislators from the onerous task extracting themselves from lobbyism and actually setting boundaries to extractivism.
Francesca Schmidt is an environmental Sociologist, fruit tree pruner, activist and writer. Her work revolves around contemporary ruralities, environmental psychology and cultural transition. You can follow her blog here.