Galicia, Spain – Joam Evans and his family live in Froxan, a small village in the mountains of Galicia, an autonomous region in northwestern Spain.
To get there, you have to climb through a maze of deserted rural roads lined with oaks, chestnuts, pines and a large number of eucalyptus trees.
The past few weeks have been extremely hot as a heat wave hit southern Europe, but when this reporter visited the area it was drizzling and a thin layer of haze blanketed the landscape .
Evans, in military uniform and heavy boots, receives the volunteers with a smile.
“I think the rain will respect us,” he said in Galician, the local language, gray clouds above him.
The volunteers come from all over Galicia, home to around three million people.
They pledged to work on the public lands surrounding Froxan, to eliminate eucalyptus trees and other “invasive” species.
This will allow local tree species to grow and, they hope, help protect the village from forest fires, a growing concern here.
Despite being the wettest region in Spain, Galicia has turned into a wildfire hotspot in recent years; nearly 40 percent of fires in the country between 2001 and 2015 started here.
Experts pointed to the increased presence of eucalyptus in the region as one of the causes.
Native to Australia, eucalyptus, very flammable, quickly developed in Galicia.
The area covered by eucalyptus grew from 28,000 hectares (69,190 acres) in 1973 to over 300,000 hectares (741,300 acres) in 2018, more than ten times more in 45 years.
In Froxan, in 2016, a large forest fire spread through the eucalyptus canopies on the land surrounding the village.
According to Evans, the only reason the fire didn’t destroy their homes was because an oak forest served as a firewall, containing the flames. After that, they decided that they had to do something to protect their village.
In 2017, the community partnered with a local NGO and launched a call for volunteers, asking for help removing eucalyptus trees from their land.
About twenty people showed up.
Since then, more than 1,000 people have participated in the so-called “de-eucalyptizer brigades” across Galicia, on public and private land.
On this August day, the volunteers are a diverse group – young and old couples, students, middle-aged adults and retirees. Many bring children and pets. Most have known each other from previous events, but there are also newcomers.
Manuel, environmental activist, is a regular – this is his sixth trip.
He says every time he goes for a hike with his wife, they end up pulling eucalyptus trees from small patches of dirt on their trails.
“We even coined a term for it. We call it ‘forest gardening’, ”he joked.
Until the second half of the 20th century, eucalyptus trees were rare in the Galician landscape. But in the late 1950s, the central government began promoting the planting of fast-growing tree species in the region, with the opening of a state-run pulp processing plant.
This happened at a time of urban migration, when many fled rural areas for cities in search of better living conditions.
Planting eucalyptus was convenient; plantations require little care and trees can be sold after 12 to 15 years of growth.
With agriculture becoming less profitable, converting farmland to eucalyptus monocultures was a sound economic investment.
Over the years, the seeds began to grow naturally in nearby plots and forests, displacing local tree species into the wild.
Today, eucalyptus are the most abundant trees in Galicia.
This ubiquitous presence has spillover effects on the region’s biodiversity. Having evolved in a completely different environment, eucalyptus trees have little natural interaction with local animal species, said Adolfo Cordero Rivera, an ecologist at the University of Vigo.
“Their leaves are not eaten by deer, cows or other local herbivores. The only animals that eat them are the eucalyptus weevils, another Australian invasive species, ”Cordero-Rivera said.
This severely limits the biodiversity that eucalyptus plantations can support – which is why they are often referred to as “green deserts”.
A 2019 study found that birds among eucalyptus plantations in Galicia, compared to native forests, are lower in number and diversity.
Looking ahead, the landscape is unlikely to change in the short term.
Earlier this year, the Galician government approved a new forestry plan for the region to set land use guidelines for the next 20 years.
The plan aims to reduce the area planted to eucalyptus by 5 percent by 2040.
But as to their role in forest fires, the situation is complex.
Researchers agree that eucalyptus trees burn easily and can regrow effectively after a forest fire. But they also note other key risk factors.
“Forest fires [in Galicia] are not only related to the presence of eucalyptus. They are also influenced by climate change, population dynamics and a truly ineffective forest governance model to regulate land use, ”said Helena Martinez-Cabrera, researcher at the University of Santiago de Compostela. which studies the intersection between eucalyptus plantations and living conditions in rural Galician areas.
The lack of support to people in rural areas makes the region more vulnerable to forest fires and the expansion of eucalyptus trees and abandonment of traditional land uses, such as agriculture and herding, are the consequences, has she explained.
“In fact, if you look at the fires in Galicia, you will see that the areas that burn the most are not those with the most eucalyptus, but those most affected by demographic abandonment.”