Reflorestablitz #1 – Aid and Regeneration of Burnt Areas of Monchique
Reflorestablitz is a gathering of eco-conscious souls to regenerate lands, an idea that was born in the “2º Encontro das florestas” organized by Reflorestar Portugal. From the 16th until the 21st of November 12 brave volunteers joined together to face the harsh conditions of winter in Monchique and planted trees, built check dams and cut eucalyptus. This was a follow up event of the Ecosystem Regeneration Camp (11 – 15 of November), a 5 day course on practical techniques to regenerate the land. It was a perfect combo: the first week we learned the theory, the second week we put it to practice on some very degraded land by forest fires. The land belonged to Vizinhos da Balsa, a collective of 7 families who have their land interconnected and share a common design in Permaculture for water and forest management in the Picota region of Monchique. In 2018 Monchique went up in flames and these 7 families lost everything. Despite this, the families have stayed put and started rebuilding. One priority is to replace high-density Eucalyptus stands and their associated fire-prone ecology with a diverse woodland consisting of Oaks, Chestnuts, Medronho, and Alder that can resist fire and decreases its temperature and speed, while increasing the ecological integrity of the area. A part of these trees were donated by Reflorestar Portugal through the campaign with Muki, a portuguese sustainable footwear company.
Managing eucalyptus monocultures
The Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) has been demonized over the years. The truth is that it is a beautiful tree that is incredibly hardy. It also has many uses: the chipped wood can be used as for carbon rich material in compost heaps, the leaves of the young sprouts are full of essential oil and it is a good wood to build with. The problem starts when we have a monoculture of this tree. The allelopathic properties mean that almost no other plant grows under them. Large areas of eucalyptus monocultures are a fire hazard due to the flammable essential oils and threaten communities that live by them, such as Vizinhos da Balsa. The forest in Monchique needs management to a become balanced and rich ecosystem as it was once. This means most of the Eucalyptus must be removed. The hardiness of this tree makes it a considerable challenge to remove. New sprouts come out from the burnt trunk two times a year, forming a octopus shape with the tentacles going straight to the sky.
A management method was shared with us on the second day by Justin Roborg-Söndergaard, a consultant for GEOTA in charge of a large scale reforestation project in Monchique:
“The method or technique consists of cutting the main trunk at about 1.5m from the ground (known as coppicing) and then removing the bark from the cut stump down to ground level. The cut stump may coppice, i.e. regrow, from what are called ‘epicormic shoots’. These shoots produce sprouts which are then cut leaving only 1. This technique also requires removing the epicormic nodule of the removed sprouts – this action also impacts the stump. The sprout is left for the next dry-period when it is then removed. The same technique is applied following a rotation of 2 to 3 cycles before the main stump succumbs or dies (this is also dependent on environmental factors such as soil and water). This technique is time consuming and laborious, however it is probably the most sustainable method possible, as opposed to ripping out the stumps (afinancially and ecologically costly method), as it does not involve the use of chemicals and it has low impact on the root systems and therefore the soils. Furthermore, sprouts (or coppices) can be left to grow into small trees providing wood. In this way, what was a large eucalyptus plantation can be manually reduced to a small number of controlled coppices.
The important aspect regarding this method is that new trees can be introduced as an intercrop between the eucalyptus stumps, e.g. cork oaks. The existing soil conditions are conducive to the introduction of this new crop which can then be nurtured to take over from the previously dominant eucalyptus. The restoration, or conversion, of eucalyptus plantations will take time. If done properly, the result will be a low-impact recovery that supports the soil organic components and therefore other associated species such as fungi, a very desirable crop both as a food source and ecologically.
Don´t forget that in all aspects of human intervention into natural systems, we rely entirely on conditions usually beyond our control, such as the weather and the reaction of plants to their new environments. We must also understand that ‘nature’s time’ is not ‘human time’, and so patience and the continuation of endeavours become important characteristics for any person who undertakes the enormity of intentionally recovering degraded or damaged ecosystems. Furthermore, the path to degradation is not the same one to recovery. The path to recovery is unpredictable, and has a number of uncertainties that we need to work with – mainly by making sure we record our actions and the results of these actions.
The rewards are many when we succeed with what Justin refers to as ‘a quiet conversation with Nature’.
Seed pellets recipe
Inspired by the Regenerative Agriculture course taught by Carlos Simões and Catarina Joaquim a couple weeks previous to this event in Vale da Lama, we decided to experiment with seed pellets. The idea is to create a protective shell surrounding the seed using clay while filling in the center with all sorts of nutrients and inoculants that will help the plant grow. The result is a “pelleted” seed that is protected from predation by birds and an abundance of micronutrients. The seed mix was composed of 20 different native plants, including weeds, grasses, legumes, and shrubs, collected by the landowner in places less affected by the fire.
-Worm tea (inoculant);
-Casuarina tea (rich in Silica);
-Ash (rich in many minerals);
-Fungi inoculants (create symbiosis with plants);
-Clay (protective seal);
-Seed mix (mostly native bush species);
1 – First, in a big bowl add the seeds and the liquid ingredients (in our case: worm and casuarina tea). Make sure all the seeds have are moist. 2- Strain the seeds if there is to much liquid in the bowl.
3- Then add all the dry ingredients except for the clay and mix with well with hands. .
4- Once the seeds are covered with dry materials add the clay so as to create a protective shell around the seeds. Add a bit more of the liquid ingredients if there is no more moisture for the clay to stick to.
5- Using your hands roll the seeds so as to make little balls.
This recipe is aimed to serve as a inspiration. It’s a step above simply scattering seeds around, but not a precise science. Use whatever ingredients you have on hand, the only “mandatory” ingredient is clay. The best way to learn is to experiment and see what works best in your land.
The Picota region of Monchique is very a steep and after the fires one of the main issues is loss of soil by water erosion. A simple technique to mitigate this issue is to build small check dams along the topography with whatever materials found on site. A very easy and low cost solution for soil loss in mountainous regions. I first employed this technique in a reforestation project in Velez-Blanco in 2017 in a steep mountain called La muela (you can read all about it in another blog post here). The typical mediterranean climate means that rain is concentrated on short period. Steep hills, like Picota and La Muela are therefore more prone to soil loss.
Starting at the top and working our way down we used rocks and burnt wood to build dams in places where the apparent water flow is strongest. We also put a layer of straw underneath the rock and woods to further increase the soil and water retention capactiy of the dam.
These dams will slow down water, infiltrating in the earth as well as capturing any runoff soil. We also transformed each dam into a little tree habitat by gathering soil into it and planting seedlings on the sides of the dam (where the flow of water is weaker), sowed acorns, scattered seed pellets and finally mulched with hay.
The combination of all these techniques results in a holistic regeneration effort that is fun and exciting to implement. Only time will tell if all these ideas actually work, but we all left with a great sense of accomplishment.
I would like to give a special thank you for all the volunteers that joined in this regenerative event. We faced the winter conditions of Monchique and accomplished a lot of work. We are all very proud to have contributed to the regeneration of this burn land. We left our mark in this forest and hope to see it grow and flourish. Spending our time in these type of reforestation events fills our hearts with inspiration. Enjoying nature and truly connecting with Gaia in such a profound way. I cannot imagine a more important task in our current time then to regenerate degraded land. We created strong bonds with the land, the families of Balsa and with each other. It was a great adventure and I am so happy such a hardy bunch of people came together. These special pioneers are: Klaus Gruber, Luis Falcão, Candida Shinn, Pedro Glória, Pauline, Anne Popma, Elias den Otter, Luís Picciochi and Jeremy Lhoir. Hope to see you again in another edition of Reflorestablitz.