The wildfires in Portugal over the last week 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 One-quarter of Portugal's forested landscape (more than 812,000 hectares or 2 million acres) has been replaced by explosively flammable, water-sucking non-native eucalyptus plantations.
The same plantations now being proposed for development across the US South using freeze-tolerant genetically engineered eucalyptus trees. This proposal is being fought by a large international coalition of groups that have already collected more than 200,000 signatures opposing this USDA scheme.
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Oliver Munnion, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch, one of the groups helping fight GE eucalyptus in the US, lives in Portugal's eucalyptus wildfire zone. "We spent Wednesday 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. We condemn this blatant disregard for life and hope this tragedy stands as a warning against the commercialization of GE eucalyptus trees in the US." he added.
Chile also suffered horrific eucalyptus wildfires in January-the worst in their history. Both the fires in Chile and those in Portugal were the result of a reckless and poorly regulated timber industry, as well as policies under the UN that intentionally mislabel industrial tree plantations as "forests."
These policies enable countries to rampantly cut down biodiverse native forests and replace them with non-native timber monocultures. Not only are communities displaced, native plants and wildlife are pushed further and further out and climate change is exacerbated. In Brazil eucalyptus plantations are called "green deserts."
"In the fires in both Chile and Portugal, the culprit was industry lobby and state support to spread eualyptus plantations," stated Felipe Grez of OLCA (Observatorio LatinoAmericano de Conflictos Ambientales) in Chile. "Flammable, water-sucking eucalyptus plantations have been expanding all over the landscape thanks to dangerous state subsidy schemes, which in Chile came about under Pinochet. Even though we supposedly have democracy now, we still live under the thumb of the repressive laws of Pinochet.
This is especially true for the Mapuche People. Pinochet's timber subsidies resulted in a massive land grab against the Mapuches, and many Mapuche communities in the Araucanía region where plantations are concentrated live in poverty. Some have no fresh water because of the water-greedy plantations.
And Pinochet's terrorism laws are used to violently put down Mapuche resistance to the timber industry. Last week, Mapuches were murdered and a Mapuche school was teargassed just days after a protest to release Mapuche youth being held as political prisoners.
The human and ecological disaster associated with eucalyptus plantation expansion is well-documented. The tragic results in both Chile and Portugal, where plantations reach right up to the edge of roads and towns, were inevitable.
We must not allow this disaster to be expanded with 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.
The US Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments until July 5th on a draft Environmental Impact Statement that recommends approval of the large-scale release of GE eucalyptus plantations across the U.S. South.
Both tragedies in Chile and Portugal sound the alarm regarding plans for genetically engineered eucalyptus plantations in the Southeast U.S. 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.
Join the over 200,000 people who have already signed on to stop the USDA from approving these disastrous GE eucalyptus trees by clicking here