Charred trees reach bizarrely for the heavens.
Alone or in small groups, they are witnesses of a devastating fire. Encouraged by the goatherd’s calls, a herd of goats picks its way along the hill. Their bells can be heard right over here.
The Portuguese woman with the round face approaches us, calm but determined, taking long strides in her high rubber boots. “What are you doing here? Are you the owners of the land?”
We’re standing off the road with cameras, documenting what the forest fires have done in the last few years, here in the middle of Portugal. When the woman, who introduces herself as Maria Lucia Alves Madeira Ribeiro, hears that, she relaxes. “I thought you might be wanting to steal a goat. That happens a lot here before Christmas.”
Her husband is the goatherd; she herself makes cheese out of the goat milk. The land belongs to Brazilians, she tells us. But they're not interested in what happens here.
In 2017 over 100 people died in the forest fires in Portugal; many lost everything they owned. Maria, too, had to look on as her goats were consumed by fire. “Fireballs came from the sky. Of our 200 goats, more than 50 were burned to death. Our olive trees – all burned down. We used to sell olive oil. Now I have to get my oil from the supermarket. The farm was destroyed by the fire; a pig, two cars – all gone. It was a huge blow. The state left us alone. We just wanted a bit of money from the insurance, to rebuild our house and plant some trees.
More than just a production location
Portugal is more than just a production location for Wildling. During the few years that we’ve been having our shoes produced there, we've developed close connections with the people on site. Our Warehouse Badger, Sascha, is in touch with Manuel, who’s responsible in Portugal for contact with the factories where Wildling produces and oversees production. They talk not only about the facts of the job, but also about their love of football teams whose colours are blue and white. At Christmas, delicious pasteis de nata (vanilla tarts) find their way to Engelskirchen from Felguereias in northern Portugal, where Manuel lives.
Back then, when news of the forest fires reached Germany, Sascha immediately sent him a message: “Are you ok? Are you safe?” Manuel himself wasn't affected, but devastating fires continued to rage in the inland areas, and today almost everyone in Portugal knows someone who suffered losses in the blazes.
The reasons for the forest fires are complex
In Portugal there are often fires in the hot summer and also the autumn months, before the rain comes. But in 2017 the fires took more lives than usual, therefore drawing media attention in Germany, too. The state, the fire service and the people all blame each other. But that doesn’t help those on the ground. The reasons for the forest fires are numerous and complex.
Unlike in Germany, the forest areas in Portugal are mostly owned privately and are therefore not under the direct control of local authorities or the state. Many forests are monocultures consisting of eucalyptus trees, which grow quickly and provide swift harvests. However in fires they are incredibly dangerous. Their delicate oily structure works as a fire accelerator.
During the big fires the fire service often seems powerless. The narrow, winding streets in the inland areas make access difficult; there are too few fire-fighting aircraft, in spite of support from Spain and France. But even if there were enough aircraft, they would only be able to be used in good weather conditions. In thick smoke and strong wind they are often useless.
After the fires in Portugal the situation worsened. Eucalyptus spreads more quickly than the indigenous mixed forest, so the bare areas caused by the fires are already covered with saplings, while other trees and plants have no chance of reclaiming the burnt areas.
However, there are people and organisations who refuse to simply accept that and who are working on reforestation of the areas affected by the forest fires.
Wildling Shoes, too, wants to take direct action here. For reforestation you need lots of volunteers, and so last weekend some Wildling team members set off to plant trees in the Portuguese mountains. The project was organised by a cooperation betweenWildlings Portugal andGone West UK.
Lynn, our Wildlings Portugal contact, had the misfortune to experience for herself how the fires raged and see the damage they could cause. She moved to Portugal from the Netherlands some years ago, swapping a big-city life for one in nature, in Portugal's mountains. She has gathered her knowledge about the most beautiful locations in a book, calling for a life in sync with natural rhythms.
Gone West UK plants trees around the world, organises the seedlings and, together with Wildlings Portugal, initiated this tree-planting campaign in Serra da Estrela. Wildling Shoes donated 5000 trees to the project – and takes a hand in planting. Last weekend, in the middle of December, seven of our team members stood on a hillside under a dark-grey sky with two dozen other volunteers from Portugal and all over Europe.
Laden with a pickaxe, a sack full of seedlings and lots of joyful anticipation, we worked our way through the undergrowth. In the unforgiving ground we planted walnut, oak, chestnut and birch trees.
“Being together in nature was just lovely; the atmosphere was fun and relaxed. The landscape left me with an almost mystical impression,” says one pack member. And tree-planting also contributed to a feeling of togetherness in our mostly decentralised team:
“It’s so nice to see your own colleagues live and without an internet connection for a change. No time pressure, being outside in the fresh air and planting trees together was really nice and very enriching.”
It's something special when you plant a tree yourself: digging the earth with your own hands, planting the still-delicate seedling and then wondering when it will be fully grown. Will it survive the critical initial period and grow roots? Or will the next storm rip it out of the ground and negate all our work?
The connection with Portugal and this area of land grows with every tree we planted there.
Anna, Ran & Team Wildling