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article imagePortugal starts clearing forests to prevent deadly fires

By Bruno CRAVO (AFP)     Mar 24, 2018 in World

Portugal on Saturday launched an unprecedented drive to clear its vast forests in order to prevent a repeat of last year's deadly wildfires, which killed 112 people and sparked a massive backlash against the Socialist government.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and some 20 senior government officials joined workers across Portugal to start clearing several hectares of the forests covering two-thirds of the country.

Costa has made the fight against wildfires his number one priority after his cabinet faced huge public anger over what critics said was its inefficient handling of the devastating blazes in June and October 2017.

It was the first major failure for Costa's government since it came to power in November 2015, having enjoyed popularity over the European Union member's rebounding economy after years of economic crisis and austerity.

"For the first time Portugal is becoming aware that it is absolutely necessary to clear high-risk areas to reduce the number of summer fires," Costa said Saturday after arriving in the town of Loule town in the southern Algarve region.

Portugal and neighbouring Spain last year grappled with a devastating drought that left rivers nearly dry, sparked the deadly wildfires and devastated crops.

In February, Costa issued tough new rules forcing landowners to clear their woods and cut trees until March 15 or face fines of up to 120,000 euros ($150,000).

But the decree sparked outcry from an important number of local officials and environmental organisations, which had criticised the short deadline.

"The government wants to make up in three months what should have been done over the past five years," said green group Quercus.

In response to the criticism, the government has extended the delay to May 31.

The government's push has also hit other obstacles.

The depopulation of rural areas means that landowners are often either absent or too old to cut down trees.

In addition, dissatisfaction is brewing among Portugal's 68,000 firefighters, 80 percent of whom are volunteers who find themselves on the frontline of the blazes.

Many were left unable to communicate during last year's disasters when the wildfires destroyed phone lines and mobile network transmitters.

The authorities' plan to replace highly flammable eucalyptus plantations with more resistant species like the cork oak have been met with resistance from the paper industry.

Many small land owners in central Portugal live off the eucalyptus trade.

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