Democracies in common places: stories from baldios and ‘fire-tales’ in Portugal

Rita Serra, Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra

Giovanni Allegretti, Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra

We respond to Greta Thunberg’s call for democracy to protect, restore and fund forests by taking it to the commoner s’ assemblies of baldios — mountain community forests returned to the local people, in Portugal, in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution. We highlight that when trees are considered as a technology to repair climate, they must be understood as a tool whose purpose is set by the people. By telling the tale of the afforestation of baldios, we show that trees can be harmful for local populations when their plantation disrupts local ways of being without providing alternatives, changing fire regimes. We argue the ontological transformation that results from the break-up of mutually constitutive relationships between the people and mountain places opened the way for ‘Faustian contracts’ — a loss of ‘the soul’ — by selling the long-term provision of goods to address short-term needs. When decentralization processes are captured by Faustian contracts, they can result in a battle of democracies, opposing participatory democracies to representative democracies of parishes and municipalities. Community forestry is then reframed as a struggle not so much about local control, but to gain back the soul and collectively set directions to face adversities.

Greta Thunberg did something unprecedented: by questioning the rulers “how dare you”, in her emotive speech at the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit, she forced the rulers to explain why they fail to act on a global matter such as climate change. Prompted by the unprecedented forest fi res in Sweden, one of Greta’s videos is a global call for democracy and social movements to protect, restore and fund nature by leaving carbon on the ground and allowing trees to grow. Trees are pictured as the best technology available to sequestrate carbon, thus giving us a better chance to face climate change. This is supported by a broad consensus of climate scientists, so that we cannot attribute the lack of action to a lack in knowledge. What is missing then? Between 2010 and 2013, we undertook a project about forest crises from a perspective of science and technology studies in Portugal.

We considered technology as something that is defined by the purpose it serves, instead of the way it is produced, which typically risks to reduce it to laboratory pro-ductions. On its rudimentary version, technology is a tool — an object that extends the ability of humans to modify their environment. Thus, by considering a tree as a tool or a carbon-sequestering machine, we are subordinating it to our goals. This is the purpose of forestry as embodied by many forest engineers and professionals.In Portugal, forests are so degraded that, at first sight, it is hard to understand whose ends they serve. Rather than on high value products, resulting from old growth or lon-ger rotation cycles, our forest economy is based on low value products that grow out of degraded forests, making a business out of environmental degradation (Serraetal.2017).

Making money out of degraded forests is a pitfall, and unfortunately may not allow, or contribute, to forest recovery. Under a framework that favors disinvestment, such as the continuous diversion of forest funds to cover for the public administration needs5and the lack of forest insurances, small landowners and investors choose the solutions that seem to offer them shorter returns and lower economic risks under the current fire regimes (García-BarrioSet al. 2013). Forest economy is a tough game, and the rules are set by the few oligopsonic buyers who control prices and markets. This distorts the ability of the people to clearly establish the goals to which forests should be subordinated and, consequently, the technologies, tools and practices used to achieve them. To determine a goal, one must pass from a state of confusion, where all possibilities are valued the same, to one that clearly establishes ranks among possible actions, taking into consideration the directions they may lead into. This can only be done from one point of view (Kohn 2013). Thus, to say whose goals count first is also a way of stating whose point of view comes first: who has the authority to decide and which goals should be subordinated to this ‘higher purpose’. We will tell here the tale of Serpins, one of the places studied, to remember some old lessons that may be wise not to forget.


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