Burning landscapes: A political and environmental history of the large wildfires in Portugal (1950-2020) is a research project in the field of history and environmental sciences hosted by the Institute of Contemporary History (NOVA University Lisbon) and the Associate Laboratory In2Past and funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (PTDC/HAR-HIS/4425/2021). It also has the declared support of five municipalities - Moimenta da Beira, Sernancelhe, Vila Nova de Paiva, Silves and Monchique - and the film production house TerraTreme.

State of the art: what we don’t know

In Portugal wildfires have grown in an unforeseeable manner in recent times. This trend is not exclusively Portuguese but rather forms part of global 20th-century ecological and industrial dynamics. However, the history of fire in Portugal is exceptional, and possibly paradigmatic, while yet to be researched. In 2003 and 2005, the annual burnt areas broke national records and surpassed the total burnt areas of Spain, France, Italy and Greece combined. In the worst year, 2017, c. 540,000 hectares burned leading to the loss of 117 lives. Moreover, there have been an increasing number of fires since 1980 that burned more than 10,000 hectares: one in 1980-90s (around 10,000 ha); eleven in the 2000s (average burnt area of 14,000 ha), and sixteen in the 2010s (average 25,000 ha). Comprehensive knowledge on fire ecology is available but we know little about the historical dynamics that drove the current regime of large-scale fires.

Methodology: pursuing the fire

The diagram below synthesizes the approach of Burning landscapes. Starting from two study foci, the Monchique and the Lapa and Leomil mountain ranges, three axes of analysis are developed which organize an agro-ecological, a political-scientific and a social and ethnographic perspective. Placing fire at the center of historical enquiry gives rise to various research strands (hypotheses, themes, methods, sources, etc.), whose development, connection and finally synthesis constitute the tasks of the project. This meshing of different uses given to fire – from agricultural to scientific and governmental, from resistance to criminal – reshapes the object of study and makes it available to research practices in history, while at the same time preserving it as a biophysical reality. In Burning landscapes, fire is a multiple historical subject and also a method.

Shared management

The project is composed of a multi-university and multidisciplinary team of seven people, joined by two postdoctoral fellows on contract. The circulation of information and decisions tends to be collaborative and horizontal. Miguel Carmo and Ana Isabel Queiroz are the focal points of the administrative and financial management, assuming also coordination. In practice, the management of Burning landscapes is based on monthly meetings and the demultiplication of work teams.

Understanding, outreach, change

To know the burning landscapes in Portugal is an empirical but also methodological challenge, which has implications for the understanding of rural space, the history of forests and fire, and also for the ways of building knowledge, producing and inhabiting. The project contemplates a summary and technical path for integration and dissemination of results, which is addressed to territorial policy managers, and a second path of critical historical analysis towards a contemporary politics of fire in the mountains of Portugal. The links between landscape and fire are seen as a problem of historical knowledge that forms a history of the present at the moment in which the processes controlling the reproduction of burning landscapes today are interrogated. Without the historical perspective we run the risk, nowadays patent, of excluding fire from the landscape so that it always returns to it, as an unwanted but constitutive element: the burning landscapes.

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