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Home arrow Study sites arrow Macao, Portugal
Macao, Portugal PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joost   

Responsible IP partner: University of Aveiro and Escola Superior Agrária de Coimbra

1. General information

Main reason for selecting this site/region:
Mação is one of four UNCCD Pilot Areas in Portugal. Placed in the transition of semi-arid to sub-humid region in Portugal, it has undergone severe drought periods that completely changed the face of the region during the past decade. In fact, the drought impacts were catalyzed by catastrophic forest fires that burned down to ashes most of the municipality forest area. Some of the areas were burned twice in 5 years over the last decade, leading to a severe soil and vegetation degradation. In addition, the socio-economic situation is grim, being the Portuguese municipality with the highest percentage of old people.

Ongoing global change processes are degrading the soils, reducing water conservation and leading to extended poverty, which results in the fleeing of young people and consequent population aging. Currently, several National and European development projects are being or were implemented to reverse the environmental and socio-economic degradation processes. DESIRE will provide a framework that will allow a deeper insight into the degradation processes and that will assess the efficiency of the measures currently taken to reverse those degradation processes.

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Participating local partner institutions:
Exploratory connections were made with the UNCCD focal point, the Mação Municipality, the Institute for the Agrarian Development of the Center Region (IDARC), which is an association that includes all the farmers and agro-food industries in the region, and the Coordination Commission for the Development of the Center Region, which is the Governmental Environmental and Planning Agency for the entire region and has important responsibilities in combating desertification. Several research projects were successful in the past, and several development projects financed by the Portuguese Government, the European Union and other international downers are currently being implemented, proving the willingness of all key actors and stakeholders to reverse the environmental and socio-economic situation. These circumstances are a guarantee that the DESIRE approach will provide overall guidance and will assess the ongoing degradation projects.

2. Geographical description
Mação is in a transitional zone between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean climate types, and is located on the northern bank of the lower Tejo River (central Portugal). In a 20 km north-south transect, rainfall varies from 1000 mm in the North to less than 600 mm per year in the South. Several drought years occurred recently. The soils are typically very shallow and stony Humic cambisols, in some places less than 20 cm deep, as a result of long term soil erosion processes. Major hazard arises from bad agriculture and forestry practices, such as ploughing from the top to the bottom of slopes, and from frequent forest fires.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Mação had a highly diversified landscape supporting multi-purpose activities: subsistence farming, grazing of sheep and goats and forest, used for timber and resin extraction. In the 50’s and 60’s, a massive migration towards Lisbon led to major changes in land use. The surface area of pasture and agriculture decreased and was replaced by shrubs and forest (i.e. Pinus pinater until the mid 80s, Eucalyptus globulus thereafter). Degraded shrublands and pine regrowth appear as a result of forest fires. More than 80% of the municipality area burned down in the 2003 and 2005 summer fires.

In recent years, several policies have been designed and implemented to promote soil conservation and improve agricultural and silvicultural sectors, at European and National levels. Several projects are recently being implemented, specially aiming to reforest part of the burned areas.
Results from previous projects show a wide range of soil erosion rates and overland flow amounts for the various land uses, with some conservative land uses such as the mature pine, and the eucalyptus plantations in terraces. All the other land uses show soil losses at least forty times higher, on average, and significantly higher overland flow amounts. Among the land uses with higher risk are those resulting directly or indirectly from human activity, such as the olive grove ploughing and fallow, or the wildfires and regrowth pine.

Bare slope with burnt tree stumps
Eucaliptus tree slope

3. Institutional and political setting
Catastrophic forest fires of 2005 and 2003 raised a wave of national and international concern about environmental degradation and consequent socio-economic poverty. The Mação Municipality has benefited from the European Union Solidarity Fund and some help from the Swiss Government. In addition, the “Direcção Geral dos Recursos Florestais” (Portuguese Government National Forest Resources Directorate) has put a significant effort to reforest the burned areas. This was achieved with the help of the AGRIS programme (partially funded by the European Union), the “Fundo Florestal Permanente” (Permanent Forest Fund) and the “Projecto Municipal de Defesa contra Fogos Florestais” (Municipal project of Defence against Forest Fires), financed by the Portuguese Government.

Reforestation efforts are not new. For example, The Forestry Action Plan (1986-1993), the Forestry Development Plan (1994-98) and the EEC 2080/92 regulation all promoted forestry. Some measures were taken to reduce forest fire risk, but the probability of forest fires remains high. Nevertheless, the afforestation paradigm remains, without accounting for climatic change impacts. Furthermore, these efforts are confined to the forest sector, involving DGRF (where the Portuguese UNCCD focal point is based) and the Municipality of Mação. Other sectors have been excluded from the solution.
This is an area where DESIRE can play an important and decisive role, by measuring the impact of alternative land management practices and on a higher diversification of economic activities, which take into account the global change consequences on the soil and ecosystem degradation, namely the climatic change and socio-economic change implications.

4. Relevant end-users / stakeholder groups
A close working relation has been established during the past years between the Portuguese teams involved in the DESIRE proposal and the Portuguese UNCCD focal point. In addition, the relationships between the Portuguese teams involved in DESIRE and the local authorities, (i.e. Mação Municipality), regional authorities (i.e. CCDRC) and the regional federation of farmers for the development (i.e. IDARC) exist for more than a decade and were built and reinforced under several previous common research and development projects, since 1992. All the institutions involved are willing to become a member of the project Stakeholder and End-user Board, and all are deeply involved in the Mação Area.


The UNCCD focal point in Portugal is part of the “Direcção Geral dos Recursos Florestais” (Forest Services), which have been playing an important role, developing reforestation programmes following the 2003 and 2005 catastrophic fires.The Mação Municipality is the ultimate responsible for the management of the territory and their resources, having an active role in the planning and acting over the municipality territory.
CCDRC is the regional Governmental board with responsibilities for the environment and planning, and with responsibilities in the management of EU and Governmental investment in the region.
IDARC, as the summit farmers association for agriculture development, plays an important role in the demonstration of new techniques and in promoting courses for farmers.  

Gully formation
Rill formation

5. Past and on-going projects
Due to the grim environmental and socio-economic context, the Mação area has been a study area since 1992, under the IBERLIM project (EV5V-0041) “Land management practice and erosion limitation in contrasting wildfire and gullied locations in the Iberian Peninsula”, (1992-1994), in which the impacts of forest fires were assessed.

The MEDCHANGE Project (ERB-IC18-CT97-0147), “Effects of land use and land management practices changes on land degradation under forest and grazing ecosystems” (1997-2000) and the MEDAFOR Project (ENV4-CT97-0686) “Consequences for the mitigation of desertification of EU policies affecting forestry activity: a combined Socio-economic and Physical environmental approach” (1998-2001) allowed a deeper insight in degradation processes. The absence of a deep integration of end-users within the projects limited the transfer of knowledge from the research level to the operational level.


The Mação area was also one of the study area under the CLIMED Project (ICA3-2000-30005) “Effects of climate change and climate variability in water availability and water management practices in Western Mediterranean” (2001-2004), in which the flood risk and drought strategies were evaluated, with special emphasis for the readiness of local communities to face global change challenges.


These studies revealed how unprepared the local communities were to face the challenges global change will pose on natural resources management, and the lack of credible alternatives. Being in a transition area between the sub-humid and the semi-arid type of climates, studies so far lack the overall perspective able to compare a wide range of experiences in order to propose alternative feasible sustainable solutions. Furthermore, the participatory dimension of DESIRE is expected to produce more profound impacts than  previous projects, where the effective participation of the key actors and stakeholders was not achieved.

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