Why Italy is struggling to contain forest fires | Environment | All topics, from climate change to conservation | DW
Southern Europe is currently experiencing one of the worst heat waves in decades, with Italy, Greece, Spain and Turkey all battling wildfires.
Fires have been raging across Italy for weeks. Several central and southern regions have lost tens of thousands of hectares of forest. In Sardinia, botanists are alarmed by the decimation of local biodiversity and the number of centuries-old olive groves destroyed. In Sicily, forest fires reached Catania, where around 150 people were evacuated by sea, and the airport was closed for several hours.
Since June 15, firefighters have been called more than 37,000 times, including 1,500 on Sunday alone. The reason Italy is struggling to deal with the problem is a combination of political responsibilities, bureaucracy to protect forests and suspected criminal activity.
Links to arson and the Mafia
According to Coldiretti, the largest association of farmers in Italy, at least 60% of forest fires in Italy have been started by arson.
Two arsonists were arrested on August 2 in Troina, a rural town in the province of Enna, central Sicily, where numerous solar power plants are being built. This has raised suspicion because such plants take land away from agriculture.
“We have to pay close attention to the assumption that the solar sector wants to weaken local farmers, forcing them to do something else,” Fabio Venezia, mayor of Troina, told the Italian newspaper. The Republic, suggesting that arson could be a strategy to force farmers to sell their land – but he didn’t blame the companies directly.
To avoid such scenarios, a national law dating from 2000 prohibits a change in land use within 15 years of a fire. However, it is up to the local authorities to apply the law correctly and the law allows certain exceptions.
These suspicions are currently being investigated by the Sicilian Anti-Mafia Commission – a body set up by the Sicilian parliament – which is auditing certain landowners who have allegedly been approached by intermediaries offering to sell the land to subsidiaries of the solar sector.
“It is necessary to reflect on what is happening,” Claudio Fava, chairman of the committee, told the news site. Live Sicily. “There has been a spasmodic search for land that can be purchased at € 30,000 per hectare, while 200 photovoltaic project files have already been submitted to the regional government. Prosecutors in Sicily and other areas have opened arson investigations, but the existence of a criminal plan has not yet been proven.
Insufficient funding and staff shortage
Criminal assumptions aside, the slow response to the fires was also a major problem. For years, firefighters have complained that they cannot guarantee adequate services due to insufficient funding and a lack of personnel.
A 2016 law merged the National Forestry Corp with the Carabinieri (Italian military police body), making firefighters – who typically operate in urban areas – responsible for most bushfire control tasks. Because fire prevention is managed at the regional level, regional governments must sign periodic cooperation protocols with firefighters, even if the latter do not always have the means to fight fires in rural areas, which are heavily affected by fire. Drought.
According to local authorities, reservoirs in Sicily have about 78 million cubic meters less water than last year, the lowest level in this decade. For this reason, in January 2021, the Sicilian government allocated 20 million euros to farmers to improve water reserve capacities.
According to to a 2019 reportby the Italian National Research Center (CNR), 70% of Sicily is threatened with desertification. In central and southern Italy, this figure varies from 30% in Sardinia to over 50% in Puglia.
Hundreds of people were evacuated in the province of Oristano, Sardinia
Forest management and bureaucracy
Nevertheless, forests in Italy have increased by around 25% over the past 30 years, growing from 9 million to 11.4 million hectares and covering 38% of the country. This is the same amount as in Germany, which is about 55,000 square kilometers larger than Italy.
One of the reasons for the expansion of forests is population decline in rural areas. Nevertheless, “the forestry sector is still, in part, conditioned by a culture that dates back to the 19th century, when the country adopted strict legislation for the protection of wooded areas and created a special forest police”, explains Davide Pettenella, professor. at the Department of Lands, Environment, Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Padua. “In fact, the most powerful forest policy instruments remain regulatory constraints. A paradigm shift is necessary: from ‘forbid to protect’ to ‘manage to enhance’. ”
In 2020, for example, the Council of State – the highest body in the Italian administrative justice system – ruled that local authorities responsible for forest management in Tuscany cannot fell trees without obtaining permission from the Office of the Superintendent of Landscaping. This extra layer of bureaucracy slowed down the work.
On August 1, a fire ravaged the Pineta Dannunziana, an urban pine forest in the town of Pescara, forcing 800 people to flee their homes. At least a dozen were injured, including a 5-year-old girl, and tourists were forced to flee the beach as flames neared bathing establishments.
“La Pineta Dannunziana is considered by law as an ‘integral nature reserve’ and therefore cannot be subject to forest management, despite warnings from agronomists,” said Carlo Masci, mayor of Pescara. “The undergrowth burned very quickly.”
Forest fires have reached Le Capannine beach in Catania, Sicily
A missed fundraising opportunity
According to environmental associations, Italy should not have let pass the opportunity offered by NextGenerationEU to at least strengthen the protection of forests with some resources. NextGenerationEU is the EU’s plan to support the economic recovery of member states affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Italy received 235.14 billion euros from the fund, making it its main beneficiary.
But the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) presented by the Italian government to access these funds, “does not allocate a single euro to forests”, explains Marco Bussone, president of the National Union of Municipalities, Communities and mountain entities (UNCEM). “There is only 140 million euros for ‘green communities’ – eco-sustainable mountain communities – which we got after a lot of effort.”
In 2018, the Italian government passed an innovative law on forest management, which Bussone describes as “one of the best in Europe”. However, the law was not properly enforced because it was not supported by the necessary resources which UNCEM estimates would be at least 100 million euros per year.
“It is an absurd situation for a country made of forests like Italy,” said Bussone.