Adapting southern Portugal to protect key species and communities

Posted: 8th November 2021

Credit: Harriet Allen

In the fourth of our landscape restoration and climate change mini-series, Matt Burnett, the Communications Coordinator for the Endangered Landscape Programme, spoke to Tânia Salvaterra and Eduardo Santos who have been leading an ELP-funded planning project focused on southern Portugal. Their project investigates how to prepare the landscape for climate change, so that the ecosystem and the communities that live in it, can thrive even as the drought and fire risk increases due to climate change.

MB: Tânia and Eduardo, please tell me about yourselves.

TS: I’m based in Cambridge at UNEP-WCMC (United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre). My work is focused on the use of ecosystem-based adaption and nature-based solutions to help people adapt to climate change.

ES: I’m based in Lisbon at LPN (Liga para a Protecção da Natureza – League for the Protection of Nature), the oldest Portuguese environmental NGO. I am a biologist, focused on nature conservation, and I was responsible for managing the ELP Project Planning Grant “Restoring the Mediterranean landscape of Margem Esquerda – Eastern Guadiana region in Portugal”.

Interviewees Tânia Salvaterra and Eduardo Santos.

MB: What have you been doing in the project?

ES: LPN, alongside partners, has long been working in the Mediterranean mosaic landscape of southern Portugal, namely in the Eastern Guadiana region. One of the main components of this landscape is the savanna-like Montado, an agro-ecosystem dominated by holm and cork oaks with pasture understory, grazed both by domestic and wild herbivores, and interspersed with other habitats, such as riparian vegetation, shrublands, grasslands and farmed areas (e.g. olive groves, annual crops). This mosaic is home to very rich biodiversity, part of the Mediterranean biodiversity hotspot, and a truly cultural landscape where human livelihoods and wildlife traditionally coexisted for centuries.

So far, our main focus has been the conservation of threatened species, such as the Iberian lynx, the Iberian imperial eagle, the cinereous vulture or steppe-land birds (including their prey), as well as specific natural habitats at a local scale.

With the help of the ELP Project Planning Grant (PPG), we decided to plan for larger scale, landscape level, integrated ecological restoration, also taking into account future climate resilience and adaptation.

The project area in the Eastern Guadiana Region of Portugal

MB: What was the outcome of the work?

ES: We were able to produce a plan for the restoration of the Mediterranean mosaic landscape of the Eastern Guadiana region. The ELP PPG enabled consultation with stakeholders regarding the restoration of the region’s landscape, mobilising and engaging people towards such a goal for the first time. Landscape mapping and modelling significantly increased the knowledge available to understand and promote landscape restoration in the region. These fundamental tools are now available to all those seeking to participate in the restoration of Eastern Guadiana’s nature. The resulting climate resilience recommendations produced by UNEP-WCMC and the restoration proposal plan, are therefore the foundation for an integrated landscape-scale restoration strategy that will promote the ecological recovery of the Eastern Guadiana region in the long-term.

TS: Our proposal includes a set of options intended to increase the resilience of the landscape to climate change. For example, we know that due to climate change and intensive agriculture practices, droughts and water scarcity are predicted in the region, leading to reduced soil fertility, soil erosion and desertification, with impact on the livelihoods of local farmers and landowners. Bearing this in mind, we propose that measures to reduce soil erosion and increase water availability are implemented, such as the use of mulching, conservation tillage, or swales and terraces to encourage the accumulation of rain. Farmers and landowners may also create water retention basins and small ponds, which will increase surface water for irrigation and benefit local wildlife. They can also adopt rotational and low-density pasture practices, adjusted to the water availability in the landscape.

We also know this landscape is expected to see increased threats from wildfire due to climate change, exacerbated by land abandonment and changes in farming activities in the region. Because of this, we also propose proactive and more “hands-on” measures to reduce the potential of spread and intensity of a wildfire, such as targeted cleaning of shrubs, creation of fire breaks and removal of dead vegetation in areas at risk.

The Iberian lynx is one of the species threatened by climate change. Photo credit: Joaquim Pedro Ferreira

MB: Why did you choose to do this work?

ES: Our objective was precisely to expand both the scale and the reach of our previous work, aiming at promoting landscape level nature conservation to enable the natural processes and fabric of the Mediterranean mosaic landscape to be restored, strengthened and sustained. We are targeting not only species conservation, but also restoration of priority habitats, ecosystems and ecosystem services, building climate resilience, and improving the adaptive capacity of local actors.

TS: It is important to preserve the unique ecological, social and cultural value of this landscape. Also if climate change is considered from the onset of the project, the success of the restoration measures will be more likely.

Protecting the threatened cinereous vulture has been an early focus of the team’s work.

MB: Are you hopeful about our ability to combat climate change?

TS: There is a lot to do and we need to do it much faster, but hope is an attitude that can lead to change, so I think being hopeful and taking action are our only options. We have plenty of knowledge about what needs to be done and a range of evidence-based solutions that can help us become more resilient to the changes already underway. For example, protecting and restoring nature can contribute positively to the health and productivity of ecosystems, increasing their resilience to climate change, and ensuring they can endure disturbances (such as drought or flooding events), without severe consequences for people’s wellbeing and livelihoods. This is what we proposed in the restoration plan for the Montado, which would avoid the area becoming a source of carbon emissions through deforestation and land degradation, help it become more resilient to withstanding climate impacts, as well as bring wider benefits for local people.

MB: How does your work tie in to COP26? 

TS: At COP26 there is a push for countries to build resilience to climate change and to use nature to contribute to these efforts, for example through protecting and restoring ecosystems. Our proposed restoration plan for the Montado is relevant to these efforts, as it would enable the ecological restoration of the threatened Mediterranean mosaic landscape of the Eastern Guadiana region, making it wilder, more self-sufficient and climate resilient. This will be achieved by promoting biodiversity conservation, recovering ecosystems’ structure and function, sustainable agricultural and land management practices and improved governance. Beyond COP26, this work is also relevant for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which calls for the protection and restoration of nature to benefit people and counteract climate change.

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