Media and political attention has focused on the Sierra Bermeja forest fire in recent days, a fire that has claimed the life of a forest firefighter and has burned almost 10,000 hectares. This dramatic event has revealed the lack of personnel for the conservation of Andalusian natural heritage, as it has been claiming for years Association of Environmental Agents of Andalusia (AAMAA). The data of this group detail that there are currently 720 environmental agents in the autonomous community. Ten years ago there were 1,300.
The bureaucracy suffocates the rural environment: the Junta de Andalucía only allocates 0.8% of the budget for fire prevention
“Every time an offer comes out there is a great demand. The problem is that the places are not taken out even to cover retirements,” says the president of AAMAA, José Miguel Bellido, despite the fact that in the last three years the administration has called offers of public employment. Also, the body is aging. The average age is 56 years, while 60% of the workforce is over 55, according to the association.
“We can talk about dismantling due to retirement,” says an Environment agent from Unit No. 5 Estrecho y Campo de Gibraltar. “My unit is one of the best. We are a coordinator and eight agents, but we have gone from 28 to 20 agents in three years without the pensions having been replenished and we have another four in a short time.”
The AAMAA estimates that each Integrating Unit should have a staff of between eight and twelve agents. The one in Valle del Genal, corresponding to the towns of the Sierra Bermeja, only has four people assigned: a coordinator and 3 environmental agents, although one of them performs their duties in another destination for service reasons. “Obviously this is insufficient but it is a piece of information that is not only limited to this area but is something general throughout Andalusia”, says Bellido.
“Multitude of skills”
“I remember a colleague, a former forest guard, who only took care of the public mountains, the pine forests,” says the official from Cadiz. And he adds: “Now we are like a tin jar with a multitude of new skills.”
The functions of an environmental agent are divided between technical management (forestry, hunting, fauna and flora, environmental protection …), emergencies (fires, spills, floods, search and rescue …) and environmental police . “We have competences of industry, pollution, coasts, water management … The same thing they call you because they have found an injured vulture, to control a beach bar or to determine the extent of a plague”, says the member of the Unit N ° 5 Strait and Campo de Gibraltar. With the COVID-19 pandemic, agents have even controlled disinfection tasks.
Since its creation in 2001, the AAMAA has called for an increase in the number of staff to “efficiently attend to” forest management tasks in view of the “alarming decrease in agents suffered in recent years.” For this, he advocates the “creation of areas of specialization” that would favor the distribution of responsibilities and that environmental agents were not involved in “paperwork.” They also ask that they be considered as a special body that distinguishes them from the general administration by the “specificity of their collective.”
The president of the AMAA emphasizes that the functions of the agents go “beyond the fires” and that they dedicate “a lot of time” to the bureaucracy. Thus, forest management tasks are diluted within technical tasks and, consequently, surveillance in the field is reduced.
The AMAA estimates that – “as a minimum and as there were already” – 1,300 agents are necessary to guarantee the protection of the Andalusian forest territory. The sources consulted point out that the lack of personnel and the extensive menu of services complicates forest fire prevention. It’s not the only one.
“Too much attention is devoted to putting out the fire and too little to preventing it,” complains the general secretary of the Savia Foundation, Antonio Aguilera, who considers the budget allocation for forest management in Andalusia “insufficient”.
The Emergency Plan for Forest Fires of Andalusia (Infoca Plan) of 2021 has an item for the extinction of forest fires of 90.9 million euros while 84.2 million are allocated to prevention, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock , Fisheries and the Environment. The counselor of the branch, Carmen Crespo, boasted that in three years of legislature the Andalusian Government has increased the budget for the Infoca Plan “by 4.5% more than in the last year of the previous Government.”
“The extinction budget applies to all of Andalusia while the prevention budget only applies to public forests”, he clarifies the Andalusian Forestry Association (AFA – Profor). The Andalusian territory has an area of more than 87,000km² while the totality of public forests is 12,628km², according to the Catalog of Public Forests of Andalusia. “The provision for prevention must be significantly higher than that for extinction. It is striking because a lot of forest management and planning is lacking,” says Aguilera, who is also a European Climate Ambassador.
It should be noted, as this newspaper published, that the Junta de Andalucía has only allocated 0.8% of the budget for fire prevention. In other words, 127,384 euros of the 14.5 million euros budgeted have been invested.
Forest policy issue
Beyond the budget debate, Aguilera is clear that one of the consequences of the Sierra Bermeja fire is “terrible forest management.” For this reason, it claims the updating of the Andalusian Forest Plan (PFA) which was approved unanimously in the Andalusian Parliament in 1989.
This document is the tool for “the management and planning of the forest environment of the autonomous community, with the aim of guaranteeing the good state of its conservation as well as promoting a sustainable use of its exploitation”. In its PFA approval, it already advanced problems of depopulation, loss of rainfall or rising temperatures as factors for the increase in forest fires. 32 years ago.
The president of AFA-Profor, Miguel Cueto, calls for a renewal of the staff of technicians and environmental agents, but also urges the administration to take measures in terms of forest management. “Planning, forest management, forest exploitation, hunting, extensive livestock, public use, forest restoration … All of them, from a scientific, technical and social point of view, add or subtract in the face of That is why the response to fires is neither more spending on extinction, nor on prevention. The answer cannot be other than a forest policy that deserves such a name, and responds to current challenges. It is evident that the last 30 years it has not given that answer “, expresses AFA-Profor in a note sent to elDiario.es/Andalucía.
* This newspaper has contacted the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Sustainable Development to find out the details of the situation of environmental agents in Andalusia as well as to obtain an assessment of the measures implemented by the Government Andalusian in terms of forest management or if an update of the Andalusian Forest Plan is proposed. This newspaper has not received a response.