Fighting Forest Fires and Climate Change on La Gomera | The Ecologist

First published on January 30, 2017 by The Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/Blogs/2988588/witness_the_la_gomera_forest_fires.html


Discussions around the effects of climate change tend to focus on the planet’s polar extremes, expanding deserts or low-lying areas. La Gomera – a subtropical forest perched more than a thousand metres above the ocean – is also at risk.

Señor Ángel Fernández is precisely the sort of person you want in charge of a project where failure is not an option. Meticulous, knowledgeable, patient and, above all, determined, this is not a man prone to exaggeration nor one likely to overlook an important detail.

I am sitting with Mr. Fernández in his modern, glass-walled and – mercifully, given the midday heat – air-conditioned office in San Sebastian, the main town on the island of La Gomera, a beautiful, volcanic outpost 18 miles west of Tenerife.  In 2012, the island was hit by a huge fire – ‘El Gran Fuego’ – which devastated around a fifth of Garajonay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the undisputed jewel in La Gomera’s already sparkling crown.

The forest that defines the park is the best-surviving example of an ancient eco-system that once covered much of Europe and North Africa, but is now found only on the Canaries, the Azores and Madeira. Its trees are central to all life on the island, capturing the daily clouds of the trade winds and transforming them into precious water. It is this process which turns this hot, jagged rock at the edge of the old world into a lush and vibrant paradise.

But, like so many natural wonders, this magical forest is at the mercy of human beings.

Mr. Fernandez – the director of the park and the man charged with overseeing its recovery – explains that in summer of 2012 around 30 relatively small fires were detected and extinguished. Almost all of these, he says, were started by people, and while some were caused by carelessness – a thoughtlessly discarded cigarette or a poorly-controlled camp fire – many were the work of “incendiarios” – arsonists.

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In the case of El Gran Fuego, which started in late summer, Mr Fernández is in no doubt about what happened.

“It was deliberate,” he says gravely, his shoulders dropping just a little.

“The conditions were very dry that year, so when the fire was started it spread extremely quickly and was very difficult to stop.”

“It came in two waves, disappearing for a few days – hiding – before coming back to do more damage. It was not completely extinguished until the rains came in October.”

“But the problem is not just the people starting the fires,” he adds. “You really have to understand what has happened here as part of the global change taking place.”

Discussions around the effects of climate change tend to focus on the planet’s polar extremes, expanding deserts or low-lying areas; but here, a subtropical forest perched more than a thousand metres above the ocean is at risk due to humanity’s impact on the fabric of our world.

“Human activity means that all around the world environments are changing,” Mr Fernández says. “Many countries are experiencing problems with fire as temperatures go up. It is the same for us and we have to find a way to respond.”

Conscious, perhaps, that he is speaking to a citizen of ‘Brexit Britain’, Mr. Fernández points out that the EU has been crucial to the recovery effort so far. In particular, money from the little-known ‘Life+ Programme’ – which distributes billions of Euros to support ‘environment and climate action’ – has helped fund initiatives and experiments in areas such as fire prevention, soil restoration and tree regrowth.

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Some of the most effective solutions have been relatively simple, for instance, the creation of ‘barricados’ – a series of dam-like structures, formed of the blackened remains of trees and designed to prevent the fragile soil from being washed off the slopes – and the decision to replace highly-flammable plants with native, slow-burning alternatives in critical areas.

Other ideas are more high-tech. Mr. Fernández tells me of plans to establish fire-response systems which make use of linked, automated water-cannons. These arrays, he says, will be moved rapidly into areas threatened by future fires and then used to block the path of the flames.

Above all, Mr. Fernández emphasises the complexity of the challenges faced by the people of La Gomera. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“You cannot approach this as being a single problem,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “Instead we see it as lots of connected problems affecting particular areas. We are making good progress and in time the forest will recover, but a range of different actions will be necessary to protect the forest for the future.”

That complexity is made real for me the next day when I meet Ricardo, a park ranger who shows me some of the areas directly affected by the flames. We meet at Laguna Grande, a remarkable clearing high in the forest and the symbolic centre of the island.

“It is actually like a miracle that this is still here,” Ricardo tells me, smiling.

When the fire was at its most destructive, huge walls of flame raged all around this area. In some instances the inferno was so intense that when it reached a barrier – a wider section of road, for instance, or a sudden rocky ridge – it simply leapt into the sky (“like a nuclear bomb”) and then swept forward to consume a new patch of pristine, priceless forest.

Yet amidst the destruction, the Laguna itself remained untouched, as though the heart of La Gomera had been somehow protected.

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Many other areas were not so lucky. Over the next few hours we visit a number of sites where the impact of the fire is visible at first-hand.

The first stop is down a tree-lined path that drops from the roadside into the forest.

“This part here is a sort of sanctuary, but just a little further… , ” Ricardo says, leaving the sentence hanging in the still, early-morning air as we walk on.

Minutes later it’s like we’ve stumbled into another world. All around us the remains of thirty-foot heather trees stand, blackened and broken, the charred skeletons frozen in their final, terrifying moments, reaching up to the sky and calling out for help that never came.

“Some of the burned trees had to be cut down but we have learned that it is better for the new plants to leave some standing, especially the heather. Even like this they bring water to the soil and allow new life.”

Other areas reveal similar themes but with different details. Echoing Mr Fernandez, Ricardo believes a range of approaches is necessary to treat the diverse problems that scatter the park.

“In some places the trees are re-growing on their own and, in time, the forest will be fine. In others we have planted a lot of trees to help nature recover a little faster.”

A little later, and just a few miles down the road, we are walking through another of the fire-damaged sites when a familiar looking shrub catches my eye. It is a variety of gorse native to the Canary Islands which, according to Ricardo, is both a blessing and curse.

“It helps to repair the soil by providing nitrogen,” he tells me. “In some areas we have to let it grow because without it other plants will not be able to survive, but it is also dangerous. It burns very quickly and we are always worried about another fire.”

“We have to be careful to get it right.”

He pauses for a moment, looking out over valley below.

Then, with the same blend of confidence and determination that I saw twenty-four hours earlier, he adds: “Some areas will take many years to recover but it will be ok. We will keep working.”

“The forest belongs to everyone and we must protect it for the future.”

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With thanks to the Turismo La Gomera for their assistance arranging my visit.

Lady Florence’s Island Legacy Lives On | Scottish Catholic Observer

First published on December 23, 2016 by the Scottish Catholic Observer


JAMES MCENANEY reveals the story of the English woman who built a chapel on La Gomera in 1935

In many ways the island of La Gomera, one of the smallest and least developed of the Canaries, seems the perfect opposite of its larger, more famous neighbours. This is not a place defined by flesh-covered beaches, crowded hotel developments or hedonistic night life; instead, the true value of this precious gem is measured in its stunning viewpoints and the faultless warmth of a people who understand just how lucky they are to call this place home.

Amidst all of this, however, it is simply impossible to ignore another charming feature of La Gomera: the beautiful, tiny chapels sprinkled all around the island, many just a few metres from the roadside. Some are found in the heart of the various towns and villages, but many stand, stoically and timelessly, on the edge of towering cliffs, looking down on incredible valleys, ocean views and improbable, picture-perfect settlements clinging to the rocky slopes.

There is a real sense of these buildings being woven into the history of the island itself, providing a physical link between the present and the past; their very existence a testament to the dedication and devotion of a people who have quite literally hacked their living out of the steep, volcanic slopes.

Every single one feels genuinely special but, in speaking with the people here, one name comes up again and again: Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes (Hermitage of Our Lady of Lourdes).

Locals enthusiastically describe a tiny chapel with a remarkable story to tell, hidden away in the heart of the ancient, UNESCO-recognised forest of the Garajonay National Park. It was, they tell me, ‘built by The Englishwoman, Doña Florencia’ in 1935, and was once the scene of huge fiestas that went on through the night. I must, they insist, find the time to visit.

The road to El Cedro, a tiny hamlet that is the closest settlement to the Ermita, is an old but perfectly formed ribbon of paved stone that wobbles and hiccups beneath the rear wheel of my motorbike. It does not reach all the way to the chapel itself, but that’s not a problem: in a place like this it would be disrespectful not to do at least some of my exploration on foot.

The narrow path meanders through the forest, mostly following the route of a shallow, burbling stream as it twists and turns its way up into the valley.

Along the way it skirts around a handful of scattered, empty houses, some little more than a stone shell in the process of being swallowed whole by the encroaching plant-life.

Passing by, the feeling is not dissimilar to walking through an abandoned croft or hamlet in the more remote areas of Scotland, the ghosts of lives not lived hanging in the air like fog. And then, finally, I see it: the briefest, brightest glimpse of whitewashed walls piercing through the vibrant greens and browns. Within moments the path emerges from beneath the canopy and the forest gives up its incredible secret.

The Ermita stands serenely within a bespoke, stone-floored clearing, its brilliant white walls awash in the flooding rays of the mid-afternoon sun. The only sounds are the low hush of the stream— the only water source on the island that never runs dry—and the melodious chatter of birds bouncing from branch to branch. The building itself is formed of a pair of rectangular, stone structures adjoined at the rear under a typical red-tiled roof. The only decoration is a small stone arch above the front wall—within which an ancient bell hangs below a plain white cross—and, below that, a rectangular, grey-stone plaque bearing a simple, fascinating inscription: “Rogad por doña Florencia Stephen Parry, En 1964, A cuya devocion mariana, Debemos la ereccion de esta ermita.”

Translated, it simply means: “Pray for Lady Florence Stephen Parry, 1964, whose devotion we owe for the erection of this hermitage.”

Born in India to a British father and a Greek mother, Florence grew up in England where she worked as a nurse and, later, as a journalist.

Having lost her fiancé to the battlefields of World War One, she sought to escape by starting a new life in the Canary Islands, taking on the role of governess to the children of a wealthy Italian, Mario Novaro Parodi, who owned a fish cannery on La Gomera’s rugged southern coast.

Florence worked for the family until the children had either grown or, in the case of the boys, been sent to Italy to continue their education.

At this point she relocated to the beautiful northern village of Hermigua and began working for the Ffyfes fruit company, arranging exports of bananas and tomatoes from La Gomera back to the UK. It was during this time that Florence began to visit El Cedro, forming a special bond with the tiny settlement and even keeping a small house there. Upon her retirement, she oversaw the construction of a building known as The House of Peace in Hermigua, then turned her attentions and energy to the construction of a chapel.

In 1935 she succeeded in ensuring that proposals to create a place of worship for the people of El Cedro were accepted and financially supported.

Perhaps in appreciation for what she regarded as the healing qualities of El Cedro’s remarkable climate, which she believed had helped address the symptoms of her asthma, the chapel was built in dedication to Our Lady of Lourdes.

Having converted to Catholicism in 1924, Florence finally saw her ambition and devotion realised with the completion of the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes.

The rest, as they say, is history, and although the donations and support of many people were crucial to the founding of the Ermita, it is the vital contribution of Florence Stephen Parry that is still celebrated. Every year, on the last Sunday in August, a fiesta is still held there, with local people coming together for a joyous procession punctuated by the beating of drums and the cheers of the faithful.

Florence finally left La Gomera in 1950, moving to the neighbouring island of Tenerife. She spent her final years in the town of Santa Cruz where, in 1964, she passed away.

Although her last days were spent away from La Gomera, her memory lives on, forever bound to her wonderful, timeless gift to the island, its people, and anyone lucky enough to have the chance to see it for themselves.

Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is obvious that the miraculous Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes remains precious to the people here. What is also clear is the real, lasting affection for Doña Florencia, the English woman who came to La Gomera to escape her past and became a part of the island’s history.