Smart Solutions

Village Protection Zone

A community-initiated forest management system aimed at protecting the village and fire and the restoration and structural regeneration of the surrounding forestry area and landscape.

Implemented inFerraria de São João

Country : Portugal

What’s the solution?

The creation of a Village Protection Zone (VPZ) involves the establishment of a strip around the village of about 100-meters wide, in which highly flammable trees (pine, eucalyptus) are uprooted and replaced with autochthonous trees more resistant to fire, such as Chestnuts (Castanea sativa), Cork oaks (Quercus suber), European oaks (Quercus robur) and Cherry Trees (Prunus avium).

The creation of the protection zone is combined with the preparation of new forest management models in the form of a Masterplan for the sustainable management and development of the forest and the structural regeneration of the landscape post-forest fires. This Masterplan is based on an agro-regenerative approaches and draws inspiration from the principles of permaculture design, key-line design, natural agriculture, holistic pastoralism and biodynamic agriculture.

What makes it smart?

The solution is an example of social innovation that arose from the trauma of a 2017 forest fire. In addition to having stimulated the mobilisation of the whole community around common interests and vision, the local community made the decision to take action into their own hands, as it didn't want to wait for a political and territorial planning solution, which usually take too long and sometimes do not meet the specific needs of rural communities.

The expression "Make it happen" became the village's slogan, under which were developed the volunteering actions with the contribution of about 500 volunteers distributed by 18 volunteering actions.

The approach also achieves multiple local development objectives in one solution as it: (i) seeks a balance between ecosystem services (e.g. biodiversity, soil and water conservation) and productive functions of land for forest and agriculture; (ii) ensures the safety of people and their possessions; and (iii) minimises the threat of forest fires to economy and local natural, cultural and built heritage.

This proactive initiative that combined principles of economic viability, environmental sustainability and social responsibility, became an example at national level, and was closely followed by other neighbouring villages.

How is the solution implemented?

  • Bring the community together to discuss the need for a Village Protection Zone and the recovery of surrounding forest area on the basis of principles of sustainability.
  • Conduct a series of village meetings to continue explaining and discussing the costs and benefits
  • Engage local forest owners in mapping the forestry area around the village with GPS – identify the zone to be cleared and trees presenting a fire risk.
  • Engage local people and associations as volunteers in removing high-risk trees and planting autochthonous trees.
  • Create firebreaks and terraces to retain soil against erosion.
  • Consider introducing grazing animals – such as goats – to help manage the land and reduce fire risks from overgrowth.
  • Consider engaging an expert in long-term sustainable forest management
  • Develop, through a participatory process with local people a Masterplan for the long-term management and sustainable development of the surrounding forest area.
  • Define an action plan and responsibilities for implementing the Masterplan.
  • Start to implement forest management actions using volunteers where possible
  • Continue activities of knowledge sharing and awareness raising regarding forests' economic and environmental value and the importance of their appropriate management for preventing forest fires.

In what local context has it been applied?

Ferraria de São João is a small village in the municipality of Penela in central Portugal. The whole municipality is characterised by its rurality, with low population density, ageing and demographic decline. It has extensive forestry areas and strong values in the primary sector. However, it lacks an entrepreneurial culture and has low levels of education and qualification. The rural area has unsatisfactory access to social services, as well as other factors which have been hampering suitable and effective development processes. This scenario is aggravated by the problematic situation related to forest fires, which occur frequently and often with great intensity and devastation.

The village of Ferraria de São João itself is situated on a mountain slope at an altitude of about 650 meters, with approximately 50 permanent residents. It is surrounded by a diversified landscape, of which a centenary forest densely populated with native species such as chestnut (castanea sativa) and secular cork oaks (quercus suber) stands out. It has an extensive area occupied with plantations of eucalyptus for industrial purposes.

Over the last decades, depopulation and pronounced ageing resulted inevitability in the progressive abandonment of houses and of agricultural and forest activities in the village and across the whole municipality. These circumstances had significant negative effects, such as the fading of economic dynamism, the degradation of the natural and built heritage, the loss of local cultural identity and traditions, and the deficit of active forest management and, consequently, exacerbation of the risk and of the occurrence of forest fires.

In June 2017, a devastating forest fire surrounded the village. The flames came down the mountain in a full width front and then stopped. The village was saved from the burning on account of a small area with centennial cork oaks and other native hardwood trees that did not allow the fire to advance. Though, the surroundings of the village were almost completely destroyed covering about 53,000 ha of forest, causing the death of 66 people and injuries to more than 250, and destroying a number of households and businesses.

To avoid reliving those traumatic moments the local community mobilized to protect the village. They were also motivated to recover the natural heritage around the village, not only due to its patrimonial and environmental value, but also because forest and forest products, pastoralism (milk goats), subsistence agriculture and goat cheese produced using traditional methods are still important activities in the village.

Who was behind the implementation?

  • Municipality of Penela;
  • Association of Residents of Ferraria de São João;
  • Local community (including tourism entrepreneurs);
  • Non-resident forest owners;
  • Local association of producers and forest owners;
  • Consultancy and planning company (specialised services in advising, planning, implementing and managing regenerative agriculture). (support from 2020 onwards);
  • Environmental Non-Governmental Organisation (support between 2017-2019);
  • Volunteers (from informal groups to companies, scouts and schools).

What was the local journey?

From the deep social, economic and environmental disruption, caused by the catastrophic forest fire, it emerged a recovery process that started without delay.

  • Only one week after the forest fires in June 2017, a village assembly brought together the main stakeholders (e.g. 50 of the 70 forest owners) and set in motion an ambitious work plan aimed at protecting people and their possessions and at minimising the threat of forest fires towards the local economy and ecosystems. This first meeting resulted in the emblematic decision of creating a VPZ, while having as future objectives the recovery of the forest area on the basis of principles of sustainability.
  • A series of village meetings took place so that decisions were taken collectively and respecting the opinion and experience of each one (by December 2017 there had been 14 meetings with the community).
  • Work was undertaken to map the forestry area around the village with GPS so that the work of removing eucalyptus and roots could be carried out without jeopardising the delimitation of the land. This process lasted until March 2018 and involved about 80 forest owners of about 250 parcels.
  • Funding was mobilised from the Association of Residents and through the corporate social responsibility action of the Portuguese Tourism Programme Fund (ERDF) to cover initial implementation costs.
  • The next task was the execution of agroforestry activities (e.g. uproot eucalyptus trees, plant autochthonous trees, create firebreaks and terraces to retain soil against erosion, introduce a herd of goats - which, in addition to its function of 'cleaning' the forestry area could be a source of income). These activities were carried out by the local community and the Association of Residents with contributions from their own resources (e.g. equipment, volunteer actions). Indeed, the solidarity movements were many, and the work was carried out by approximately 500 volunteers throughout 17 actions in the period 2017-2019. Volunteers were supported with food and equipment.
  • A local private company (Nursery of plants and trees - Aromas and Boletos Nursery) donated 267 trees (157 cork oaks; 100 oaks (Quercus robur and Quercus rubra); and 10 chestnut trees). The municipality of Penela provided the machinery necessary for cutting, pulling up and mobilizing land.
  • In 2019, the initiative reached "an impasse". Given the complexity of the process in terms of achieving sustainable forest management and, amplified by the issues related to land ownership, the planning and implementation of the smart solution called for specialised expertise with adequate knowledge and experience in outlining long-term planning for the regeneration of forestry areas and in facilitating and moderating participatory approaches for decision making and for coordinating maintenance interventions in the VPZ. To this end, the Association of Residents brought external specialist expertise into the process.
  • The external expert facilitated a process of reflection, assessment and redefinition of goals, which helped to organise information and to encourage dialogue and cooperation among the local community.
  • The work of the expert with the local community delivered the preparation of the long-term planning for the structural landscape regeneration (Masterplan) aimed at achieving a sustainable forest development and management. The participatory development of the Masterplan included an initial visit followed by four meetings with the local community and main stakeholders, in addition to the close collaboration with the Association of Residents. (period 2020-July 2021). Key steps in this participatory process were:

    1. Identification of stakeholders and definition of project duration
    2. Presentation of mapping of territory, evaluation of the results of actions 2017-2020 and identification of vulnerabilities, opportunities and targets.
    3. Presentation of different future scenarios and elaboration of a common vision and specific goals for the future
    4. Presentation and discussion of the Masterplan design proposal and start of development of an action plan
    5. Completion and definition of organisational aspects for the implementation of the action plan (including working groups)
    6. Public presentation of the Masterplan for the territory, results of the joint work with Association of Residents, and next steps

  • Execution of the first phase of the Masterplan took place in March 2022, by hosting a tailored Bootcamp – supported by expertise under the Smart Rural 21 project - to continue the process of reforestation with volunteer work. This included activities of knowledge sharing (raising awareness regarding forests' economic and environmental value and the importance of their appropriate management for preventing forest fires).

What have been the main outputs & results?

The VPZ created had a total area of 15ha, with reforestation having been carried out on 9ha, including removal of 50 thousand eucalyptus and pine trees (of the foreseen 70 to 80 thousand) and planting of about 500 autochthonous trees (of the foreseen 1 000 cork oaks, holm oaks, oaks, cherry trees, arbutus trees, chestnut trees, walnut trees and cherry trees).

Important progress has been made in the implementation and structural regeneration of the VPZ, achieving the following objectives:

  • Reduction of the risk of forest fires and increase of the forest resilience to fires.
  • Revitalisation of the traditional agroforestry production system.
  • Enhancement of the village's natural patrimony.
  • Increase of the awareness regarding the importance of an appropriate management of forestry areas.
  • Promotion of adequate forestry practices to increase productivity and economic value and that, at the same time, comply with full respect to the natural environment.
  • Collection and processing of spatial information, playing a key role to make the best decisions regarding the management of forest resources and the execution of activities with efficiency.

Furthermore, since then, it can be observed a greater and better involvement of the local community in initiatives aiming the village’s economic, social and environmental development.

What does it bring the village/community?

  • Enhancement of the social capital of the village, with the local community gradually changing attitudes and behaviours and reinforcing its capacity for an effective participation in local development processes.
  • Increase of the village's attractiveness for tourists and visitors.
  • Increase the sense of confidence and safety in local residents as well as tourists and visitors.
  • Increase the confidence of people to invest locally in new businesses and opportunities.
  • Increase the relevance of traditional agricultural activities in the local economy (pastoralism - milk goats, and production of goat cheese using traditional methods).
  • Increase the forestry economic and environmental value.

In general, and in the long-term: improved resilience, productivity and socio-economic value of the forest area and landscapes, benefiting human well-being, local livelihoods and environment.

What’s needed

Financial resources

Main types of cost:
Financial needs:

Set up / Investment costs: €45,000.00

Since the majority of the physical interventions were covered by in-kind donations (trees by a private company, machinery by the municipality and time and efforts by local residents) the main financial costs were in terms of:

• expertise/consultancy (e.g. elaboration of the Masterplan, organisation of voluntary and environmental awareness actions).

• acquisition of additional plants and materials.

Ongoing costs: in practice, the ongoing implementation of the VPZ and its regeneration and enhancement is developed in phases, according to financial availability (e.g. municipality annual budgeting) and resorting to donations, volunteer work and temporary use of municipality's machinery, equipment and operators.

Funding received:
Association of Residents of Ferraria de São João14,000 €Organisation of voluntary and environmental awareness actions. Elaboration of a reforestation plan and ecological valorisation (hired the consultancy company)
Tourism Programme Funding (ERDF)20,000 €General costs e.g. small purchases, trees, food & materials for volunteers.
Union of Parish Councils of Leiria2,000 €Purchase of trees
Individuals private donations1,000 €Physical interventions, removal and planting of trees.
Smart Rural 21 Project8,000 €External technical expertise for planning and implementing the first phase of the Masterplan

Human resources

• Local volunteers to carry out the labour-intensive forestry activities.

• Specialised expertise in long-term participatory planning and management for the regeneration of forestry areas.

Physical resources

• Nearby forest

• New autochtonous trees – donated by a private nursery

• Machinery necessary for cutting, pulling up and mobilizing land

• Small equipment e.g. hand axes, protective gloves

What to do…

  • Involve the local community from the outset in a joint management model.
  • Keep a transparent flow of information to ensure local acceptance of the new model.
  • Seek external expertise to deal impartially with the participatory process and guide the details of sustainable forest management.
  • Encourage dialogue and cooperation among forest owners, particularly those who are more resistant to change.
  • Ensure that needs for strengthening the capacity of the local community are duly identified and properly addressed.
  • Use volunteers when feasible, not only to keep costs down, but also because volunteering is a way to foster social responsibility and awareness.

and not to do

  • Don’t assume that all stakeholders can participate without support.
  • Don’t engage volunteers without effective training to ensure their safety.
  • Don’t plan too far into the future without considering the available resources.
  • Don’t adopt new forest management models without considering the relevant political, financial and regulatory instruments.
  • Don’t forget to include a simple and intuitive system to closely monitor and assess progress and adapt plans accordingly.

Funded by