Blazing the trail towards wildfire resilience: A story of social innovation from Catalonia

EFI researcher Carmen Rodríguez shares the key findings of her latest research work that explores the role of the Forest Defence Groups in Catalonia (ADFs) from a social innovation perspective and analyses how they contribute to socio-ecological resilience in the face of forest fires.

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The iconic Mountain of Montserrat, located 50 km away from Barcelona. Photo: Albert Garduño

ADF stands for “Agrupació de Defensa Forestal”. In English, it could be translated as “Forest Defence Groups”. When I first got in touch with them, and I tried to explain my “social innovation” approach to the research, they often replied: “This is not new. This is how we have always done things here. We help each other”. It was my first lesson about the ADF tradition: they may have seemed a fascinating “innovative” example to me and my fellow researchers, but the truth is that ADFs are deeply rooted in the Catalan traditions and way of doing. Specifically, that of masies (traditional Catalan farmhouse) and pagesos (traditional Catalan farmers), largely dominant in Central Catalonia.

ADFs were officially created after the wildfires that burnt 60% of the iconic mountain of Montserrat in 1986. Montserrat mountain and its Abbey are important landmarks for the Catalan people. And seeing it going down in flames felt deeply personal, not only for the municipalities affected in the surroundings, but also to the urban population. In only a few months, the Ministry of Agriculture released the Foc Verd (Green fire) programme for wildfire prevention, which had the ADFs as one of its main pillars. The rationale was to create a new body, formed by the local population living in rural areas, to which the Catalan government would provide means and resources to tackle wildfires more efficiently, by reducing response time, at a time when firefighting forces were not as prepared as they are today.

Image of a Masia, a typical catalan farmhouse. Photo: Albert Garduño

These ADFs, however, were not built from scratch. They constitute, “de facto”, an institutionalisation (bottom-linking) of the informal networks of mutual help (including forest owners associations) that had been operating in the territory since at least the 1960s and 1970s, through which local communities helped each other to put out fires affecting their properties. Especially the activity in la Casa de la Natura (The house of Nature) in Manresa is to be remarked. This space fostered meetings and debates which helped to catalyse these social movements, create networks, and host constructive debates among the different actors and organisations that were already engaged in the wildfire issue.

Nowadays, the ADF network is over 3000 volunteer strong, and virtually covers the whole Catalan territory. They are also a formal member of the Catalan wildfire prevention and suppression mechanism and receive regular training from the ISPC (Catalan Institute of Public Safety) from professional firefighters. Also, and because they are well-embedded deeply in the social fabric of the areas where they operate, they are placed in a unique position to contribute to societal dialogue and socio-ecological resilience building.  

The wildfire issue is complex and deeply context-dependant. As such, “the” solution will be neither simple, nor will it be suitable for all the different socio-political and biophysical realities we encounter in fire-prone territories. Because of this, we suggest looking at resilience as a dynamic and deeply territorialised process, deeply interlinked with normative and socio-political issues of the fire-prone territories that we inhabit.

Photo: SFADF Catalunya. ADF in action.

Full reference

Rodríguez Fernández-Blanco, C., Górriz-Mifsud, E., Prokofieva, I., Muys, B., Parra, C. 2022. Blazing the trail: Social innovation supporting wildfire-resilient territories in Catalonia (Spain). Forest Policy and Economics, 138.
DOI: doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2022.102719.