Empowering communities: tackling invasive alien species in Portugal through education and action

Invasive acacia trees threaten Portugal's ecosystems. The Acacia4FirePrev project tackled this by teaching communities about the issue and having them participate in solutions.

Photo: CEABN

In January 2020, the European Union approved the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to increase protected areas, recover degraded ecosystems, and reverse biodiversity losses. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has identified invasive alien species (IAS) as the fifth cause of biodiversity loss worldwide.

In Portugal, there are more than 200 species of invasive alien plants, including all species of the Acacia genus. Actions to control and eradicate acacias are very expensive, both because of their high capacity for reinvasion and the extensive area invaded (around 20000 hectares), which makes them impractical, particularly for small landowners.

The Acacia4FirePrev project – Acacia biomass exploitation: a tool to reduce wildfire risk in unmanaged forestland, financed by the FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia), sought to respond to these questions, focusing on two lines of action: studying ways of valuing acacia biomass residues to offset costs associated with forest management; promote citizen science activities to educate, alert, and call for civil society participation in the problem of IAS and its impact on ecosystems.

Photo: CEABN

During the project’s lifetime, the Centro de Ecologia Aplicada “Prof. Baeta Neves” (CEABN) of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia (ISA) developed several activities about invasive plants with the community and schools. At ISA, the ecological restoration of an invaded area began with manual control of acacias (uprooting and peeling) and planting of native species. For the youngest, a teddy paper was created on “Hunt for Invaders,” where, at each post, the clues led to a new native, exotic or invasive species, allowing the exploration of these three concepts. In Silvares, in the district of Castelo Branco, a program to support practical action in the control of acacias was implemented together with the local community, the parish council and the elementary school, where students and teachers participated in monitoring an intervened area, working directly with the researchers of the Acacia4FirePrev project in collecting data and deciding on treatments to be carried out over the last three years.

From interactions with schools and the community, and with the aim of providing tools and autonomy to teachers and educators to perform activities within the scope of the IAS, the manual of environmental education activities on the topic of acacias emerged. In the final writing phase, the CEABN team tested two of the activities proposed at the II Rural Camp in Paredes de Coura, which occurred between February 15 and 17, 2024. The first activity consisted of identifying the different species of acacias in Portugal, and the second in a parliament, where the participants of the rural camps were divided into four parliamentary groups with different law proposals for acacias management, which differed in the way they dealt with acacias (controlling, eradicating, or accepting and allowing the emergence of new ecosystems) and on the valorization of acacias, whether for the production of goods or for cultural purposes, remembering the Mimosa Festival that took place until 1989 in Viana do Castelo. After the debate, participants were asked to “forget” the parliamentary group they represented and vote according to their convictions.

Environmental education and the provision of manuals to support activities are essential tools for fighting IAS. By empowering people with knowledge and resources, these initiatives not only promote awareness, but also catalyze the collective action needed to protect and restore affected ecosystems.

Photo: CEABN

Watch the video with the results of the project

SOURCECentre for Applied Ecology "Prof. Baeta Neves" (CEABN)
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EFIMED is the Mediterranean Facility of the European Forest Institute. Based in Barcelona, Spain, it was launched in 2007.