The fires in Portugal’s neo-Australian landscapes

June 22, 2017

The terrifying and sad images emerging from last Saturday’s fires in central Portugal struck me in their similarity to the 2009 Black Saturday fires around Melbourne where I used to live.  But the similarity is more than the day of the week, the record-high numbers of fatalities, the images of charred cars trapped along the road, and the human tragedy.  The other similarity is the vegetation: a fairly impressive portion of Portugal is covered by “neo-Australian” landscapes of introduced eucalyptus trees, as well as acacias and hakea.

A quick and dirty look at the extent of the fire in comparison shows clearly that the fires spread largely in eucalyptus forests:

Map of location of June 17, 2017 fires (source: ERCC) on left, with fire areas juxtaposed manually on an extract of vegetation map of Portugal (source: Meneses et al. 2017). Yellow is eucalyptus; dark green is maritime pine.

Eucalyptus trees, as well as other elements of Australia’s vegetation, are of course highly fire adapted.  Native Iberian cork oaks and pines are of course also no strangers to fire, but the question that has increasingly been raised in the press is to what extent eucalypts are to blame in the recent tragedy (in English, see articles for instance in Politico, LA Times, NYTimes). Read the rest of this entry »


Invasive species: interdisciplinarity, ecosystem (dis)services, and aesthetics

February 21, 2017

Announcing a series of new publications on “invasive species”, all from the Socio-ecology of Acacia project in which I participated (funded by SESYNC and two German research institutes). Here’s why they are interesting: Read the rest of this entry »


Arbres voyageurs et plantes invasives dans les pays du Sud

October 17, 2016

FGSE Unil ouverture des cours 2016-2017 Last month I gave the ceremonial first lecture of the academic year for our Faculty.  The video is now online (see below).  The presentation dips into a number of research projects I’ve contributed to in recent years in order to make a number of observations about the relationship between plants and people, notably with iconic ‘natural’ plants and problematic ‘invasive’ weeds.  These observations include: Read the rest of this entry »


Living with invasive plants in the Anthropocene

January 6, 2016

What does it mean to live with bioinvasions?  Low-wage labourers donning chemical suits and goggles to spray herbicides in tropical heat? Exurban homeowners cutting back an invasive vine near their back porch, but letting it run wild at the other side of the property? State environmental managers making difficult choices about what weeds to spend money on? In a recent collective paper inspired by the Wollongong Weeds Workshop (Head et al. 2015, see below), we seek to draw attention to the practical, lived side of managing weeds.

Poisoned Acacia nilotica in the Mitchell grasslands, northwest Queensland

Poisoned Acacia nilotica in the Mitchell grasslands, northwest Queensland

The paper is organised around five themes that arise from managers’ reflections on their work. It identifies tensions between the ideals arising out of invasion biology, resulting regulatory and policy frameworks, and practical on-the-ground experience.   Read the rest of this entry »


Farmer livelihood practices and the forest transition in Africa

December 19, 2015

In what situations do the practices of small-scale family farmers lead to increased tree cover, particularly on a continent better known for land degradation and deforestation?  Research on the “forest transition”, a pattern where net deforestation is replaced by a net gain in forest cover, has so far avoided much mention of Africa.  In contrast, it is historically documented in western Europe, eastern North America, east Asia, and seemingly underway in parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia.  This research tends to focus on factors such as economic modernisation, rural abandonment, urbanisation, or even globalisation as driving forces of the forest transition.  Two recent studies I contributed to focus instead on Africa – one in West Africa, one in Madagascar – and on transitions brought about by rural farmers. Read the rest of this entry »


A political ecology of weeds

October 1, 2015

How do plants that move and spread across landscapes become branded as weeds and thereby objects of contention and control? In a chapter recently published in the International Handbook of Political Ecology, Priya Rangan and I outline a political ecology approach that builds on a Lefebvrian understanding of the production of space, identifying three scalar moments that make plants into ‘weeds’ in different spatial contexts and landscapes.

Read the rest of this entry »


Thorny landscapes

September 26, 2015

Just rediscovered a scribbled note from a few days in the “brousse” of New Caledonia late last year.  We visited landscapes pounded by grazing, from a 600 ha cattle station turned into a horse farm and gîte in the more wild, mountainous nickel mining country around Thio, to the yellow-grass cattle and goat ranches in the semi-arid rain shadow country of Boulouparis.  In these places, I found myself in the company of a variety of  familiar thorny and weedy plants like mimosa bush, lantana, and coffee bush.  Different bouquets of the same suite of plants decorate pastoral landscapes I’ve encountered in Fiji, Vanuatu, Madagascar, Australia, Reunion… and probably many more places too.

The thorny bush Acacia (Vachellia) farnesiana on a cattle ranch near Boulouparis, New Caledonia

The thorny bush Acacia (Vachellia) farnesiana on a cattle ranch near Boulouparis, New Caledonia

Seeing these ‘old friends’ reminded me of a simple message about biological invasions that does not get enough consideration:  it’s not the plant’ fault.  The plants themselves – or the plant species – do not really deserve the lables as invasives and weeds.  It is us humans that need to be branded: they are there because of us, because of our land uses and Read the rest of this entry »