By Krystle Norman
Ambassador George Glass and his wife Mary arrived in Portugal in August 2017, just as the country was experiencing the deadliest wildfire season in memory. With the support of the Mission’s public affairs team and others at Embassy Lisbon, the Glasses set out to find ways to respond to the needs of their host country while also strengthening U.S.-Portugal ties. They launched Mission Portugal’s two-year effort to support reforestation efforts, underscoring the deep U.S.-Portugal friendship and bringing together U.S. and Portuguese organizations, agencies, communities, and local partners to help communities recover.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 fires, the Glasses traveled to two of the areas most affected to express U.S. sympathies and solidarity and to meet with recipients of USAID-provided assistance. Given their personal experience as residents of Oregon, a state that frequently deals with forest fires, both felt an immediate connection to the people and communities that had been affected and wanted to find ways to show American support for Portugal during this difficult time. As a result of this outreach, the post established an interagency working group that included the Department of State, the Foreign Commercial Service, and the Foreign Agricultural Service, which is based in Madrid. Together, the Mission engaged stakeholders to learn about opportunities to support reforestation and recovery efforts in Portugal. Over the next year, Embassy Lisbon worked closely with partner organizations—such as the Luso-American Development Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service—to support the visit of technical experts to Portugal and to encourage the United States to share experiences on topics such as burned area recovery, fire meteorology, and fire risk communication.
The culmination of the first phase of outreach was Mission Portugal’s 22-day #ReforestationNation social media campaign, leading up to Earth Day 2019. During the campaign, the Glasses and embassy officers planted 22 friendship trees with Portuguese partner organizations, helping establish new relationships with political, NGO, and academic contacts, especially in the north and the interior of Portugal. In doing so, the embassy was able to learn about the challenges of reforestation and firefighting in rural Portugal from the experts. They planted the first tree at Casa Carlucci, the chief of mission residence.
Following up on the social media outreach, the Mission hosted the classical music ensemble Delphi Trio from California, another state that has been devastated by massive forest fires. The trio held four concerts during their visit to Portugal last April, including three in communities affected by the devastating 2017 fires—Leiria, Viseu, and Vila Real. Embassy Lisbon also invited Cuban-American artist Agnes Chavez to deliver a series of presentations at schools, universities, and art associations about how art can be used to underscore the importance of environmental issues like reforestation. In her interactive exhibit, Chavez and her team created an algorithm that culled social media messages related to the environment into a real-time digital art exhibit that captured the life-cycle of a forest.
Finally, last November, at the beginning of Portugal’s planting season, the embassy tied the entire campaign together with a grand “Green Party” or FestVerde in Leiria, two hours north of Portugal. FestVerde brought together the embassy, Carlucci American school, and other partners for fire truck tours, eco-friendly workshops, and activities for children. Most importantly, FestVerde celebrated the donation of 15,000 trees to establish the first U.S.-Portugal Friendship Forest. During the day, Embassy Lisbon, the Carlucci American School, local partners, and USG alumni, planted approximately 5,000 trees in an area previously ravished by forest fires, and gathered funding—including from the U.S. Forest Service, for an additional 10,000 seedlings.
Initially planted more than 700 years ago, the vast forest of towering pines in the Pinhal de Leiria made it one of the most iconic stretches of Portugal’s Atlantic coast. More than 86 percent of the 100 square kilometer area protected along the coast was lost in a series of devastating fires in 2017, and more than 100 Portuguese citizens lost their lives.
FestVerde demonstrated the American people’s solidarity with communities recovering from wildfires, underscored U.S. values of service and volunteerism, and served as a model for community-led reforestation efforts. During the official ceremony, the Glasses reiterated the U.S. government’s commitment to cooperation on environmental issues. Local leaders and representatives from Portugal’s largest environmental organization Quercus, and the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests—Portugal’s agency in charge of nature conservation and forests, also reaffirmed the long and historic U.S.-Portuguese friendship during their remarks.
In the three months following FestVerde, the post has welcomed Portuguese schoolchildren, American university groups, and even a wedding party to help plant donated seedlings from the #ReforestationNation campaign. With nearly 20,000 newly planted trees already in the ground in the Friendship Forest, Mission Portugal is optimistic that these seeds of friendship will inspire the planting of another 20,000 trees.
Krystle Norman is a deputy public affairs officer at Embassy Lisbon.