by Duarte Camara, Director, Ecological Park of Funchal, Madeira

The Madeiran archipelago, situated in the north-east Atlantic, is part of the Portuguese Republic. The group consists of the main island of Madeira with an area of 737km2, Porto Santo, the Desertas and the Selvagens (considered a separate biogeographical entity) which lie about 300km off Madeira. The first to be discovered was Porto Santo in 1418, then Madeira and the Desertas in 1419 by one of the 15th century’s great Portuguese explorers, Joao Goncalves Zarco. The Selvagens were only discovered in 1458 by Diogo Gomes while returning from the Portuguese African colonies.

All the islands are of volcanic origin with the first eruptions having taken place in the Oligocene or early Miocene. Madeira itself had volcanic activity well into the Quaternary thus creating a topography that is quite different from the other islands in the group. It has a central mountainous massif reaching up to 1861m at Pico Ruivo.

The climate is subtropical and the NE trade winds blow most of the year providing moisture, influencing rainfall and vegetation. On the island of Madeira the vegetation is dense and in particular on the northern slopes where the evergreen moist Laurissilva forest covers large areas. The southern slopes of the island are less rugged and steep which allowed human settlement and agriculture to develop. This meant that from early colonization man has made quite an impact on the this part of the island, changing the vegetation cover and introducing new exotic plant species.

History of the Park

The capital Funchal, with a population of 130,000, is by far the biggest urban centre in the islands. The city is set on the south coast and is surrounded by high mountains to the north, part of the central massif. These hills just behind Funchal are rich in freshwater springs. The City Council of Funchal have, since the beginning of this century, purchased land from different landowners in order to supply water to the city. This municipal property grew as more purchases and expropriations took place and by 1930 it was about 600 ha in total. Under the council presidency of Dr. Fernao de Ornelas new plots were acquired, the last being in November 1973. At present the area encompasses about 1000 ha (10km2) and was previously known as Montado do Barreiro. In Portugal the word ‘montado’ means a wood of cork or holm oaks, or a mixture of the two. In Madeira, however, it is used for a piece of land on a mountainside, wooded or otherwise. In March 1994 the council’s newly elected officials decided to transform this municipal land into a public park and renamed it Parque Ecologico do Funchal.

Until about the 1960’s this land was used mainly to supply very good quality water to the city and also to the agricultural fields. Old levadas (man made water channels) can be seen in many places and remain as valuable historical features. They are made with local materials and form a network across the hills and slopes. As each levada has a small path next to it we inherited an excellent set of walking trails that zigzag across the park.

Today, the water that comes along these channels has become much less important as new tunnels now bring water from the north side of the island. With the disuse of the levadas, the property became rather neglected. The combined effects of intense and unmanaged grazing by livestock, tree felling and fire have laid bare some areas and led to soil erosion and desertification on the mountain tops. The main objects of this project are therefore recreation of the original habitats; environmental education; and amenity/leisure improvements. In addition, other conservation projects have been directed at species whose populations have decreased. For example, Manx Shearwaters breed in the park and were until recently heavily predated by rats and cats. A field guide has also been published on all the birds found in the park.

Recreation of the original habitats

The highest point of the Montado lies near the Pico do Areeiro at an altitude of 1,800m and the park extends downwards as far as the point where two streams, the Corrego do Pisao and Ribeira de Santa Luzia, converge no more than 520m above sea level. The Ribeira de Santa Luzia is by far the most important water course in this wide expanse of land; most of the rainfall in the Montado runs into the basin surrounding it. The Ribeira das Cales is a tributary of the Ribeira de Joao Gomes and is fed mainly by water filtering down from the eastern part of the Chao da Lagoa. Alternating water courses embedded in deep valleys and interfluvial ridges of basalt combined with 1,200m difference in altitude between the northern and southern extremes have led to the creation of microclimates and a highly varied flora. Tree species worthy of particular note are the Til Ocotea foetens, the Loureiro Laurus azorica, the Vinhatico Persea indica and the Barbusano Apollonias barbujana. All these members of the laurel family can reach considerable proportions. In contrast there are other zones, originally populated by indigenous species, which have been invaded by eucalyptus and acacias. Here biodiversity has been significantly impoverished.

Eucalyptus belonging to several species and also acacias were introduced to Madeira by many landowners during the 1930’s and 1940’s to supply the pulp industry in mainland Portugal. Their growth rate was high helped with the good climate and fertile volcanic soils. Business thrived until farmers on the continent also decided to plant the same species. The productivity was not as good but with no transport costs involved the timber sold more cheaply. Soon the people from Madeira lost their business and abandoned their plantations. It didn’t take long for the eucalyptus and acacias to spread and start becoming the dominate species in the surrounding countryside. Helped by fire and being unpalatable to livestock they occupied large areas of the island’s southern slopes. The park was no exception and today about two-thirds (the equivalent to 600 ha) is covered with these exotics. Their eradication has become the most important aspect of this project. Since many levadas are still kept and used by farmers the use of chemicals to control regeneration of the eucalyptus was abandoned to avoid water contamination. From the start it was decided that the battle had to be manual and several fronts had to be dealt with simultaneously.

Firstly, the removal of all grazing animals. Large numbers of sheep and goats were left in the park to fend for themselves. The owners only got their wool in the summer and many died during cold spells. These animals were doing a lot of damage to the native flora by preventing regeneration and allowing the soil to be eroded or colonized by exotic species. The process of removing these animals proved to be a major political and social battle with much media attention focussed on the discussions. Finally, common sense prevailed and today there is only an area within the park where a Cooperative of Shepherds manages a flock of 250 sheep. No goats are allowed and the idea is to establish a management model that could be used in other areas of Madeira. The park is now fenced and we can already witness in some places regeneration of the native flora especially the Heathers Erica scoparia and Erica arborea, the Billberry Vaccinium padifolium and the rare Mountain Ash Sorbus madeirensis. All these species occupy the high ground and their recovery means less erosion and more water being condensed from the heavy mists that often cover those areas.

Secondly, fire control and prevention. Fire was probably the way that eucalyptus and acacias spread fastest. Not only do these species burn with ease but they shoot back with an amazing speed and strength, outcompeting all other, slower to regenerate, species. Areas which still had some native flora gave way to just eucalyptus when burnt. Today we have a fire brigade in the park during the period of highest risk from the 1st May till 30th October. They are on 24 hour patrol, talk to visitors about fire prevention and generally safeguard against forest fire.

Thirdly, the gradual removal of exotics and planting. Large areas of eucalyptus and acacias have been cleared with their trunks and branches laid horizontally on the ground for the wind and rain to accumulate the eroding soil behind them. This has enabled terraces to be formed on which about 50,000 native trees have been planted. The help and participation of the Portuguese army has been central to these operations. A large group of solidiers regularly walk the slopes pulling out exotic saplings and cutting shoots from the remaining stumps. A native tree management strategy has been implemented whereby no felling is allowed, seedlings recovered and kept in nurseries for later distribution in the park. These seedlings are often donated by private landowners who still have native species on their properties.

Environmental education

For a project of this size and scope it was an absolute necessity to seek full community involvement. Apart from encouraging visitors and providing facilities for them there was a need to forge a greater link between the park and people from Funchal. A link that would develop the concept of conservation and pride for the natural resources of the island. This effort began in 1995 when the Education Department of Madeira allocated three teachers to visit primary schools. They talked about the park’s objectives, helped to prepare project activities in the classroom and then accompanied pupils on an actual visit to the park. This proved a great success and we now have on average 2000 schoolchildren visiting the park during the course of a year. Their activities vary but the most popular are planting native trees, clearing areas for fire prevention and for opening up trails, birdwatching and walking along levadas. Many schools return to care for their patch of trees which are individually labelled with the species and pupil’s names for future identification. The park has three houses which have been restored to accommodate students and other participants taking part in activities. Groups, many from abroad, can stay overnight or for as long as they wish, provided their time is partly used for the development of the park.

In October 1996 the park in conjunction with the Ministry of the Environment organised the 7th National Meeting for Environmental Education. This was held in Funchal and many tours were conducted in the park for the 250 delegates that attended from Portugal and other European countries. This meeting not only placed the park on the map but provided an enormous amount of feedback after the delegates saw the many ongoing projects. It was a time to reflect with all the other experts about the work done so far and the enormous future potential for environmental education in the park.

Access to the countryside

As the park is so close to Funchal the amenity aspect is of great importance. With more and more local people coming as well as a greater number of tourists the area has to be managed so it can cope with this growing demand. Everyone is encouraged to use the park’s facilities and greater attempts are being made to enhance their visit with a learning opportunity about the environment and natural resources of the island.

The pattern of the visits vary from a moderate number of people in the winter months to a large crowd in the summer. At the height of summer it culminates with a huge gathering from the main political party which draws up to 10,000 people to the park in one day. Car rallies and other events of this nature were all stopped in favour of providing everyone with a space to rest and experience nature. This has angered some rally fans but the majority of the public has voiced its support.

The Ecological Park is a long term project from the Municipality of Funchal. It shows a vision and commitment rarely seen in political circles normally more concerned with short term popular measures to secure votes. This project has outlawed many bad practices which have upset many shortsighted minds, but the determination was always there. A victory for conservation, sustainability and for the future.

The Friends of the Park Association

This association was formed to organize the growing number of people wanting to collaborate in the activities of the park. It has proved to be very successful in reaching a wider audience and letting people know more about the objectives of the park. It can be reached at the following address:

Associacao dos Amigos do Parque Ecologico do Funchal Jardim do Monte,
9500 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. Tel/Fax: (+351 91) 783999

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