Portugal Land Ownership: It’s Complicated
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
"Buçaco forest demands a whole vocabulary which, once spoken, tells us that there's still everything left to say. You don't describe Buçaco forest. The best thing is to lose yourself in it," said Jose Saramago, Portuguese winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Forest ownership in Portugal is overwhelmingly private at 98 percent.
“About 60% of European forest (EU-28) is private, according to Eurostat, including areas owned by private and community owners. Portugal leads this ranking, with about 97% of the private area, followed by Norway with 80%, Denmark with 76% and France, Slovenia and Sweden with 75%.
Most of Portugal’s private forest belongs to small landowners: 84.2 percent private forest property and 13.8 percent community land,” according to Florestas.pt. (September 11, 2019) (The Navigator Company, the country’s largest private-sector forestry landowner, initiated the website with 12 partners, including agro.ges; Associaçao Natureza Portugal; Associaçao Portuguesa de Estudantes Florestais; Centro Ecologia Aplicada; Centro de Estudos Florestais; Jardim Botanico (Universidade de Coimbra), and Forestwise.)
How much land is forested in Portugal?
There are 3.2 million hectares recorded in the sixth National Forest Inventory, or one-third of the country, according to Florestas.pt (October 13, 2020).
Who owns the land?
In the North, there are small landowners. In the South, there are large properties.
In the North, the largest bloc of owners is private citizens due to “the rugged terrain, demographic pressure, the property inheritance system (which divides the property between many heirs) and the existence of common lands have meant that more than half of the properties have less than five hectares,” according to Floresta.pt (September 11, 2019).
In the South, these large properties are “associated with agriculture, forestry and pastoralism and where the cork oak and holm oak forests dominate.
“The property structure is closely linked to the Christian reconquest of the territory in the 12th and 13th centuries. The land confiscated from the Moors was donated to nobles and clergy, to a large extent.”
“In the feudal regime that reigned in Europe, land belonged to royalty, nobility and clergy, while the people paid for the use of the areas they cultivated. This regime was abolished in 1834 with the enactment of liberalism legislation. The rural properties of the nobility and religious orders were transferred to the State, which sold them at public auction,” according to Agroportal.pt. (June 30, 2020) (This website existed intermittently from 1999 to 2014. In 2016, Jose Diogo Santiago de Albuquerque bought it. An agronomist who has taught in New Zealand, he was Secretary of State for Agriculture in 2011.)
“(In the South), at this point, a large part of the property passed to the nobility who supported the revolution, while the urban bourgeoisie acquired the other part,” according to Florestal.pt. (September 11, 2019).
Portugal underwent intense deforestation until the end of the 18th century when only 7 percent of the country was forested as compared with about 40 percent today, according to The Forest Time (May 4, 2018), a forest investment business focused on Portugal, France and Canada and based in France.
“It was only with the Reforestation Plan in 1938 and the creation of the Forestry Development Fund in 1945 that things were turned around.
“Now, a lot of uncultivated land and marginal agricultural areas are to be gradually abandoned, which bodes well for potential forest growth.
“Over recent decades, 37,000 hectares of dunes have been planted along with 300,000 hectares in mountain areas, demonstrating a public and private commitment to develop the forest stands.
“Until recently, private owners had forestry work done by farmers, and there were very few specialist forest companies in the country. That is now changing. Ownership is very fragmented in the north of the country.
“However, in the South, the average size of a forest property is 32 hectares. It is usually combined with extensive livestock farming and cork oak production. In fact, the large-scale reforestation campaigns involved a lot of cork oak (17%) in southern Portugal, where the agroforestry potential is highly appreciated.”
How many forestry owners are there?
The answer is uncertain.
“Only 40% of Portuguese municipalities and 50% of the national territory are covered by the cadastral survey. The latter exists in the southern region that is characterized by large-scale properties. The northern region, characterized by small-scale properties, almost does not have a cadastre. This implies that for a significant part of the national territory there is no published/ official information about who owns the lands,” according to Forest Land Ownership Change in Portugal, January 2015, an academic paper done under the auspices of European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST).
Since this paper’s publication in 2015, there has been progress in compiling the national land registry.
Cadastres are in progress in 118 municipalities on the mainland and eight on the Açores and Madeira out of 308, according to DG Territorio (Direçao-Geral do Territorio).
In the North and the Center, €20 million was authorized to create Customer Service Desks, where citizens could identify rustic or mixed properties for simplified registration information, according to Portugal 2020, an initiative between Portugal and the European Commission.
In 2017, 10 municipalities participated in the simplified registration information system in territories affected by the Pedragao Grande in June and the October 15 fires in that year, reported Portugal 2020.
In 2014-2015, Oliveira do Hospital and Seia became two of seven municipalities in a land registry pilot program for areas with high fire risk, according to Diario de Noticias, (March 4, 2019). The other councils were Loule, Paredes, Penafiel, Sao Bras de Alportel and Tavira. The operation to carry out the land registry in Oliveira do Hospital was considered completed in December 2018.
“After the fires, the register is an increasingly essential tool for us to reorganize our forest, making it more resilient and resistant,” the president of Oliveira do Hospital, Jose Carlos Alexandrinho, told the Lusa agency, reported Diario de Noticias.
“The great fire of 15 October 2017 in which 50 people died in several municipalities in the Center region, 13 of them in Oliveira do Hospital, devastated this municipality in the district of Coimbra in more than 90% of its area” reported Diario de Noticias.
“There is no forest reform without registration because without knowing what exists and to whom it belongs, it is not possible for us to organize the territory,” said Jose Carlos Alexandrinho.
Forest ownership is complicated in Portugal. Forest Land Ownership Change in Portugal said:
“Forest ownership in Portugal is not recorded in the National Forest Inventory, and there is no legal requirement to register forest ownership. Land and trees ownership do not always coincide. Part of the Portuguese forest land is rented (mainly to pulp industry companies). In these circumstances, tree ownership belongs to the rent holder and not to the landowner. Most of the community forests are managed by national and regional forest agencies. In these forests, the tree ownership is shared: 60% to 80% of the trees’ revenue belongs to the communities and 20% to 40% belongs to the forest agencies.”
The Navigator Company, for example, manages about 112,000 hectares in mainland Portugal and the Açores in 173 municipalities, according to the company’s website. Its annual turnover is €1.6 billion, or 1% of Portugal’s gross domestic product (GDP).