By David Latona and Vincent West

OVIEDO, Spain (Reuters) – Across Europe, farmers have jammed roads, burned tyres and dumped manure in protest at a host of pressures threatening their livelihoods and way of life. In the province of Asturias, Spain, authorities are preparing for worse.

Last spring, in an unprecedented conflagration there, nearly 300 wildfires leapt across motorways, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents and reaching the edge of regional capital Oviedo. The authorities blamed many of the fires on farmers.

Decades-old grievances about government interference in traditional farming methods are combining with climate change to create tinderbox conditions, authorities say.

The regional government, prosecutors and environmental groups say that some cattle-farmers deliberately set last year’s blazes to free up low-cost grazing pasture – fires that got out of hand due to exceptionally warm, dry conditions. The farmers deny this.

Four unnamed people were arrested and 31 are under investigation for the alleged arson, police said.

Alejandro Calvo, head of Asturias’ fire prevention and extinction department, told Reuters the region has increased its budget to avert and quench wildfires by almost 20%, to 70 million euros ($75.7 million), and hired more firefighters and foresters to establish 24-hour surveillance systems.

At the root of the problem, the authorities say, is the farmers’ ancestral practice of intentionally burning scrub. The chestnut-coloured cattle that roam Asturias’ mountains and valleys date back to the Iron Age. Their grass-fed flesh is relished by gourmets, their free-ranging habit prized over meat reared under intensive methods.

Vegetation left unchecked grows chaotically over grasslands, limiting access for cows, which can’t digest woody or thorny plants. A carefully timed blaze can clear the area, generate new swathes of pasture and deter predators.

But bureaucracy and warmer weather have changed that story. Since 2004, a permit is legally required to carry out controlled burns: Acquiring one involves presenting a detailed plan, a topographical map of the area and documents proving land ownership, among other restrictions.

And Calvo says the region has seen a consolidated increase in average temperatures of two degrees over the past decade – part of a broader trend across Spain confirmed by the meteorological office – making traditional fire-setting more dangerous.

“There’s … a clear relationship between areas where there’s greater livestock farming activity and the incidence of fires,” Calvo told Reuters in an interview.

On the other side of the argument, Jose Ramon Garcia, head of the farmers’ union UCA, blames the authorities.

“They are always trying to blame the cattle-farmers, saying we do it to generate pastures and that’s a lie,” said Garcia, who is better known in Asturias as Pachon, the nickname he inherited from his father.

He said the regional leadership was not managing flammable undergrowth well enough, so most large fires are down to natural causes. Deliberate ones cause limited damage, he argued.

“We have so much undergrowth that any lightning strike causes these big fires that threaten people and destroy everything in their wake,” said Garcia, 59.

He himself was convicted in a local court in 2016 of illegally starting a fire that devastated 38 hectares (94 acres), which he denies. Spain’s Supreme Court revoked his prison sentence on appeal but upheld the conviction.

According to the most recent official data from Spain’s environment ministry, events such as lightning are to blame for fewer than five in 100 fires in the region. That data says nearly eight in 10 fires in Asturias are started on purpose.


Fire chief Calvo, 49, knows the old methods of fire management from experience. The son of a cattle-farming family who grew up in the area, he said he would watch farmers set fires to fight back overgrowth. He remembers how as a child, he would help collect ferns to reduce the risks, and help extinguish the blazes himself.

But now, he said, as more and more young people move to the cities, there aren’t enough people in the region to clear the brush or keep an eye on fires when they start to smoulder. Instead, his department is running public awareness campaigns about the dangers of intentional burning.

“We’re trying to make people understand that this isn’t acceptable, that it can be a felony and therefore must be prosecuted,” said Calvo, in his office in Oviedo.

In Asturias, the controlled burning of a maximum of 10 hectares per day is only allowed during daylight hours, when wind speeds are low and with at least one regional official present until no smoke has been visible for two hours.

Months after last year’s blazes, a group of elderly residents sitting on a bench in the town of Navelgas said they had never seen the like.

“I was driving down the road, with the smoke billowing from both sides, and I just wanted to cry,” said one man, who declined to give his name.

Navelgas was a hub of gold mining during Roman times. The gold has long gone, cattle-farming is its mainstay, and its population is just 720. Last August, Spain’s national statistics institute counted the settlements in the country that contain only one person and found the most were in the mountainous northwest, including 337 in Asturias.

Economic frustrations in the region date back to Spain’s entry into the European Community in 1986, which sparked a swift adjustment away from a primarily agrarian society.

Farming now contributes just over 1% to the region’s economy. It employed fewer than 6.5% of the population in 2000 and that has fallen significantly, according to data from the regional government.

EU subsidies, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) helped mitigate the effects but a European Union survey in October 2023 said the bloc’s small farmers are struggling to finance their operations through banks.

It found the unmet financial needs of farmers across the EU almost doubled to 62 billion euros since 2017 and said small farms and young farmers are the hardest hit, with almost one in two failing to meet their needs.

Garcia, the farmers’ union head, says a rural future for his children is too precarious.

“There’s no generational change,” he said. “Those of us who have worked at farms all our lives, since we were children, cannot advise our own children to keep running the farm.”

He has led several farmers’ protests in Oviedo, as well as speaking at the regional parliament to demand bigger subsidies for farmers. He said he had invited a local expert to give talks to regional politicians, the environmental prosecutor and the police’s rural and environmental crimes unit, “in order to somehow prevent Asturias from burning entirely.”


Besides generating pastures, fires help deter wolves and bears.

Calves – the source of veal, an Asturian delicacy of which Spain is a leading producer – are being eaten by an out-of-control wolf population and farmers bear the brunt of the cost, Garcia said, pointing to official data that show compensation levels at less than half market value.

According to the national government, in 2020 – the last year for which data is available – 2,928 unspecified farm animals were affected by wolf attacks, leading to 834,262 euros being paid in compensation – 285 euros per head on average.

Adult cows have an approximate market value of between 5,000 and 7,000 euros per head, while calves fetch from 1,600 to 2,200 euros.

In 2021, Spain’s Socialist government in Madrid classified the Iberian wolf as an endangered species, generating fines or prison sentences for those harming them.

Asturias is also run by the Socialist party, but its policies of wolf protection are unpopular with farmers in this region. In the July 2023 general election, parties courting farmers’ votes – including the far-right party Vox and the centre-right People’s Party (PP) – championed removing wolves from the protected list.

In May, a sign of the strength of feeling: Two freshly decapitated wolf heads appeared on the steps of the town hall of a small village right before the regional president visited.

The Socialists lost ground to the PP candidate in Garcia’s village, despite retaining power overall.

Montserrat Fernandez, also a cattle-farmer, is the new mayor. She said rural municipalities need more funding from regional and national authorities to help extinguish fires – using tools like water hydrants – and more frequent, controlled brush-clearing fires.

“It’s quite unfair to blame the fires on farmers,” she said. Ultimately, farmers help prevent fires, she argued, because their animals remove combustible material by eating it.

Calvo agrees, and said the impetus for more local control is welcome but farmers need to stick within the licensing system.

“There’s an underlying feeling in rural areas that things would be better if local society were more involved in the management of its resources,” he said.

“I fully agree with that. We’re trying to develop governance instruments so that village communities can decide on forest management plans and make them their own.”

($1 = 0.9246 euros)

(Reporting by David Latona and Vincent West; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Sara Ledwith)

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