Even in the most difficult and tragic of times, there are lessons we can all learn and ways we can all move forwards, if we just take the time to look.

We spoke with one of the members of the WONDR community, Catarina, about her passion for the environment and the life lessons she’s learnt from volunteering, helping regions of her home country Portugal, after the recent firestorms that devastated the country.

by Catarina Araújo

Throughout this summer (2017), Portugal was hit by one of the worst forest fires in the country's history.An outbreak began on the 17th of June in Pedróg*o Grande, a city in central Brazil; it was quickly spread to several cities across the country.Over 60 people died, many of them trying to escape the inferno in their automobiles, hundreds of people were injured, their homes or businesses were destroyed, and numerous animals lost their habitats or died.

So, why did all this happen?

This is a big question that is a little taboo and that does not clearly have an answer.Firstly, we know that global warming is real and the weather is changing unfavorably.Europe was suffering from a heat wave at the time, and Portugal had not seen rain for a while.

But to blame global warming alone is to ignore the entire picture for this tragic event.

A great deal of Portuguese native forest was first destroyed in the 15th century and replaced by monocultures of rapid-growth trees, namely pinasters, to produce enough wood for the Portuguese Discoveries’ caravels. Today the monocultures persist, now not only with pinasters but eucalyptus, a non-native tree from Australia, and even though ⅓ of Portuguese land is forested, the eucalyptus monoculture occupies the same number of hectares as one of main native trees, the cork oak (700 thousand hectares).

The problem is that not only monocultures contribute to soil impoverishment, dryness and erosion, and loss of biodiversity, but also the eucalyptus is a particularly flammable tree. On top of this, 8% of Portuguese exports come from the paper, cellulose and cork industry, the first two using eucalyptus wood as its raw material of choice.

Thus, a more complex explanation of why forest fires are a problem every single summer is potentially due to a money-driven culture and economy, with little or no ecological consciousness.

João Branco, with the Portuguese environmental group Quercus, told the LA Times,

“Our climate is like California. It’s normal to have fires here. But with the introduction of eucalyptus, they have lots of material to burn,”

There was negligence on the part of the government.Fires caused by eucalyptus trees are well known in Portugal because of their connection to fires,"

The volunteering experience

Because of the tragedy that hit my home-country this year, I decided to use my summer holidays to volunteer and help rebuild in a sustainable way some of what was lost to the fires.

Despite the horror stories everyone heard from the fires, the eucalyptus plantations restarted straight away showing that most people still choose not to see the bigger picture and ignore the monoculture problem. I wanted to use my time and efforts to help someone who doesn’t ignore this issue, so I chose to volunteer at Gravito Healing Centre.

Gravito is an oasis of native trees and well cared Nature in a strongly eucalyptus monocultured forest, that opens its doors to everyone who wishes to participate in holistic workshops, yoga and meditation retreats or simply working towards a more positive, calm and mindful mind. The Gravito Healing Centre is a strong community of social and ecologically conscious people that live a beautiful lifestyle in harmony with each other and nature.






Final thoughts

I learned a great deal from this experience on many levels.

First, I had further evidence of how today's capitalist and money-driven economy is proving to be unsustainable, unethical, and very short-sighted.A basic law of all living things doesn't seem to be contemplated: that all creatures are interconnected, and that we cannot thrive when we abuse one another; this applies to human interactions with each other, animals, and the environment as a whole.

If our society tells us that deaths and fires can be justified by a number or percentage of a country’s GDP and economic growth, then something is wrong with its pillars and assumptions.

Second, I learned that nature is an infinite source of resilience. Even when facing the greatest tragedy, like a fire or even an atomic bomb, nature always finds a way, always adapts, there’s always a living thing even in the most hostile places on Earth.

So in your darkest hours always look for Nature to inspire you and share with you some of its resilience and strength.

Leading me to the third thing I learned: this community, maybe because they live in such beautiful harmony with Nature, has taught me how

we always have a choice between facing, accepting and overcoming our obstacles or succumbing to its negativity.

I met people who’d lost their home, their car, their pets and all their belongings to the fire. Some of them weren’t even Portuguese, but they didn’t go back to their home countries, they stayed and after giving themselves a mourning period, came out with renovated strength, new ideas and a whole lot of motivation to restart their lives, not only learning from the tragedy but also learning how to embrace that dark chapter that is now written in their life stories.

Finally I couldn’t write about volunteering without trying to express how giving to others can feel so rewarding.

When you help someone in need you’re not only helping the world to become a better place, you’re also helping yourself becoming a better person and you inspire others as they realise they’re not alone in their struggles.

In more and more instances, I'm realizing that cooperation has so much more potential than competition, that together we are stronger and happier, that empathy is always the best path forward.The summer holidays I spent helping others, I have never regretted, in fact I highly recommend everyone to do so at least once.

This was my most memorable summer, with the most interesting stories and in which I grew the most as a person.