Some weeks ago I set out on my first trip to”Syden proper” in more than a decade. If you belong to the people from who “Syden” is an alien concept, let me refresh your memory. Syden is a Norwegian concept, derived from the word south (syd) and is a generic term for anywhere which warm and sunny. Something which is highly appreciated by winter-depressed Norwegians.
I had never been to a proper trip to Syden as a grown-up; in fact it is something I have been keen to avoid. The first and last time I went on such a package trip was to Crete some time in my early teens. In all fairness it was not that bad, or perhaps that it was considering the impact it had on my future professional life: The trip to Knossos is partly to blame for my interest in archaeology and the perhaps somewhat unwise decision to make the interest a profession (or a life of poor job stability). Nevertheless, that is a detour in every possible way – that is not why I have avoided Syden. Rather it is the increasing amount of incredibly embarrassing programs about Syden holidays which have been screened on Norwegian TV which you cannot avoid getting glimpses of as commercials, let alone when you have a close relative that love to bother others by gently forcing communal watching sessions of these programs. In the end I gave in – other warm places was too expensive to just go for a week, and tickets to what seemed the like ‘the less Syden like Syden island’ there was, were booked. With a week of Madeira ahead of us as we went up way too early one dark, cold, icy and white morning in January, sat for several hours in a too crowded plane, was taken onboard on chartered busses and driven to our hotels where the organized part of the stay ended.
Most known for its wine and mistakenly for its beaches (there are no natural ones of the main island), one of Madeira’s better kept secrets is the natural World Heritage Area known as the Laurisilva of Madeira – in other words the island’s laurel forest. Fossil data tells us that the laurel forest covered much of Southern Europe some 15-40 millions years ago, but due to climate change this natural relic is now confined to a group of “Syden islands”: the islands groups of Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores. Madeira is, however, home to the largest remaining type of this forest covering 15 000ha of the inland areas of the island. 90% is thought to be primeval forest and in addition it has one of the highest rates of endemic and endangered species in Europe. Despite it being the largest example of primeval laurel forest, the Spanish got their Canary laurel forest listed first – despite the fact it only covers 3000 ha, and is as such only a fifth of the area listed 13 years later in Madeira. How could this happen, one may ask.
The laurel forest of the Canary Islands, more precisely the Garajonay National Park, was listed in 1986. In IUCN 1986 evaluation of the site it is argued that the Garajonay National Park is “the singularly most unique protected area in all of Spain for the international significance of its endemic flora… and as the only major remnant of a once common ecosystem.” A similar understanding of the area was also presented in the UN List of National Parks and Protected Areas. Comparisons with other relevant examples of the nominated area is a central part of evaluations the Advisory Bodies (IUCN for natural nominations and ICOMOS for cultural nominations), and has over the years also become a prerequisite for the nominations themselves. Thus – one can ask: where was Madeira in this evaluation?
Madeira did not figure to any great extent. It is stated that while there are laurel forests in the Azores and Madeira they are “degraded and are less species-rich than Garajonay”. Yet in 1999 this so-called degraded area was listed on the World Heritage – it does not make sense!
View of from the Balcoes at Ribeiro Frio.
Thus the IUCN evaluation of the Madeirian nomination tries to explain this gap in knowledge. The laurel forest of Madeira was a largely unknown and un-researched area in the mid 1980s. In fact no protected areas were recorded on the UN List of National Parks and Protected Areas of 1985, the year for which the 1986 evaluation is based on. The Canaries’ laurel forest on the other hand was well known and publicized – neither of which was the case with the Madeirian forest. Rather it was only in the mid 1980s the Madeirian forests were “deemed so important for plant conservation, that it was chosen as the site for one of the 20 or so field projects developed around the world in the IUCN/WWF Joint Plants Conservation Programme”. By 1991 IUCN did a study on oceanic islands which merited World Heritage Status – islands in general were considered neglected fields of conservation, despite the fact that one in three of all threatened plants occurs on islands. Madeira was given a 20th place on this list, but as is noted – it is a very small island compared to other areas in the study and “the Madeirian laurisilva is much the largest extent of laurel forest surviving in the world, with a unique suite of plants and animals. It would be hard to think of any plant-rich oceanic island of similar size as Madeira that has such a high proportion (close to 90%) of its natural forest intact”. Seven years later – in June 1998 the nomination dossier was sent off from the capital of Funchal, and the following year IUCN recommended listing and the World Heritage Committee listed in on its 23rd session in Marrakesh with a recommendation to the State Parties of Spain and Portugal to consider a joint nomination of the two areas to be one of laurisilva forest. The latter has yet to happen.
However, while the laurel forests are considered ‘natural heritage’, they are in no way only that. In fact they are the home of an essentially important part of human survival on Madeira: the Levada trails. The levadas are water channels constructed by the settlers as a means to transport water to the towns and the farming land in the more costal areas of the island. The levadas and also the tunnels dug through the central ridges (some times as long as 5 km) are typically 1-2m wide and allowed access to the otherwise almost impenetrable forest. As IUCN notes, there are voices wanting these trails to be part of the World Heritage Area. However, they are not on the tentative list of Portugal and as the bureaucratic rigidness of the World Heritage Convention goes – these trails can therefore not be considered for a possible listing. Nevertheless, it is these trails that are the best way to explore the fairly inaccessible laurel forest. And a walk on the levada trails is a pleasant way to spend a day in Syden! In fact you may very well feel you are not in Syden at all walking through the cool breeze and green scenery.
PS: As usual I did some asking around for World Heritage. The guide I spoke to from the charter company had never heard of World Heritage. There was no brochures in the tourist office in the town of Funchal. In fact, it seemed like most copies of any brochures was kept in the hosts bag, tucked away under her seat – with only one copy of each. The somewhat pricey private garden complex at Monte did, however, tell us that they did have some of the specimen of the laurel forest listed on the World Heritage List.