Insights from the Crisis – in the Alentejo, Portugal
The poorest and largest region of Portugal, the Alentejo, was the backbone of the ‘Carnation Revolution’ almost forty years ago that brought the longest dictatorship within Europe to an end.
Later the co-operatives (and other revolutionary social initiatives), were closed again under pressure from neighbouring European countries. With the expectation of huge investments and internationally funded mega-projects, Portugal became the role-model for the EU. Since the economic crisis and the inaptly named ‘Euro rescue fund’, changes in life in the scarcely populated Alentejo region became immediately apparent.
Regulations such as massively increased tax audits make life difficult for traditional small-scale producers. Local markets, small farmers and neighbours who produce bread or cheese for each other, as well as retirees who have to earn a little bit more money given the low amount of retirement pensions they receive, are being criminalized. This is not only morally indefensible, but also unintelligent because a mechanism is bypassed that has the ability attenuate the crisis, at least in the country: traditional rural self-sufficiency.
However, as new alliances emerge to bypass the old regulations, Portugal has the potential to be one of the countries where a regional model for overcoming the crisis develops.
Maria Isabel is 83 years old and (in the eyes of the law) a criminal. For many years Maria has contributed her vitality and skills to the local economy by baking and selling her apple pies to the local pub, without an invoice. She even uses eggs from her own hens. Her daughter Eusébia, 58 years old, produces goat cheese in small amounts in her own kitchen and sells it for 1 euro each to her neighbors. One of them, José Manuel, bakes a few more loaves than he and his wife need in the old clay oven in the yard and sells them to friends to supplement their pensions.
Some of the older people of the village gather mushrooms and sell them, again without an invoice, to the dealer who then – with an invoice but at an inflated price – delivers them to restaurants.
Martha, the landlady of the local pub, added to the prescribed unit salad from the wholesaler the much tastier salad leaves and herbs from her own garden. And if diners ordered the local tree strawberry liquor “medronho” and the tax sealed bottle was empty, her husband would casually go into the garage and refill it with homemade moonshine made by old Tomás. You can call it tradition, quality of life or local color – but in times of crisis sharing amongst neighbors simply helps survival.
The Alentejo in Portugal is the poorest region in an already crisis affected country. Traditional agriculture is winding down and many are leaving their farms; industry is almost non-existent; and tourists seldom visit the hinterland of the spectacular local coastal scenery. Many local people leave the villages where mainly elder people remain. Many of them have to spend the small amount of their retirement pension for medications in the first week of the month.
Photo: In a village in the Alentejo
Idálio Goncalves, president of the perish Relíquias: “People live widely spread. I don´t have the means to look in every house to see if the elderly people are provided with their basic needs. Medical help is very low. Before the crisis the local firefighters took the old people to the health center in town when they were sick. Now they don´t have the money for this. Help from neighbours is the only thing that helps them get along.”
In any crisis, people do what they have always done to get by somehow. They sell what they can produce by themselves, to people they know. They cannot issue bills because in order to obtain a business permit they would have to meet requirements and make investments that are only economic in mass production.
Photo: Café in the Alentejo
Unlike France, Portugal has not negotiated any special conditions for small business owners. In the farmers´ markets in France, cheese, bread, and other products are specialities which can be offered open and fresh from the farm. In Portugal everybody who offers something has the same conditions – be it the old housewife, the farmer or the industrial enterprise. The consequence being that the small producers – the pubs, kitchens, shops and bakeries that make up the traditional culture of the country – are in fact illegal. Either they legalize their production by becoming major producers- or they remain, legally, tax evaders.
Adérito Pereira, owner of the simple village pub “Barreirinho”, had to purchase a modern cash register. He is frustrated: “When the clients wish I have to give them a detailed bill. If there is noted, for instance, an omelet, then the tax department wants to also see the bill for the eggs. If I use the eggs from our chickens, it is not allowed and I am considered illegal.”
Up until now, practises such as these were more or less tolerated. But now, the government is considering the ‘culprits’ of the crisis – the ordinary man and woman – as tax sinners.
There were a number of individual measures concerning obedience to the austerity measurements put forward by the government. The authorities shut many local markets where previously villagers were able to offer their retail products and earn some money. Some months ago, the tax office employed 1000 new tax auditors.
As a lesson to organized tax fraudsters, the local authority recently made an example of a group who made and sold charcoal, as they have done for decades, in the small village of Amoreiras. The average age of the ‘offenders’ was 70. The modest proceeds from charcoal production barely allowed them more than an occasional visit to the pub from time to time to drink a Medronho or Bica (Espresso).
Former history professor, Antonio Quaresma from Milfontes: “If local products disappear and are replaced by large scale industrial production, only large corporations stand to profit. Currently, unused land in the Alentejo is leased to international agricultural companies, which uses it for olive cultivation, and irrigation for growing vegetables under glass. After a few years the land is chemically overloaded and the soil becomes leached. The workers are often from Thailand or Bulgaria and leave the area before the degradation becomes visible.”
Under the pressure of the troika, the government is acting against the interests of their own people. Only a few days ago, the City Council of Lisbon destroyed a community garden in the city centre, where residents had successfully grown vegetables in a neighborhood co-operative, the Horta de Monte. City employees uprooted trees and flower beds, in the face of protests from residents, in order to rent them to higher-income earners. Again, an initiative of self-organization was destroyed in the face of the economic crisis.
Many Portuguese people are not accepting this. Several times in the last year, nearly one million people protested against the Troika; this is 10% of the population. Many show creativity and determination during civil disobedience.
When parliament debated about the law that restaurant customers have to actively request an invoice, ten of thousands of people in restaurants gave the tax number of the Prime Minister instead of their own. The law was hurriedly retracted.
There are also village mayors who do not accept that the markets have been banned. They continue to run, but under a different name: “Mostra” – “Exhibition” of local goods. If someone really wants to give away something and then someone else happens to put money into the donation box, well, who can prevent that?!
There is a compelling slogan: Where injustice becomes a law, resistance becomes a duty. That is the case in this instance. It is the authorities and decision-makers who are wrong – both morally and strategically – not the small producers. It is morally indefensible to deny the traditional livelihoods of the older people in their villages. Strategically, it is incomprehensible. A rare cultural treasure is destroyed: a region that still holds and shares traditional knowledge, methods and practices within communities that retain sufficient social cohesion to barter and to support one another.
What is being criminalized here originates from a globally widespread and crisis-proof economy: regional, rural subsistence – the self-organized power of people who help each other and try to provide themselves with what grows in the environment.
There is no reason, in facing the crisis, to not move together and gather again. There is every reason for mutual aid, self-sufficiency and rural community spirit. Such co-operation helps to soften the effects of the crisis, at least for now – if not even to deliver a partial key to its solution. This is true not only for Portugal: the more unreliable the supply systems of the global economy become, the more we need regional subsistence.
Therefore, we ask all travelers and gourmets: ask at restaurants for home-made dishes. Let them make your omelet from unstamped eggs. Ask for salad from the restaurants own gardens. Also at parties and gatherings, choose the self-made, self-baked goods. Announce clearly, upon entering a shop or a pub, that you will not accept receipts.
Maybe soon, restaurant owners will join a local exchange loop. Maybe soon, store operators will realize that a donation box at the entrance for purchased goods brings them more profit than the most recently prescribed cash registers. Perhaps there will also soon be the first regional currencies as a way to circumvent the present rigid tax laws.
Part 2: Sustainability models for regional autonomy
If the village subsistence initiatives described above connect with global, current knowledge and experience of decentralized autonomy, models for regional autonomy will naturally arise from out of the current crisis stricken areas.
Regions where advanced, self-organizing, ecological, technological, economic and social knowledge is applied de-centrally show that the whole social landscape flourishes. This reveals the positive side of the crisis, from out of which various actors emerge who are open to co-operation and new experiments.
In Portugal, grand alliances are consolidating: young players in the protests against the Troika, and old people in the country who need a new perspective, are realizing that they have the same goal. More and more families and individuals from the cities want to return to the countryside. Not from out of a romantic notion, but because life in the cities is becoming difficult with rising food, energy and rental costs and falling salaries.
In the villages, where perhaps their parents or grandparents come from, they hope for better life opportunities. But still they lack the necessary knowledge to build and develop these better living conditions.
Photo: Farm in the Alentejo
With this in mind, the initiative “12 de Março” (“March 12”), that brought a whole generation onto the streetsabout Facebook two years ago, founded the “Academia Cidada”, a citizens academy in which people can learn what it takes to make a living independently from the system.
The initiative networks with global groups and movements such as the Transition Town movement, the Global Ecovillage Network, the education initiative “Global Campus” and centers such as the peace research center, Tamera, in the Alentejo Odemira:
“We want to bring local and international knowledge carriers and policy-makers together with the aim of collectively building up a model region”, said Vera Kleinhammes, coordinator of the Global Campus. “The knowledge of ecological and social sustainability, which we have collected in the Global Campus together with our partners in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe, could help the Alentejo to transform from a problem case to a model for all of Europe.”
Some knowledge areas from which crisis regions can learn from ecovillages and research projects concerning applied sustainability:
– Natural water management. The disturbed water balance in the south of Europe becomes particularly noticeable through water damage in winter, and droughts and forest fires in the summer. The groundwater levels decline and many communities need to buy water to feed their population. Large dam systems planned at the time of the dictatorship, provide industrial agriculture with water, but allow rivers and landscapes to dry out.
Presently, there are global experiences of decentralized natural water management, rain water harvesting and rain water retention, through which, using simple methods and natural materials, the hydrological balance can be regenerated. Together with other examples, the peace research center Tamera was commended as a positive example of climate change adaptation in Europe.
– Decentralised energy autonomy. In the sunny Alentejo it is absurd to make the region dependent on imported energy supplies from the rest of Europe. Solar energy alone could easily provide the energy that is used for electricity. Solar systems, free photovoltaic and decentralized micro biogas plants, for cooking and hot water, could also ensure that no energy costs flow from the region.
– Local food autonomy. With organic farming in mixed cultures, reforestation through fruit forests, permaculture, water retention landscapes and Holistic Planned Grazing, every region has the potential to produce food locally – which is desperately needed by the residents – and at the same time heal the effects of ecological destruction. Desertification, destruction of the water cycle, erosion and deforestation can be reversed in landscapes, which is also creating economic interest.
– Community based economy. As experience from Europe, Australia and the USA shows, it is worthwhile for regions with high level subsistence concerns to make the regional trade of goods independent of the financial economy and instead introduce alternative currencies. This leaves the profit generated on site and creates responsible growth and reinvestment in the local,communities. Within intentional communities, a radically different approach, such as a gift economy, may be worthwhile, as experiments in different communities show. However, this needs a living community center with trust, mutual help and care.
– Holistic Planned Grazing. Intensive year-round grazing over a long period of time is the biggest factor contributing to the destruction of the soil and natural vegetation in Central Europe. Through holistic pasture management, for which several farmers would join together with their cattle and their land, these mistakes can be easily fixed and reversed without much effort. The soil and the water table can be regenerated while still having the same yield. This requires the will of farmers to cooperate.
– Community Knowledge: For the rehabilitation of villages and communities, for the coexistence of old people with young, for well-educated parts of the protest generation from cities, as well as for the construction and maintenance of the technological and ecological systems, there are social tools for sharing, conflict resolution and basic democratic decision-making.
The research center at Tamera successfully demonstrates and already uses some of the above mentioned techniques for regional self-sufficiency in a settlement of 160 people, as far as they make sense at village scale. Every month at Tamera´s open days, around 100 visitors from all over Portugal look at innovative environmental and technological facilities and ask lots of questions about community building and living together.
On the shore terraces of water retention areas, densely covered with fruit and vegetables, they see that desertification can actually be regional reversed. Several thousands of young students participate each year in the training sessions or practices. Many older visitors from Portugal feel reminded of old times, when the land holdings and cooperatives in the Alentejo region were managed together by different generations.
There are many indications that similar measures, as demonstrated at Tamera, will also lead to success on a regional scale: namely, contemporary subsistence economies combined with a high level of modern knowledge with high stability.
The structure of model regions brings activists, scholars and urban planners together, and is also now creating interest within local organizations, local governments and schools. The first land owners willing to provide their land for ecological resettlement are stepping forward.
Bishop D. António Vitalino Dantas, from Beja, who has campaigned for many years for social justice, mediates between politicians and citizens. His aim is to win over the biggest landowners in the region to provide land for new “eco-villages”.
Dantas: “Deserted villages, schools and farms could revitalize in this way, and ecological and social knowledge can be applied to the latest global level.”
By Leila Dregger