Moura is famous for its old olive trees and its clean water springs. But they are in danger, as more and more Spanish companies come in. Global Campus Portugal. 2nd journey, October 28-31 A report by Leila Dregger
“In my dreams I still visit my old house,” shares one of the three old ladies who return from the graveyard to the village Luz next to the Alqueva dam. Even after ten years, the displaced inhabitants of the old Aldeia da Luz cannot “be friends to their own houses,” as they say, and their hands miss their old gardens and trees where they had had everything they needed. They will not live long enough to harvest from their newly planted fruit trees. Being expelled from your home and your village generates the same pain everywhere on Earth – be it in Colombia, in Palestine or in Portugal. The proper new village, the new graveyard, the new church and the memorial museum cannot disguise the merciless power of the system that strips people from their souls. This is the new Aldeia da Luz: soulless, lifeless, a refugee camp disguised as a village – while the true village had been flooded and destroyed just some hundred meters from the shore and continues its existence only in the dreams of the old people of this village.
Luz (Portuguese for light) is not the only sacrifice of the Alqueva dam that we met in these four days of our journey. We are on the second trip of the Global Campus Portugal, and this time 5 women take part – Fátima, Anne B, Isabel, Sonja and Leila – again in Charly´s old Volkswagen van – and we head east of the Alentejo. Again we will not have space to speak about all the people and projects we meet. But for now we want you to feel some of the most touching situations with us.
We start in Almodovar, passing the biggest copper mine of Europe – who knew that this is so close to Tamera? Almodovar is a surprise… Such a vital little town, full of people, open shops, handcrafts, while so many other towns and villages of the region are deserted and dying. Almodovar became rich through the high quality of its cork and is well-known for the findings of the first written language from the Iberian Peninsula. Of course we visit the museum and handicraftsmen. Almodovar once had 200 shoemakers, of which 3 remain. We visit Carlos, a revolutionary weaver, musician, anarchist and devotee of Sai Baba. Being maybe in his late forties now, he had returned some decades ago from his exile in France to connect to his roots in Almodovar. He is an enthusiastic, powerful, creative man fully dedicated to restoring the traditions of his region. As a weaver he owns seven ancient looms (weaving stools). He processes wool from the region, but also gets materials from factories like t-shirts and cuts them into strips and paper to create colorful carpets and typical bags of the water-sellers that used to bring spring water to the markets up until 40 years ago. There used to be six in Carlos’ workshop; now he is alone. But he will never give up. We are sure that as long as the villages of the Alentejo bring about these powerful people, this region will not die. We hope that he will come with his music group to play on the Global Grace Day in Tamera – all of their instruments are self-made in the traditional Alentejo style.
Some hours later we were standing in the plains behind Castro Verde. The wind is as merciless cold as must be the heat in the summer – and we stood shivering with two ladies from the nature protection group LPN. Look, a Great Bustard, one of them shouts and we see the rare Steppe Eagle crossing the sky. The harshness of this land is not surprising, as this it is actually not natural, but a result of the industrial farming over the last century. During the wheat campaign under Salazar’s dictatorship, the old Montado farming was destroyed and made place for huge wheat fields. After the soil has become too poor to cultivate profitably the plains have become a refuge hosting 80% of the rare Steppe birds of the Iberian Peninsula. This is the reason that nature conservationists spend millions to sustain this wound in the landscape – they have to protect it with a lot of effort from turning into a desert, but also to prevent its healing into Montado land again. The two ladies are conscious about the contradiction of keeping a landscape wound for the saving of animals. “But what shall we do? Shall we let the rare Steppe birds disappear forever?” We think that these people are doing a precious transition job to preserve the birds until we all find a vision that combines landscape healing and the preservation of rare species.
In the evening we sit in a place called “Terra Utópica” in Mértola. Guidance took us to this restaurant with ancient furniture, art deco paintings and revolutionary books, with an open fire and a view deep down onto the Guadiana River. Mértola was a rich river harbor of the Romans and later of Arabs. This region has always been a colony. The Romans stole silver, copper and wheat – not so different from the power of globalization that controls this region today. When will we be free of this colonization?
We make a sharing here and the restaurant owner Alvaro welcomes us sitting here without ordering food. He says, “I chose this name Terra Utópica because the region is full of people with visions that were never reached. But I don´t give up.” (Later we will come back and give him a Tamera book signed with the words: May all utopias become reality.)
We sleep on a farm like from a picture book – ponds and terraces, trees in mixed cultures, chicken, sheep and a cute donkey family. (We have to have more donkeys in Tamera. They are the most beautiful animals imaginable, especially when they come in a family). It is a model farm run by the development organization, ADPM, and late in the night we give a presentation in a youth exchange group of committed young adults from Spain, Italy and Portugal. They cannot believe that something like Tamera exists, and will surely move their teachers to next time visit Tamera.
What a powerful land. We visit Pulo de Lobo, a waterfall of the Guadiana River. Eagles fly over our heads. Taking a shower in the spray and filling our bodies with its orgonotic power, we try to see that before the Alqueva dam this river and waterfall was higher and even more powerful.
Everywhere we go – in Almodovar, Beja, Moura, Mértola, Castro Verde – we meet and share with change makers, people who run projects and initiatives to restore the connections again: connections of consumers and producers, of people and their land, of inhabitants and the fate of their villages, of different cultural groups.
In Moura we listen to Benjamim, an 18-year-old Roma, the first of his people who went to high school. Does it alienate him from his tradition? “No,” he says, “I am still very close with my family; I still take part in the festivities and wear the same colors. But I took the chance to learn more and to connect our people with knowledge. And I want to show that our lifestyle is not so different from the Alentejan lifestyle some decades ago.” It is the first time I directly speak with a Roma in this country, although we see them in so many places.
Moura is famous for its old olive trees and its clean water springs. But they are in danger, as more and more Spanish companies come in. Together with the dam building company EDIA they continue to replace the old beauties with new irrigated olive plantations, which will contaminate the precious groundwater reservoirs.
Irrigated olive plantations are the pest of this region. Not only on an ecological level. The companies don’t hire Portuguese workers, but prefer people from countries like Romania and even Nepal, which creates a lot of social tension. We spend an afternoon with Teresa Chaves, director of the Caritas Beja, who tries to help where she can, feeds and dresses hungry, old, homeless people. She comes to tears when she says that even worse than the increasing material poverty is the loss of self-esteem and the feeling of shame that is like a disease. “Young people in school pretend they are not hungry when they cannot even afford one euro for the school meals. Families don’t ask for help until it is too late and they fall apart.” She says that in a healthy society it is the responsibility of everybody to look after the neighbors. But what happens when the neighbors are too old to help each other because the young people leave to the cities? When the system strips them from the right to produce and barter with their products? It is obvious – helping on the social level cannot replace the political work to make a system change.
“We are few and powerless against the power of the EDIA,” say the people from the Moura initiative ADCMoura (Associação de desenvolvimento do Concelho de Moura).
We feel the powerlessness also when we later stand on the Alqueva Dam. Such a gigantic plant, and such a ridiculously little amount of electricity produced here.
I always heard: Water is life. But here the water looks like a pall (Leichentuch) silencing all the trees, villages, farms.
How can we break that power of stupidity and violence?
Anne has the vision to write with big letters on the dam, “They did the same with water as they did with love and Eros.”
And Fátima, who had invested so much of her power fighting this dam until ten years ago, happily shows us the many cracks that the concrete already has. “One day the dam will break, the water will move freely again, relieve all the sunken treasures – and the people of Luz can go to their orchards again.”
I discover Fátima anew on this trip. She has been a committed fighter for the rights of nature; together with close friends and comrades they were the revolutionaries of their time. One of them is José Pedro in Ferreira do Alentejo, a former organic farmer. He is a soul brother for Fátima – and another organic farmer of the Alentejo who was born on the 24th of April – the night before the revolution day. It would be a long story to share how José Pedro painfully collapsed with the system.
“In the end the Alqueva dam was only the last drop, making me give up my farm.” Now he lives with his partner and some of his children in Asturia in Northern Spain, very close to nature. “I’m a farmer; I always wanted to be a farmer, and in Spain now I am doing small part time jobs. I could not stand this life if I wasn’t surrounded by a beautiful nature. I would have gone crazy already without this.” And his former farm, once one of the largest organic farms of Portugal, is now a place for professional pork production. You cannot hear these stories without tears coming.
Despite all this, hope is not lost in the region; we meet people with enthusiasm and power everywhere. We develop the idea to make an “Alentejo Conference” with all these people. Connecting, sharing our ideas and developing strategies of de-colonization in the fields of food, water, money and community. Let us dream a bit until we know if we can make it.
We end the trip on the hill of Aljustrel – sitting above the plains, watching this country that reveals so many heartbreaking experiences and inspiring visions when you not merely travel THROUGH it – but actually travel TO it. Welcome home in the Alentejo.