Walking Water is a movement and action platform to bring communities together around their local watersheds in order to learn from each other and build and support ongoing cooperative relationships within bioregions by listening to the challenges and ideas regarding water quality and supply. Walking Water Portugal recently gathered in Southern Portugal for its pilgrimage.
After 10 intense days of walking the land, listening, and envisioning, we – a group of 30 people from Tamera, Healing Biotope I, and its network of regional allies – reached the ocean at Troia, our final destination for this educational and ceremonial community action.
The walk was initiated and guided by Sabine Lichtenfels and Bernd Müller from Tamera, and was organized by Aida Shibli and her team from Tamera. Our companions and participants represented all age groups: two 2-month-old babies and one over-seventy-year-old woman and everything in between.
We were hosted in a variety of locations along the way: in old schools and cultural centers of communities, on farms of friends and in sport halls; many times we slept outside. Nearly every evening we were welcomed with enormous, warming hospitality and openness by locals. We began each day early in the morning with a prayer and guiding thoughts given by Sabine. And then we had two hours of walking in silence in which we practiced cultivating the consciousness of being a “Grace Pilgrimage” together, the kind which Sabine has led already many times in various countries: bearing witness to everything that happens inside and outside of us, feeling the connectedness in the web of life, and walking for peace with every step and every breath.
“These were the most important hours for me,” a pilgrim said. “While walking silently, I dove deeply into observing the landscape around me, in its beauty and its pain. Sometimes, nearly crying, I apologized for what we humans have done to nature; and then there are moments of sheer beauty and gratefulness, and I understand that healing is still possible.”
Many times we crossed the river Sado, and observed it emerging from a nearly dry creek to a mighty river delta in the end. In Alcacer do Sal, after 130 km of walking, we continued the journey on a boat until we reached Setúbal. The town, with its huge harbour, used to be wealthy when it formed the link between the richness of the productive land and the products of the ocean. We appreciated our many bird and fish sightings, including flamingoes, yet our hope to spot dolphins was not fullfilled during the boat trip.
It was the presence of the bottleneck dolphins, whose habitat is the bay of Setúbal, which had lured us into the concept of this walk originally. They had appeared in Sabine´s meditation, and we wanted to see and feel the connection from our remote upstream site to their habitat. How does the landscape transform – from the dry fields that surround us in summer into the vast wetland that forms the last part of the river ecosystem?
Walking the watershed had also been an inspiration drawn from Rajendrah Singh, the “Water Gandhi” from Rajasthan. He had initiated a grassroots movement which had transformed a whole desertified landscape into fertile land and forests in his homeland. During his last visit to Tamera, he suggested the significance of everybody knowing their own watershed, meeting with the people and natural relations upstream and downstream, becoming acquainted with and experiencing directly their own responsibilities and roles in the river ecosystem: when people of a watershed work together, when they understand that every action affects everybody, then they can heal nature and live in abundance again.
Our pilgrimage began at the tiny creek that flows out of Tamera´s Lake 1 and soon disappears into the ground. We walked along dry riverbeds and bore witness to how deeply human influence has altered and interrupted the free flow of water, with over-grazing over the past century, with monoculture agriculture, and with building big dams.
Already on the first day, we met the mayors of our two neighboring villages, Colos and Relíquias, who shared details of their water concerns: the former has an abundance of groundwater; the latter has to purchase tankers with drinking water throughout the summer months to supply the population. Instead of being allowed to manage their own water, helping each other and sharing, they both are forced to become connected to the supply systems of the big dams. The dam of Monte da Rocha, for example, after many months without rain, has a very diminished water quality. Privatization of water rights has led to a legistaltion that does not allow villages to maintain and use their own wells, but makes them dependent on expensive and low-quality water .
Bernd Müller, water specialist from Tamera, again and again made us aware of the abundance that is still possible in our region. The tradition of carefully maintaining wells to ensure precious drinking water is still alive with some of the older locals. When we passed well-kept wells, we showed our respect. And the many times we saw the sign “This water is not checked by the municipality,” we were reminded how little is being invested in cultivating the people’s relationships with the local water supply under the ground, thereby making the population disconnected from this profound life force, and, consequently, deeply insecure. (As we hear echoed in the Dakota Pipeline resistance currently boiling in the USA, with the largest confluence of indigenous tribes in this area possibly ever, Water Is Life!).
It was close to Alvalade where we saw for the first time flowing water: the Sado. Here it forms a beautiful natural-looking riverbed. But the water does not originate from springs: it is effluent from intensive rice production and sewage treatment plants. Still it was a blessing to see the free running water, the trees, plants, and animals which comprise a riverbed ecosystem.
At the Association for the Benefits of the Upper Sado and Campilhas Rivers (Associação de Regantes e Beneficiários de Campilhas e Alto Sado), we understood that the rivers are mainly valued as assets for industrial agriculture. The association provides huge tomato, olive, corn and rice monocultures with water throughout the year; without the big dams, these cultivation projects could not happen. We tried to share with them the water retention practices we have been cultivating at Tamera and which Bernd Müller teaches in many places around the world: a way to slow down the rainwater and keep it on the land and in the soil to restore ecosystems and aquifers and to provide fertility for forest, mixed cultures and gardens. The managers and engineers of the association were impressed, but they and we knew that the two ways of water management represent vastly different organizational systems of society: the one serves the idea of producing as much as possible as fast as possible and exporting it wherever the global market can pay for it without much consideration for long-term impacts – and the other is the system of regional autonomy in food and water in regenerative cooperation with nature.
We walked along exploited and abandoned sulfur mines (sulfur is a necessary ingredient in fertilizers), abandoned houses in the middle of irrigated olive monocultures, as well as huge channels for transporting groundwater to the petrochemical industry on the coast. Sabine reminded us: “The ways of globalization are the same everywhere – be it in Colombia, in Palestine or Portugal.” In spite of the tremendous, glaring and ominous impacts of these destructive ways, we were again and again touched by the power of and beauty of nature which we still found unmolested in remote places. At one spot the forest was so dense that we had to crawl, and the river was so deep that it reached to our chests. We had to wade slowly through it, carrying children and luggage high on our outstretched arms.
We found friends. We met older people who still maintain their wells and their gardens in far-removed places and who reacted with enthusiasm to our slogan, “Water is a human right.” We met young people who left their city life behind to cultivate a little “Quinta” in the midst of a landscape dominated by monocultures. We met sons of miners who are searching for a new perspective. We met hunters who know themselves as guardians of wildlife. We met heirs of huge properties who have transformed their farms into meeting places for visionaries, who re-import the ideas of permaculture, mixed forests, art and beauty into their bioregion. We encountered villages which seem to be forgotten by the world, yet which now find themselves embedded in the vision of a sustainable watershed.
“Imagine our political administration not organized around borders, ideologies nor religions, but around watersheds.” When we pilgrims shared our impressions and visions in the evenings among each other and with our hosts, we often reimagined all those people and places as pearls of a beautiful and vital string.
We all inhabit the same watershed; we all touch it, benefit from it and serve it in different ways. We could benefit so much more from each other. If all of us were to understand and fulfill our roles within the context of our service to the whole river system in a holistic way, we could all live our lives with a healthy flowing river again, with more biological diversity and robustness.
One of the pilgrims, Duarte Sobral, a landscape planner and biologist from Odemira, explained how a healthy watershed could look:
“The places upstream could mainly grow healthy mixed forests. More downstream the landscape could emerge as an extensive and more diverse cultivation, including fruit trees and forest pastures. In the lower part of the river, with vast areas of fertile ground and wide plains, food production could become more intensive, yet still in mixed cultures with many trees interspersed, trees with deep roots bringing the water of the aquifers to the surface and making it available for the whole ecosystem. And in the wetlands downstream, we could have salt production, fishermen, and the gathering of special plants and shells.”
All the abundance that the watershed once held is reflected in the city of Setúbal where the old houses reveal a past richness and prosperity. It was the products of the fertile land inland and the ocean which were traded here, and the Sado river formed a natural living communication highway, connecting land and sea with water, goods, and information.
On Monday morning, at sunrise, we connected in the “Ring of Power” meditation, linking our pilgrimage and its intentions with many groups and individuals around the world. We sent our prayers and thoughts especially to our friends from Walking Water California; to our neighbors of Sao Luis who also walked their watershed; to the walk of “Women Waging Peace” in Israel-Palestine; and to Colombia with the urgent wish to support the peace process there. On that morning, we were in a place called Porches with our friend José Arrantes, and we experienced the exceptional gift to sit around a fire – which had not been possible for many months during the dry season. Sabine invited us for a rich sharing circle around the flames, where we were bathing in many insights and visions of the group. These are the moments where hope emerges – hope that we can connect with pragmatism and throughout our networks, globally, to restore and heal this world, and transform it into the paradise that it is meant to be.
It was a chilly day when we stepped on the ferry that ushered us to our last destination, to the beach of Troia. Just as Sabine was starting the closing ritual, we were sprayed and greeted by the first rain of the season. And just as we finished the final sharing circle among us, the dolphins arrived! Dozens of them were swimming from the bay to the ocean, approaching very close to the shore, and many of them greeted us with a leaps out of the water. We welcomed this experience as a final blessing and a message: regardless of the destruction and exploitation, we are still here; if we cooperate, the restoration of the ecosystem is still possible.
Thank you for your guidance, Sabine and Bernd. Thank you, Aida and the organization team that never stopped creating miracles. Thank you to all the participants, to all our hosts and to all the people who provided us with water, coffee, organic regional food, with smiles and love along the way. A special thank you to Sebastian Antunes and Nuno Moreno for your wonderful music on our last evening.