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The (re)population of rural areas

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People from Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands,
Switzerland and urban Portugal are all making their
projects and dreams of life in the country
come true in rural Portugal

Neo-ruralites bring relief


With the accelerated expansion of the
service sector, young people are no
longer finding the Portuguese countryside
attractive, preferring instead to be in
the city, not some village. They are
interested in service jobs that pay a
steady wage rather than seasonal work
on a farm or self-employment in a craft.
In contrast to this trend, a whole category
of former urbanites - from Portugal and
especially Northern Europe - are finding
their “place in the sun” in the hinterland
of certain regions, bringing genuine relief
to rural areas. Here the spotlight is on
some of these (neo-)rural entrepreneurs
from the LEADER areas of Entre Lousã e
Zêzere (Centro) and Sudoeste (Algarve/Alentejo).


“We can never go out and leave the village without surveillance because of vandalism,” complains Kerstin Thomas. With her husband and their two children aged eight and four, she is the only woman inhabitant of Cerdeira, a remote village at the end of a dirt road high up in the Serra de Lousã, in central Portugal. “When we studied Portuguese in Coimbra, we discovered this deserted village and decided to move here. We were able to buy four houses.” Originally from the region of Kassel, in Germany, the couple wanted to live close to nature, “to work at home, to take the time to live, to no longer run... Here, I don’t have the impression I’m rushing to drop the kids off at school so I won’t be late for work.” The work Kerstin and her husband do is first of all woodcarving but they also rent guest rooms nearly every weekend. They did not receive any help or assistance whatsoever in 1986 to move there, but a few years later, at the instigation of the municipality of which Cerdeira is a part, the Youth Institute volunteered to clean up the village streets and alleys. Since then, most of the houses have been bought up by the people of Coimbra or Lisbon who have made them their second homes. Today, Cerdeira and the other old abandoned villages in the region have become what could almost be called “chic” holiday resorts and are known throughout the country.



Since entering the euro zone, Portugal has become part of the consumer society. “For a long time largely informal, the rural economy first became monetarist; now, people are discovering credit in all its forms...”, explains Andreas Apitz, originally from Hamburg and living in the Serra since 1987. “People have to pay the monthly instalments of the big 4X4 they bought on credit... So, they look for a relatively well-paid salaried job that you just don’t find here.”

Andreas and Iris Apitz chose Serra de Lousã almost scientifically: “We decided on Portugal because we found it was the country in southern Europe most open to foreigners. We then studied a map of Portugal and opted for the country’s geographical centre. We thought Algarve was too hot and the North had too much rain... Here, it looked ideal to us, and we do indeed live in pretty wooded mountains, not far from a cold sea so there are no tourists and with dominant west winds which protect us from air pollution.”

Twelve years later, has reality lived up to their hopes? “In a nutshell, yes” replies Andreas, “we can certainly complain about a lack of environmental awareness - particularly in the case of waste management, a very bureaucratic administration, and a certain contempt on the part of the people for their recent local history - associated with deprivation if not poverty - but Portugal is evolving at its own pace, as the wealthier countries did. However, this phase where consuming seems to be the only preoccupation is a little silly, and I’ll certainly be glad when it’s over.”

Like Kerstin, Andreas is one of those North Europeans marked by the 1960s-70s who chose Portugal because of a cultural ideal (an “authentic” rural society), a political ideal (the Revolution of the Carnations of 1974) or a socio-economic ideal. Manfred Markl, 45 years old, defines himself as someone from the “alternative” group of Nuremberg: “between 1974 and 1981, we formed an autonomous community of several hundred people in the city centre. I was a garage mechanic... And then the real estate developers descended on the neighbourhood and we had to find another place to live. I wanted to be out in the country, but staying in Germany was out of the question because of exorbitant land prices. In France and Spain, the situation was more or less the same... So on the edge of Europe, all that was left was Portugal.” In 1984, he bought a 1.5 ha farm from Pedrogão Grande and took a course in cheese making. “I also learned a lot by working with people: the whole village was still living on agriculture at the time.” With the passing of the years, Manfred has become the only farmer still left in the village. With his 60 goats, he is also the only cheese maker in the entire LEADER area. “There is no cheese-making tradition in the Serra,” explains Maria Marques, director of the Entre Lousã e Zêzere LAG, “the activity of Markl was an innovation that absolutely had to be supported.” As a result, LEADER should soon be financing 65% of the EUR 30,000 Manfred needs to build and equip a small, more efficient cheese dairy.

“Most of the projects that we support are collective ones,” points out development agent Ana Soute. “There are a lot of neo-ruralites in the Sierra, but they are not a specific category of players for us, and certainly not the ones who need the most help. Usually they blend in with the local society and are a discrete part of the socio-professional networks of the area. Many are craftsmen, for example, and it is in this capacity that they may become involved in a LEADER action.”



Let us leave the Serra de Lousã for the Serra de Monchique, 400 km south, at the border with Algarve and Alentejo. “Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of foreigners here,” sums up Gordon Sillence, an English sociologist who came to Portugal ten years ago and co-founded the Portuguese Institute of Ecology (INPECO) in 1996. “In addition to the very typical group of retired people found in sunny regions, there are the ‘entrepreneurs’: unlike what is often the case in Wales or in Ireland, the people who move here are not necessarily the fringe who will do whatever it takes to flee the urban system. Often they are entrepreneurs who felt their country of origin was unsuitable to fulfil their project. Almost all are innovators. They are a wonderful resource for local development, a resource that is unfortunately often underutilised...”

“I don’t agree with that last remark,” objects Carlos Albano, LEADER development agent in the Serra de Monchique. He continues “here, the first people involved in a LEADER project in 1997 were foreigners: you, Gordon, who produced a topographical guide of the area, and Amanda Twohig, who is Irish and who received EUR 13,000 in funding for her organic jam business.”

“We don’t have any specific strategy for inward migrants; we have a strategy, and that’s it, but it just so happens that a lot of the work we do is with newcomers,” insists Pedro Dornellas, coordinator of the “Vicentina” development association which is managing the Sudoeste LEADER programme. “A large majority of the people who live in this part of Portugal are from somewhere else - several colleagues and myself grew up in Mozambique, the president of the association, Joaquim Marreiros, is married to a Dutch woman, etc. - and therefore, mathematically, many of those with projects here are ‘foreigners’. This is also the case because more often than not they have taken over businesses that the Portuguese no longer want and which are precisely in the sectors that we support: agriculture and crafts...”

The Vicentina association/LEADER Sudoeste intervenes in the western part of Algarve, in the area of cape Saint-Vincent, in the southwestern tip of Europe. Stretching all the way to the Serra de Monchique and the other mountains forming the border between Algarve and Alentejo and north of a very narrow strip of the coast that is extremely popular with tourists (4 million visitors a year) and densely built up from Lagos to Faro, lies a scarcely populated area (barely 6 inhabitants/km² in some places) that today would be deserted if it were not for the “neo-ruralites”.



“An old woman has already told me: ‘I don’t care about the nationality of my neighbours, I just want to have neighbours’,” tells Fernand Silva, LEADER official, “the coast has ‘taken away’ all the young people from this area...” And she cites as an example the municipality of Barão de São João, where the young families are almost all English, German, Dutch or Swiss, and the primary school has 19 foreign children and 3 Portuguese children. “The foreigners have helped us keep open the school, the post office, several cafés and five grocery shops, including one that sells a wider range of organic products than in Lisbon,” notes Fernanda.

Niels Rump and Marielle Demenga (36 years old) are among the “living strengths” of Barão de São João. Originally from Genoa in Italy, they worked for development organisations in the Third World before settling down in Portugal in 1989, buying 4 ha of land in the middle of nowhere. To live, these trained agrobiologists decided to launch into “organic farming, of course! For us to go into any other kind of farming was inconceivable.” The ingredients of a “Christmas ratatouille” were what guided them in developing their product range and finding their niche: “tomatoes, onions, courgettes, aubergines, peppers, beans... all the fruit and vegetables that are ready for picking here when the season is ending in France,” says Niels. In 1992, European aid enabled them to trade in their small tunnels in favour of vast greenhouses and forced them a little against their will to move into high gear: “1 ha of greenhouses is a lot. We would have preferred a smaller project, to have grown at our own pace, but for the subsidy it was either take it or leave it...” As for LEADER, the Community Initiative contributed half of the EUR 17,500 needed to buy a machine to wash and grade the fruit and vegetables. In addition to Niels and Marielle, the farm has four permanent employees. Only 1% of the production is sold on the local market (the tourist sector of Algarve consumes very little organic food), 60% of the production is exported (to the United Kingdom and Germany) and 39% goes to the various supermarkets in Portugal. To strengthen the bargaining position with buyers, Niels helped found in 1995 “Urze” (“heath”), a group of 22 organic producers scattered across Portugal.



Eric Balans, from France, and his wife Alexandra, born in Mozambique, founded the “DistriBIO” company a few years ago, providing a weekly home delivery of organic food baskets to some fifty customers within a radius of 200 km. “To develop the system,” explains Eric, “we drew on an experiment carried out in Trièves, France to help unemployed people return to the working world. Delivering all the baskets takes about three and a half days. Each basket contains between 8 to 10 different products. The composition depends on the season; the customers - 50% Portuguese, 50% foreigners - never know exactly what they are going to receive.” Benefiting from LEADER co-funding for the packing equipment, DistriBIO naturally buys from Niels and Marielle, among other suppliers.

“Networks of neo-ruralites have formed, especially according to the language and sector of activity,” stresses Eric. Organic production, the ecology and alternative sources of energy weave powerful links: Amanda Twohig, for example, sells her organic jams in places like Vera Diesselbrede’s natural food shop in Aljezur. Vera’s companion, Franz Wagner is himself an entrepreneur-innovator in the region. Originally from Neuss near Düsseldorf, he had opened a restaurant in Algarve in 1979. But like all the other neo-ruralites who were moving there at the time, he was faced with the problem of no electricity. Forced to provide it himself, he discovered a passion for alternative sources of energy and created, with two fellow Germans, the “Sistemas de Energias Alternativas Portugal Lda” company, now a national leader in the assembly and installation of solar and wind power equipment. “We’re growing 20% to 30% annually” announces Franz proudly. “We have a permanent staff of 8 and work with 80 retailers around the world. Our customers are 60% individuals and 40% groups. We have participated in several European programmes - JOULE, THERMIE - and are currently cooperating with the Mine Academy of Paris on a COPERNICUS project in Uzbekistan.”

Franz Wagner’s systems and the enormous efforts made by Portugal to install electricity across the countryside these past several years have solved the great problem that newcomers encountered ten years ago. But the same can be said about water, “without which,” recalls Fernanda Silva, “no rural development is possible” and this is sometimes lacking, as José and Sabine Sousa found out to their cost?



José is an “African” (*) from Mozambique while Sabine is German from Eutin in Schleswig-Holstein. Both are ceramists and run a shop where they sell pottery and other terracotta objects in Lagos. In 1995, they bought 8 ha of unused land in the hinterland. The place was entirely deserted but had the particular feature of offering a view of the western coast (“Costa Vicentina”) and the southern coast of Algarve. They built their house there, and then with the help of LEADER erected a vast workshop (EUR 50,000). Unfortunately, the reservoir that was supposed to supply the property with water was insufficient and a well had to be dug, thus considerably increasing the cost of the project.

“Little by little, we solved the infrastructure problems,” recalls José from the top of his hill which looks out over the tip of Europe. “We’re proud to think that in addition to us, two families earn a living with our business. Because you know, the hardest part is to find people who will work for you and to keep them. A cashier at the supermarket where we shop has already participated in a training course we organised, but she preferred the job as cashier because it is more prestigious here than pottery.”

All the entrepreneurs we met complained about this shortage of labour: “the accelerated transformation of Portuguese society is diminishing traditional activities, seen as ‘out-dated’, dirty and unprofitable,” says Sabine. However, she forgets to mention one detail in her analysis: José was not a potter before meeting her but a civil servant at the Ministry of Finance! “I took unpaid leave... for life,” he adds.



Surface area: 729,35 km²
Population: 48 012 inhabitants
LEADER II funding: EUR 3 308 000
EU: EUR 2 481 000
Other public funds: EUR 247 000
Private: EUR 580 000


Rua Dr. Pires de Carvalho, 49 - 1°Dto
P-3200 Lousã
Phone: +351 39 99 52 68
Fax: +351 39 99 52 68



Surface area: 2 368 km²
Population: 61 393 inhabitants
LEADER II funding: EUR 2 921 000
EU: EUR 1 998 000
Other public funds: EUR 129 000
Private: EUR 794 000


Rua Conselheiro Joaquim
Machado, 45 - 1°E
P-8600 Lagos
Phone: +351 82 764 060
Fax: +351 82 764 060


(*) Nickname given by the people in
Portugal to white people from the
former Portuguese colonies of Africa.


source: LEADER Magazine nr.22 - Spring, 2000

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