“Anyone who knows the slightest bit about the territory of Alentejo realizes that, for several years now, the landscape has changed in an abysmal way.” Today, says photographer and geographer André Paxiuta in an interview with P3, intensive and super-intensive olive groves and almond groves prevail over all others. “Before, there was a great variety of dryland and meadow crops. Today, the homogeneity of cultures dominates in a region that is, in more than 70%, in the hands of foreign groups. Without respect for the landscape or tradition of the places, the costs for the region are immense.” And it is these costs that the project is all about Oil Dorado, with a focus on the olive grove, which seeks funding for its materialization in photobook format on the platform of crowdfunding IndieGogo. Paxiuta’s project describes “the silent mutation” of the “promised territory of Alqueva”. “Watered from the largest artificial lake in Europe, where olive trees grow by the thousands, olives by the millions, pioneers are enriched and the nation’s pride shines bright”, can be read in the book’s introduction. “In the shadow of this race, I found the announced death of the Alentejo landscape that I once knew.”
In an exceptional year for the production of olive oil – the largest production in the country’s history due to the profitability of the super-intensive olive groves planted south of the Tagus, which are managed, in 65%, by six foreign or Portuguese-foreign financial groups – “it makes sense to look pay attention to what is happening”. “Seen from a distance, a newly planted olive grove looks like an American cemetery,” observes Paxiuta. “He dominates the mantle of green for miles and miles until he’s out of sight. This is the new reality in Alentejo, especially in Beja, Serpa, Moura, Ferreira do Alentejo.”
Briefly, what are the implications of this type of culture for the region? They are numerous and touch on environmental, economic and demographic aspects. Paxiuta begins by referring to the transformation of the land into olive groves, which “implies the removal of everything that could have been there before” and the “reformulation with a view to favoring planting, the operation of machines and harvesting”. Previous cultures are replaced by monocultures, eliminating biodiversity, altering the habitat of countless animal species. “Vegetation and bird communities see their habitats destroyed.”
The proximity of these cultures to housing nuclei, villages and clusters of houses, forces the populations to have regular contact with phytopharmaceuticals and corrective chemistry in these olive groves, which contaminate the waters. “There are families that abandon their homes when they know there will be spraying, they don’t want to be present.” The implications for health, the direct consequences of living with these chemical agents, still need to be evaluated. However, Paxiuta says that “the quality of life of the populations is affected”. Not just because of the proximity of cultures per se, but also due to the proximity of factories that transform surplus olives – pulp residue rinds and olive pit fragments – into olive pomace oil and biomass. “In the transformation process, these units use the dry bagasse itself as fuel, emitting from their chimneys greasy, highly polluting particulate gases, with a very intense, nauseating smell”, can be read inside the book Oil Dorado.
In Fortes, in the municipality of Ferreira do Alentejo, the 100 inhabitants, mostly elderly, live about 300 meters from the Azpo olive pomace burning factory, which belongs to the Spanish group Migaza. The factory works around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “This means that the inhabitants of the village and its surroundings have suffered from the smell and polluting smoke since its opening in 2009,” the book reads. “Certain atmospheric conditions bring smoke (…) which irritates the eyes and throat, causes coughing, tearing and shortness of breath.” Rosa Dimas, an inhabitant of the village of Fortes, told Paxiuta that the arrival of this industry had destroyed her way of life. “I was forced to give up sowing my crops, from where I got my year-round bill for beans, potatoes, turnip greens, cabbage, watermelon. It’s all over.”
The monoculture of olive groves in the Lower Alentejo, leveraged by the construction of the Alqueva dam and the numerous European funds earmarked for this type of business, also produced changes at the demographic level. But not in the way that would be desirable. “The 2020 censuses were clear”, says the geographer. “The development of the Alentejo that followed the construction of the Alqueva Dam did not contribute to the settlement of the population in the region.” It did contribute to the importation of labor. “The interior of Portugal has no active population to work in the countryside”, argues the Lisbon photographer. “The Portuguese don’t want to do these jobs because the wages are very low, the working hours are very long and hard and they don’t want to submit to these new forms of slavery.”
There are, however, those who have no other option. “The concept of importing labor that already existed in Spain was adapted to the Portuguese reality – through Spanish companies based in Portugal – and workers from Eastern Europe, initially, and later from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh , from Nepal, started to carry out these works. “Some work with all the conditions, they have good employers.” Over four years of project development, André Paxiuta saw a little of everything. “There is a portion that complains about excessive working hours, poor working conditions, documents being hijacked, threats of complaints with the SEF, contracts canceled. One of the most recurrent complaints is related to housing.” The photographer makes reference to the existence of overcrowded houses and agricultural warehouses without living conditions, where 40 to 50 immigrant workers sleep on mattresses on the floor. Their testimonies are included in the pages of the book, which is awaiting printing.
What is the bill to pay, in the future, for the “revolution” underway in Alentejo? “We are talking about intensive crops that depend heavily on water consumption”, emphasizes the photographer. “There is a question mark about its scarcity in the future, which could put its sustainability into question.” Paxiuta believes that the current race to “oil dorado” will leave permanent marks in the region. “It could lead to the depletion of the territory’s environmental and cultural wealth (…) and the collapse of the systems that support it.”