Agribusiness is depleting soil and water resources in Portugal’s Alentejo | Environment

‎‏Odemira, Portugal – ‎‏Sitting in her home in a whitewashed village nestled in the gentle hills of the Alentejo, 92-year-old Inácia Cruz likes to reminisce about simpler times.

“This region was rich in bread,” she says wistfully. “We would produce olive oil, cereals and cork. We didn’t need to buy things overseas. We grew our own food and the neighbors helped each other.

Over the decades, she has seen a radical transformation of the landscape of Odemira, a rural municipality in the southwestern region of Alentejo.

In the 1960s, a dam was built under the Estado Novo dictatorship, with the promise that irrigation would expand agriculture and improve production in the dry zone. The reservoir was named after the village of Inácia, Santa Clara.

While some farmers replaced the traditional patchwork of grain fields, grasslands and fallow land with irrigated crops, it was not until the late 1980s that industrial agriculture resumed, with the creation of hundreds of hectares of strawberry greenhouses by millionaire French businessman Thierry Roussel. .

“French greenhouses”

“Some of my neighbors used to work there, in the Frenchman’s greenhouses, but the business failed and they never received the wages that were due to them,” Inácia explains.

Even with grants from the European Union and funding from the Portuguese state and a public bank, the 550-hectare (1,359-acre) greenhouses went bankrupt in just a few years, ending with an estimated loss of 30 millions of dollars.

Roussel fled Portugal, leaving behind his debts, the land littered with plastic and the soil eroded by the heavy use of agrochemicals.

But over the past 18 years, foreign companies have started investing in Odemira again, turning the area into a hub for intensive monoculture.

The region’s mild climate, which allows for longer growing seasons, began to attract multinational berry growers again in 2004, when US-based Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company with a monopoly of patented plants, including established greenhouses to feed Europe’s growing appetite for fresh berries. .

Availability of land, water from the Santa Clara Reservoir and millions of euros in EU farm subsidies have fueled an export boom that has seen the sale of berries from Portugal increase exponentially over the past 10 years, grossing around €250 million ($242 million) in 2020.

More than 90% of the berries produced are exported north to countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom.

‎‏Inácia is well aware of the disappearance of the region’s traditional farming methods, based on an old silvopastoral model that combines oak and fruit trees with rainfed crops and livestock.

‎‏”Now it’s shameful, we can’t even feed ourselves. We have to import wheat to make our own bread,” Inácia mutters disapprovingly, avoiding the model that favors international markets over sustainable local production.

She says it has also meant a transformation of social relationships.

“There was more kindness before. Less greed, less malice.

Biodiversity hotspot

While the village of Inácia is right next to a reservoir that supplies berry growers, most of the greenhouses have been established on the coast, inside the Southwest Alentejo Natural Park and the Vicentine Coast, a hotspot for biodiversity.

‎‏”[Southwest Alentejo] is one of Europe’s most valuable nature reserves and the last wild coastal areas,” says Paula Canha, a biologist who has spent most of her career studying the region’s unique biodiversity and the species endemic.

‎‏In 1988, the southwest of the Alentejo was classified as a protected landscape. In 1995 it was transformed into a natural park and included in the European Natura 2000 network of protected areas for rare and endangered habitats.

However, agricultural companies operating in the area deny that their activity has any significant impact on the environment, claiming that the irrigation network established by the dam predates the park and should take priority over nature conservation.

‎‏”Agriculture is important, but it must have limits. We need to strike a balance between food production and conservation,” Canha says.

The greenhouses cover more than 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of the natural park. In 2019, the government approved a resolution allowing the area in which greenhouses can be established to reach 40% of a designated agricultural area inside the park, allowing areas covered by greenhouses to almost triple to 4,800 hectares (11861 acres).

According to Canha, one of the main problems is the lack of clear regulations and law enforcement.

“Inspections are almost non-existent, there is a lot of negligence on the part of local authorities. For years, companies have broken the law with impunity,” she says.

Portugal’s environment ministry and park authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Al Jazeera on the impact of intensive farming in the protected area. The mayor of Odemira declined to be interviewed.

Place in the greenhouses

According to biologists and conservationists, intensive monoculture depends on the use of agrochemicals, and to establish greenhouses, companies level the ground, drain it and cover it with plastic.

Water containing fertilizers flows into streams and seeps into the ground, contaminating the region’s scarce water resources. The damage may be irreversible.

On top of that, Canha says, “many of these greenhouses are established right next to the cliffs, causing faster erosion.”

“They destroy the soil structure to such an extent that it will be almost impossible to restore it. Everything under the plastic dies.

Canha was part of a team of biologists and conservationists who mapped the region’s unique Mediterranean temporary ponds, priority habitats protected by national and European legislation.

Over the past 20 years, many ponds have been destroyed to make way for greenhouses.

“Despite our best efforts to preserve these unique ponds, they have continued to be destroyed,” says Rita Alcazar, of LPN, an environmental organization which recently filed a lawsuit against a UK company accused of destroying five ponds to grow strawberries. to be exported to the UK and Scandinavia.

In an emailed statement about the ponds, AHSA, the Odemira Fruit Growers Association, told Al Jazeera “some mistakes have been made in the past”, but that today , “companies are subject to very strict control by customers”. and uphold “the highest standards”.

Stand up against agribusiness

It is not only environmental organizations that are protesting against the destruction of priority habitats, soil erosion and the contamination of water resources.

Outraged by the government’s decision to increase the area in which greenhouses are allowed, several residents have started to organize against agribusiness in Odemira.

“This area should be protected, but it is abandoned in favor of economic interests,” says Laura Cunha, who joined other locals to form the group Juntos pelo Sudoeste (“Together for the Southwest”). in 2019.

Since then, they have organized protests, written petitions and vowed to sue the government to protect the region’s native flora and fauna.

Agricultural companies say they are bringing investment to an impoverished region, and many see the industry’s growth as a success.

But for Juntos pelo Sudoeste, the economic model of intensive greenhouses depends on the exploitation of migrant labor and the natural environment.

The greenhouses rely mainly on imported materials – from patented plants, metal structures and plastic covers to agrochemicals – as well as thousands of overworked and underpaid migrant workers who come mainly from South Asia to pick too delicate berries. for mechanized harvesting.

“It does not benefit local communities, it depletes water and soil to enrich only a few,” Cunha told Al Jazeera.

“The main problem is that the state tolerates this and continues to favor agribusiness,” says Cunha.

In 2017, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa visited greenhouses in Odemira producing raspberries for Driscoll’s, praising foreign investment in the area.

“These multinationals have an extractivist mindset, they are there to make the most of local resources and then leave,” says Diogo Coutinho, who founded the organization SOS Rio Mira to advocate for the protection and sustainable management of local water resources. .

Water is a key issue as Portugal and Spain suffer from the driest climate in at least 1,200 years, with heat waves and prolonged droughts becoming more common.

Reports have warned that the region is in danger of becoming a desert before the end of the century. But the demand for water in the region continues to increase.

‎‏”There is less water because it rains less. With deforestation, soils are impoverished and there is less water retention. But water consumption is increasing because intensive agriculture continues to develop,” says Coutinho, who lives right next to the Santa Clara dam and has seen some of his neighbors run out of water.

Water levels at the Santa Clara dam in Portugal are extremely low [Marta Vidal/Al Jazeera]

Water levels in the dam have fallen from 96% in July 2010 to an alarming 36% this year.

According to Coutinho and other residents and activists, the problem is the inequitable distribution of increasingly scarce water resources, since the association that controls the supply to the dam is managed by agricultural companies that consume around 90% of the water. ‘water.

‎‏Antonio Rosa, a farmer who grows peanuts and sweet potatoes on a small plot of land, was one of about 100 local residents who received a letter from the water management association warning them that they would no longer get water from the reservoir and they would have to find another source of irrigation.

“We are denied access to water so that it can continue to supply the multinationals here,” says Rosa.

“The dam was built with public funds but it is managed by the private sector. It was built to supply farmers only during the drier months, but these businesses need year-round irrigation. Their intensive model is not sustainable, it is completely disconnected from the territory and local conditions,” he says.

For him, the solution is to return to the roots of the region.

“Before, we grew crops adapted to arid lands. We had food sovereignty and local knowledge on how to deal with drought and live sustainably,” he says. “We just need to value it again.”

‎‏This project has been developed with the support of