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The flooding of the Alqueva basin. Yannis Drakoulidis, 2017.

Alentejo, a rural region in the south of Portugal where modes of life are deeply rooted in human-soil relations, will provide a lens to unpack the entangled relationship between the ongoing desertification of the western Mediterranean basin and the rise of super-intensive mono-crop cultivation. Focusing on the Alqueva dam, a large-scale hydroelectric project which generated the largest artificial water reservoir in Europe upon completion in 2002, we will explore the inherent contradictions of the current “European Green Deal”, namely the conflict between the modernisation of agricultural practices and the protection of habitats and landscapes.

We will make use of the tools and methods of environmental architecture to trace the different scales of extractivism at stake - soil exhaustion, property accumulation, exploitation of migrant labour – and research and design alternatives to the current model that is being implemented with the dam. In collaboration with local activist movements, that have voiced the concerns and complaints of local populations and exploited workers, the output of our collective research will be a spatial investigation into the logistical conditions and environmental consequences of the neoliberal model of super-intensive farming.

Context

The studio will frame the undergoing intensification of land use within a wider historical and political context, which has its origins in the so-called Green Revolution during the cold-war period, intersecting with the rise of anticolonial and ecological resistance movements.

Our goal is to engage with the ongoing ecological, social, and political struggles taking place in the region, while learning from the different modes of knowledge and situated perspectives of local stakeholders: farmers and exploited rural workers; scientists and spatial practices; affected populations and activists. Combining architectural tools of spatial analysis with the voices and claims of those inhabiting the frontline of monocrop cultivation, the studio aims at producing a meaningful contribution to new forms of resistance, above and below ground.

Soil Samples of Alentejo at the Institute of Agriculture ISA, Lisbon. João Ruivo_2021.

Focus

We will operate as a soil laboratory to unpack the toxic relation between mechanised irrigation and soil erosion, set in motion with the toppling of the Alqueva dam. How does water produce the desert? And what is the human role in the pedological processes which contribute to the destruction of soils: salinisation, nitrification, acidification?

The construction of the dam and the subsequent flooding of the plain fields has exposed the contrasting temporalities and scales of contemporary techno-scientific agriculture. At a first sight, it has radically altered the semi-arid landscape: when the concrete wall of the dam was finally toppled, and the waters from the Guadiana River begun rising, it is estimated that over 1 million trees were felled, including many protected cork trees. Simultaneously, with the use of chemical inputs and genetically modified crops required by intensive modes of production, the entire ecology of the region is increasingly under pressure. Not only does the increase in toxicity have a direct impact on the loss of biodiversity, also vernacular forms of production and empirical knowledges, heavily reliant on the foraging of non-cultivated species, which are labelled as weeds to be eradicated under so-called modern agricultural taxonomies and methods.

On the other hand, local environmental activists, soil scientists, and affected populations argue that the problem of water scarcity, was hardly mitigated with the flooding of the basin. Since its current use is dedicated almost entirely to intensive irrigation, which accounts for 87% of all water extracted from the dam, the ongoing desertification of Alentejo remains both a consequence of the concentration of landed property and an expression of its colonial continuities. Despite reports sponsored by agro-business arguing that precision agriculture is less harmful and consumes less water than traditional modes of production, long periods of drought will become more frequent in the Mediterranean Basin.

In a recent public session organised by the activist movement Chão Nosso in Alqueva, climate scientist Rui Salgado warned that the future will bring higher temperatures and less precipitation in the region. He also predicted that with the now irreversible pattern of climate change, the number of days exceeding 45º will rise from 20 to 60 a year in the coming years, a pattern currently observed also in other regions in the Mediterranean with similar climate. These climatic models do not align with the proposed expansion of the irrigation perimeters conceded by the authorities for intensive mono-crop, which will require even higher water consumption rates in the coming years, adding uncertainty to the sustainability of water resources.

In some areas in the south of Portugal, affected by the expansion of intensive irrigation, water scarcity is already a point of conflict between populations and local authorities. The phenomenon has also triggered the emergence of organised struggle: from the long plains of Beja in lower Alentejo to the coastal region of Odemira, citizens and activists protest against the endless expansion of irrigated mono-crop fields, greenhouses, and photovoltaic parks. Our studio will join them in denouncing the ongoing ecocide, while engaging with environmental architecture as a critical tool for the design and research of alternatives, and ultimately as a medium of political resistance.

Drought in the Alqueva basin. João Ruivo, 2017

Locus

Built in 2002, the project of the dam spans decades of political transformation. The first feasibility studies were ordered still under the dictatorship, simultaneously with other large-scale colonial projects for hydroelectric power in Angola and Mozambique; the decision to start building followed a bilateral agreement for the management and planification of hydraulic resources in the Iberian Peninsula, signed in 1968 together with Spain, at the time also under a fascist dictatorship. This period also coincided with an increase in political repression, both in the metropolis and in the colonies, where anticolonial resistance movements were leading multiple struggles for independence. At this time, Alentejo was considered the “bread basket” for the nation, and its landscape and soils suffered with the mechanisation of agricultural labour and increase of chemical inputs, leading to a decline in soil fertility, and an exodus of rural populations. But after the mass migrations of the 60’s, today the region is faced once again with the threat of irreversible decline. Vague promises of employment and local development, a condition for accessing public and EU grants, have been recently shattered: against the government’s claim that the intensification of land use would contribute to reverse ongoing depopulation, a recent census has shown how Alentejo is one of the regions that has lost the most population over the last 10 years.

Scope

We will collaborate mainly with two local activist movements, Chão Nosso and Movimento Alentejo VIVO, in mapping the undergoing territorial transformations. Embracing what philosopher Isabell Stengers termed an ecology of practices, we will learn from the different modes of knowledge and situated perspectives of those actively resisting the harmful effects of intensive cultivation.

These include the claims and experiences of local farmers and affected populations, scientists and activists, with whom we will be engaging in dialogue and cooperation. Together with the two movements, our work will be twofold: on the one hand, the production of an overall image of the ongoing destruction, an analytic view from above, which comprises of a cartographic reading of the environmental changes derived from the shift in modes of production.

On the other, a view from the ground: by working with specific case-studies we will engage with multiple perspectives of those affected directly by intensive cultivation. These include complaints by individuals and groups of citizens, living in the toxic proximity of mono-crop fields; and anonymous complaints by migrant workers, that have denounced hidden cases of abuse and violence taking place out of public sight.

The olive harvest, a seasonal labour performed in many cases as a supplement to other modes of life, was also an important locus of sociality for women. Currently, agricultural labour is performed mainly by migrant male workers, often living in precarious conditions that only due to the pandemic were brought to the public fore. Their otherwise silenced voices spoke of what they left behind: many were already farmers, who sold their land and animals to afford the costs of traveling, and currently subsist in a chain of perpetual debt under the watch of human trafficking networks.

Despite agro-corporations’ claims of compliance with health and safety regulations, the experience of inhabiting next to a super-intensive olive grove cannot be fully measured or quantified. The voices of those who feel the plumes of aspersion entering through their windows on a regular basis, and how their lungs, throats and eyes suffer from chronic irritation, and other similar claims are constitutive of the experience of living in the frontline of modern mono-crop cultivation.

Studio framework

The main objective for the studio is to engage with the current ecological struggles taking place in the region. In close collaboration with our local partners, we will be working across multiple scales of analysis in the production of research and design outputs that combine analogue and digital mapping, photography and moving images, and that can effectively be mobilised as tools for resistance.

In the first term we will conduct an overall survey of the territories affected by the irrigation perimeter of the Alqueva dam water reservoir, focusing on the environmental issues brought about by changes in land use, and allowing for the detection of patterns, flows, and disruptions, caused by the densification of agricultural crops and the mechanised logistics of irrigation, that have come to interfere with the ecologies of Alentejo. These include areas where soils are under threat of erosion, endangered archaeological remains and protected habitats, and the proximity of settlements to toxic mono-crop practices. In our field trip to the basin of the Alqueva Dam, in Alentejo, we will engage with soil as a method and acknowledge human and more-than-human perspectives, to explore different forms of sensing and recording embodied experience and environmental testimony. On the second term, we will ask what is it like to be living in the frontline of ecocide? Working from the vantage point of the current struggles taking place in region, and building up on the research insights and materials gathered in the field-trip, we will deal with situated claims of populations and workers who inhabit the front line of intensive cultivation.

Research partners

Super-intensive field near Alvito. Yannis Drakoulidis, 2017.

In its first year, the studio was developed in close partnership with two activist movements from Alentejo, Movimento Alentejo Vivo (MAV) and Chao Nosso (CN), while keeping dialogue and collaboration with other movements and institutions active in the region, namely Juntos pelo Sudoeste, Associação SOLIM, Associação de Amigos das Fortes.

Movimento Alentejo VIVO

A movement formed in 2019 by citizens of the Beja district, that were concerned with the transformation of the landscape through massive agricultural intensification. The main issues recognised by the movement range from pesticide exposure, to rural workers being subject to new forms of slavery. Through the year of 2019 and early 2020 the movement - with important exposure through journalistic investigation pieces and environmental NGO interest - promoted an intense public scrutiny of the agricultural intensification model, leading to the deconstruction of most of the false narratives of sustainability that were promoted nationally up until them. The movement's activity and open framework has inspired and nurtured the emergence of new movements in other irrigated areas in southern Portugal.

Visit the Movimento Alentejo VIVO website

Pedro Horta

Born in the rural region of Alentejo, in the south of Portugal. In 2013 he was one of the founders of the local citizen group Eco-Comunidades na Planície, inspired by the Transition Towns Movement.

He his a practitioner of agro-ecology since 2012, with closer collaborations in regional projects during the 2015-18 period. From 2019 onwards he has been engaged in public movements in the region, focusing on the impacts of the current development models promoted through public irrigation projects. It is also since 2019 that he has been advising ZERO (a national NGO) on agricultural policy.

Movimento Chão Nosso

Chão Nosso is a citizens movement created in 2018 by local residents in Alentejo, concerned about the transformations of the landscape that have taken place over the last decades, and the way in which they are compromising the future of the territory.

The movement was created in response to the lack of answers from the State and its regional structures, that ignored the plight of populations living with the consequences of the expansion of irrigated mono-crop.

Visit the Movimento Chão Nosso website

Inês Fonseca

Living and working in Alentejo since 1998, Inês is one of the founders of the movement Chão Nosso.

Inês holds a Masters in Architectural and Landscape Heritage by the University of Évora, which was published as a book “Arquitectura de Terra no Concelho de Avis” (The Architecture of Soil in Avis), and a PhD in Architecture for her thesis on the use of modern materials in conservation. Inês begun working in public practice in Alentejo in Alandroal, and is currently Head of the Culture, Environment, and Planning Departments in the municipality of Avis.