No place exists in isolation and this quinta and what I do here is very much embedded in a wider community of people.
For some reason best known to itself, Benfeita has become a magnet to ‘eco-immigrants’ over the last decade. A sizeable (150+ adults and around 50 children) and growing community, both foreigners and Portuguese, have come to live here in these valleys. Many children have been born here. Others have come with their parents.
The community is of the default, unintentional variety. There’s nothing remotely ‘organised’ about it, unless that organisation is operating at some higher level we can’t perceive, so we have no shared ideology, culture, dogma or rules. What unites us is the desire to live a substantially more sustainable, environmentally-friendly and humane life as part of a real and largely autonomous community.
The foreign contingent are predominantly European (Portuguese, British, Dutch, Belgian, German, French, Irish, Scandinavian, Hungarian), but we also have people from Israel, South America, the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. The Portuguese members of the eco-immigrant community have mostly come from elsewhere in Portugal or have spent time living abroad and now feel a strong pull to return to life on the land.
As a new community of people we have been slowly finding our feet, as well as finding ways to integrate with the existing population of these valleys. After a few years of proving we could at least organise a few community workdays, a wholefood coop, a Festa da Floresta and a lot of parties and entertainment, the fires of October 2017 are taking us into a whole new dimension.
Spontaneous self-organisation in response to challenge is a feature of natural systems and communities. Humans are no exception. Despite its apparent chaos and lack of leadership and hierarchy, it’s one of the most efficient, flexible and robust ways to generate an effective response.
In the immediate wake of the fires, people came together to help each other.
- Donations of food and clothing, later furniture and tools, poured in from all over Portugal and beyond.
- Everyone who lost their homes were taken care of and found temporary accommodation.
- Very quickly, largely through the medium of social media, Benfeita had itself a community tool bank.
- Individual and community crowdfunding campaigns mobilised financial support. The community campaigns were able to make donations to the many people who lost homes and incomes and to finance a paid clean-up and rebuild crew who were themselves also fire victims.
- Truckloads of furniture, tools, household items, building materials, seeds, etc, came from all over Europe.
- People used their networks to bring in replacement solar equipment at vastly reduced prices.
- People unaffected by the fires but wanting to help set up relay groups to bring donations from abroad.
- Clean-up crews formed all over the regions.
- Local Portuguese initiatives were equally strong and effective. Work teams for clean-up and rebuilding were organised and donations of building materials sourced by SOS Arganil.
- Portuguese people from the cities came to help.
- A Community Needs Database for the entire burned region was developed.
Yet despite all the wonderful actions, living with the devastation caused by these fires is no easy matter. The rains that came in March 2018, though welcome, were brutal. So much topsoil was lost. So much of the water washed straight off the hills and was lost to an environment gasping for it, leaving soils still bone dry just centimetres below the surface and wells still low.
This video from SOS Arganil gives some idea of how the landscape looked at that time …
So where do we go from here?
There are many spontaneous groups assembling to make changes. All have their own unique focus, but what unites them is a desire to restore these mountains – and the communities which live in them – to health. Many reforestation groups have formed, planting indigenous broadleaved species and agitating to prevent further encroachment from eucalyptus plantations, very much part of the cycle of desertification ultimately responsible for these devastating fires.
We need to move from a cycle of degeneration to one of regeneration …
An ‘ecozone’ for Benfeita?
Within the Benfeita valleys, a few of us who have long held a vision of regeneration for the environment and the communities which are part of it have got together to take it forward. We are a mixture of nationalities, foreign and Portuguese. Prior to the fires we were already working on giving form to the vision, but with a 4-year timescale to bring it to local decision-makers and stakeholders. The fires have brought all this forward with much greater urgency.
Our vision is for the formation of an ‘ecozone’ within the ‘bowl’ created by the mountain ridges surrounding the Benfeita valleys. The purpose of the ‘ecozone’ is to help catalyse the shift from degeneration to regeneration and provide a foundation for eliminating the structural inflexibilities which shackle rural economies to environmental abuse for the sake of satisfying basic needs. However it takes form, the local community aims to become an autonomous ‘living laboratory’ for pursuing environmental and social regeneration initiatives in partnership with local government, academia and various funding bodies.
In February 2018 we took a presentation of these ideas to the Câmara Municipal of Arganil. It was received very well and the Câmara indicated their support.
But with no clear present administrative framework for creating such an entity, we must progress step-by-step. So in 2018 the Junta de Freguesia of Benfeita registered as candidates for the designation of Eco-Freguesia, with work on the application being done by a team from the eco-immigrant community together with the Junta de Freguesia.
In June 2019 we heard we were successful and Benfeita has become the first freguesia in the municipality of Arganil to gain that distinction. You can follow the project on Facebook.
ArBOR – A Associação da Região de Benfeita para Objetivos Regenerativos
In July 2020, in the midst of the CoViD-19 crisis, nine of us finally crawled out from the swamp of paperwork and sheer hard work it’s taken to reconstruct homes and livelihoods in the wake of the fires and took the next step in concretising the ecozone vision.
We have formed a non-profit association to give us the necessary legal and fiscal framework and accountability to be able to apply for funding to finance all manner of projects in the region, and to act as an umbrella organisation for anyone living here to do the same.
Within the overall conceptual framework of the ecozone project and its aim to prototype and disseminate sustainable community and technology, we have some interesting projects fermenting amongst our midst …
An educational project for our children
Folha Verde is a natural education project based on the principle of self-directed learning. The community is presently adapting a restored olive press to become the home of the project. For more details, see the post on the project and please support the crowdfunder if you’re able!
Heating homes cleanly and efficiently
A bunch of rocket stove technology enthusiasts got together in 2017 to start a business project. Although they don’t all live in Benfeita, the founders have very strong connections to the community. They have a mission to bring affordable, safe, efficient and clean heating to Portuguese homes with their batch-heating masonry stoves. Read more on their website. The project will shortly release their designs under an open source licence.
Dealing with our waste ecologically and cleanly
More open source technology developed here in Benfeita is Quinta do Vale’s very own vermicomposting flush toilet design. Read more on the website specially dedicated to the project.