Rural exodus & Interview Paulo Alves

Rural exodus

by Uwe Heitkamp, Editor ECO123

Modern life has caught up with Monchique too, a little while ago already actually. However, the old traditional life remains alive on the Monchique mountains, at an altitude of 500 metres above sea level. The novelties came creeping up the hills and mountains over the past decades, on their way from Portimão and Lisbon, but also with tourism from abroad. According to the tourism authority, the mountain summit of Foía, with an elevation of 902 metres, is the second-most visited spot in the Algarve.

The best example for Modern Life is fashion and its sometimes erratic side effects. Today, children already need a smartphone when they start going to school, even if they don’t really need to call each other, as they are close neighbours and live only a few hundred yards from each other. Now, if Monchique (following the 2018 forest fire) wasn’t so boring and had better public transport connections, or at least a club, a cinema, a theatre… If you are thinking of visiting Aljezur, that’s it, you need your own car. If you want to take the bus to the beach in Lagos, you have to change at least once. Everything about public transport is complicated and slow as hell, as well as expensive. Just to get to Portimão from Monchique involves a major expedition. A bus company, which has the monopoly, serves that route every two hours more or less regularly. That trip now costs over five euros each way. And we’re talking about a distance of 22 km here. Impossible for mere mortals. In terms of the arts Monchique is a right old mousetrap, and nearly every adolescent does feel trapped here, or at least torn between modernity and tradition. Which is why most of them at some point just want to leave. It’s been like this these past 30 years, and if nothing changes in the future, the rural exodus will continue over the coming 30 years also. There are no attractive jobs, as there is no concept for the local economy nor monetary support for such a concept. So let’s just get outta here? At least that is something politics is finally discussing now.

Rural exodus.

Will only a few hundred souls remain in a lively district that in 1990 still had 15,000 residents? This is what happened to Cachopo above Tavira and many other hinterland communities, whose young people moved into a big town or city. The shining exception in the Algarve is São Brás de Alportel. There, politicians chose to take a sensitive approach to extending the school and cultural offerings. This has made São Brás de Alportel grow in every respect. Today, Monchique has just under 5,000 residents left. At the last local elections in 2017, out of 5,165 eligible voters exactly 3,663 turned up at the urns. This represents an electoral turnout of 70.92 per cent. The biggest group are the over-60s. Not even 500 youths under 18 are left. Nor is there a high school. For that you have to go to Portimão, aboard this slowcoach bus that stops every five minutes…

Politics hasn’t found any solutions there, at least none that could be considered adequate. Nothing is truly cool. Many elderly folks live in Monchique, and with Covid-19 the fear came creeping up the mountains and people hunkered down. This has saved many from serious sickness. But the elderly have become lonely too. Infection numbers have stayed low to this day if you compare them to big towns like Quarteira or Armação de Pera. Because up here people still have the old-time country wisdom, which allows Monchiquenses to live their lives with self-confidence and autonomy. During a pandemic or an earthquake rural folks can fall back on ancient skills, which bears an advantage. Your own field, your own house, your own animals provide you with foodstuffs which taste better in any case than anything the food industry has to offer us through the supermarkets. And village life is a lot healthier than city life, even at ground level

Now if it wasn’t for our isolation and poor bad bus service down to the rest of humanity… Basically you always need you own wheels. Because what the Faro-based Frota Azul/EVA bus company offers in terms of connections and ticket costs bears no relation to punters’ earnings, apart from being slow and not exactly flexible. These large buses are often running empty, which isn’t exactly improving the CO2 statistics. You try getting to Aljezur from Monchique, or to Santa Clara/Saboia to connect with the train… The only way to Silves on public transport is via Portimão and/or Lagoa. It’s a different world, this rural scene. And when a politician is facing local elections, they’ll promise you heaven on earth in order to get elected. Or they’ll just stand there empty-handed. It is rare to see them presenting truly timely solutions. These would look different. So allow us to ask a question here.

Why are we living in a community, why are we living in a European Union? This is the question people are asking themselves in other places just as we are here. Because a problem that assails people in Monchique has maybe already been solved elsewhere. Maybe the inventions still lacking in Monchique are already available somewhere in the Netherlands or in Denmark, in Austria or in Ireland. The wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented every time. Feats already possible in Australia should be feasible in Portugal too, shouldn’t they? Public transport on demand is an idea to enable people to move around in a simple, cheap, timely and uncomplicated way. This doesn’t necessarily require a smartphone nor a sluggish bus company, only a local or regional ride-sharing hub connecting users with each other by phone or Internet.

Public transport: modern, efficient – and sexy?

Any candidate for mayoral office could investigate a demand-led transport system with a handful of scientists, using a simulation study. The on-demand system uses mini buses but also private cars which have neither fixed routes nor pre-determined stops. The vehicles are steered online or by telephone, in order to fulfil users’ requests in a dynamic way. And in order to design a system that’s as environmentally as possible it should be restricted to electric cars. We’ll use another edition to write about Monchique as a solar village. In order to use the on-demand mobility service, users share the pick-up point and destination of their intended ride shortly before they are ready to go. If the estimated arrival time at the destination falls within the margins of the user’s expectations they pick that vehicle. In these simulations scientists make users walk, use the on-call service, a bus or a private car. They look at a large number of scenarios, to evaluate the potential costs and benefits of introducing a ride-share service. They will also analyse the scalability and the reactivity of the service. First results in the Netherlands and rural areas of Australia indicate that most users prefer a transport system based on a ride-share concept on demand over private cars and the bus. This again would mean a more efficient and environmentally-friendly transport system.

And this is exactly where a fair number of citizens want to be in five years’ time. To be living a climate-neutral life and to achieve better, faster and easier mobility. How backward are our politics? The future of Portugal, the future of Monchique is CO2-neutral. We don’t want to blow any more emissions into the atmosphere, neither through forest fires nor through mobility or our own energy consumption. In our interviews, only one mayoral candidate out of six has serious thoughts on future-proofing Monchique. Next week we’ll take stock of our interviews so far. Today we are featuring Paulo Alves, the PS candidate in Monchique. Next Saturday we’ll introduce you to the last candidate, André Varela of the Communist party (PCP, PEV), which at the last elections in 2017 were able to garner 4.07 % of the electorate, 142 votes to be exact. The winner at the time was the PSD under Rui André, who had stepped into the ring with the incumbency bonus: 1,517 votes of the 3,663 votes cast, which secured him 43.5%. In 2017, second place went to Paulo Alves (PS) with 1,306 votes or 37.45 per cent. It’s him who will reply to our questions here today.

Interview with Paulo Alves PS

ECO 123: So who is Paulo Alves?

Paulo Alves: My name is Paulo Alves, I am one of the candidates running for mayor of the Câmara Municipal de Monchique in the next elections of 26 de September, for the PS Socialist Party. I am myself from Monchique, was born here 51 years ago, in a rural area, where I lived up to 16, without tarmacked roads, electricity, television or telephone. I lived well. I’m a happy person, I love my mountains and the town. I am married to the nurse Suzel Gamito, with whom I have two children, one is 22 (and has already finished his university degree), the other is 17, and I want to continue here, doing the best I can for the municipality and the people living in it.

António Costa being Prime Minister is helpful for you to win these elections? 

He’s our prime minister and head of the PS. Naturally that helps. While he’s not come down to  Monchique, when we presented our candidacy last Saturday, on the Largo dos Chorões, the Minister for Infrastructure and Housing, Pedro Nuno Santos, was present, and we have the entire support of the Government in these elections.

In the last elections you lost against Rui André. What are the reasons that made you try again?

I don’t consider having lost, really. I was running against a mayor in power for eight years, and even so, myself and my team we managed to be the only political force in 2017 to recover votes compared to the previous elections, in a difficult context of reduced voter turnout, remaining 200 votes behind.

Why vote PS in these elections?

While in mayoral elections, the proximity factor means the focus is more on the team, and the people making it up, the political parties too are important. People join a party because they identify with its ideology. The PS is different from the PSD because the latter is not even a social-democratic party at the moment, it has a different ideology… but the PS is a party of the centre-left that looks after people, that has the capacity to put itself in the place of the other person. This is something I can identify with, that is our foremost concern: the people. And it is towards this that we want to work: solidarity, responsibility, respect, that no one is left behind. This is also one of the great pillars of the Socialist Party.

Monchique is already finding itself impoverished by the great fire of 2018. As candidate, how do you propose stopping future fires?

There is no magic bullet. The responsibility of each of us is very important. The world starts in our street, in our parish, our municipality. We have to start somewhere. With the issue of the fires solutions include reorganising the landscape, substituting species… and prevention has to be fundamental. A resident has many responsibilities in questions of management and fire breaks, the primary firebreaks (responsibility of the ICNF, but where the municipality may also act); in the secondary management lanes next to the information panels, which by law have to be cleared to a depth of ten metres each side. The creation of measures for those owners who don’t follow the clearing regulations around their residences, which are of great importance (we saw the innumerable houses that burned in 2018, many of which, as unbelievable as that may sound, three years down the line, have still not been rebuilt…). We should be thinking of a possible solution for those houses that serve as secondary residence. All this is important. As are the water supply points. It would be important to create a network of fixed or mobile water supply point, involving the villagers.

It’s important to extend the “Aldeia segura – pessoas seguras” (Safe Village – Safe People) programme, with local Civil Protection units, the way it has worked in Alferce (where it was already in place) and how it’s already functioning in Marmelete, to other villages. Mobilizing people to actively participate in the process of civil protection, because we are all Civil Protection, that’s my motto.

The issue of forest fires also has a lot to do with education. Promoting education with our younger people, manage behaviours…

I don’t have a fundamentalist view on the monocultures. Because I consider that we have space for the crop forest, space for the forest of autochtone species, space for the working forest, but everything has to be duly organised and managed.

There’s another aspect that is fundamental in this question of the fires: the rural exodus. Without having people actually living there it’s impossible to manage these spaces. The people who made a living off our forest territory, and who kept those spaces well managed, organised, and cleared, left for the urban centres and wanted to maintain the same level of revenue off the land they had before; they engaged in planting and reforestation, but without proper organisation. It’s the local authorities’ job to promote this education and this organisation.

Why has Monchique been losing residents, over the past 12 years, while São Brás de Alportel has doubled their number?

These are two different situations. And Monchique has not only been losing inhabitants over the past 12 years, but over the past 20, 30 years already.

Brás de Alportel has benefited from its proximity with Faro and Faro’s development. The town is much closer to Faro than Monchique is to Portimão…

But what conditions can Monchique offer? Schools with asbestos in the roof, with the rain coming in; there is no Casa do Povo; nor a cinema or cultural initiatives…

There are basic things people are looking for, such as access to housing, jobs, health, security, plus leisure. All this is important to keep or settle people here. As incredible as it may appear, Monchique has no local housing strategy. A study needs to be carried out allowing us to know which areas we should intervene in, what the needs of the municipality are: if the rehabilitation of the urban centres, the construction of new homes or other situations. This local housing strategy is essential, so residents may put themselves forward for external funding for example.

But there are other situations. In the health sector, for instance, we are having enormous difficulty to make professionals stay in the area, doctors in particular. We need to do something, even if it involves finding solutions so a medic who wants to settle in Monchique has a place to stay at their disposal. And as a society we have to, within the municipal budget, agree that this is important and has the potential to keep us living here.

For the creation of jobs and to make the young people want to stay, it’s also important to include recent graduates in structural projects within local government. The major part of the youths that leave have other horizons that Monchique is not providing them with.

But leisure is also important. We have an extremely important ongoing programme: “365 Algarve”, where, in Monchique, we had the experience of the spectacles offered by “Lavrar o Mar”, which has already taken firm root in our community. Now, what we need is infrastructures. We also need a new school, which should already have been built. In 2015 a protocol was signed between the municipality and the Minister of Education which provided for the construction of a new school, or the reconstruction of the existing one. The deadline for this plan expired in 2017, with nothing having been done, even though it would have been 50% co-financed. A secondary school in Monchique is essential, as is the one in Marmelete,  where work has begun now to remove the asbestos, and to upgrade it.

What may we expect from Paulo Alves, in case you are elected mayor?

I’m not looking to focus on my role as an individual; I value a collective approach. The main  protagonist has to be Monchique. You can expect from me a person that is open, communicative and hard-working…

Will we receive more eucalyptus or more diversified forests?

In the past we have exaggerated a little in cultivating eucalyptus, and there are areas in our territory where it will have to be taken out. In others, organized well, it can stay because it creates jobs, develops the economy where it carries significant weight. The Rezoning Plan for the mountainous areas of Monchique and Silves provides for the valorisation of the terraces and the remuneration of the ecosystems – and it would be good if we could put this in practice – which is compensating the people, especially the small landowners who want to replace their areas of eucalyptus that are already abandoned, and no longer profitable… with a different type of crop, such as the cork oak, the chestnut… This book, “Contributions to the monograph of Monchique”, by José António Guerreiro Gascon, written in 1940, shows that there were chestnuts, oaks, cork oaks, medronheiro and olive trees in Monchique, and even… vines. Afterwards, for various reasons, those species gradually disappeared and were replaced.

You are a banker by profession. Let’s imagine I have 25,000 euros to invest. What would the best way be to invest them in the municipality?

I’ve been a banker for 27 years and a bank manager for maybe 18 of them. We have to take a path that makes us stand out, that differentiates us as a municipality: the sausages, the honey, the medronho… If I invest that money in cork trees or oaks it will only be my grand-children who will see the return …

Investors are either looking for an immediate return (which, in Monchique, would be difficult), or decide to take a different perspective and invest in the future. Organic neighbourhood farming, aromatic and medicinal herbs…

So, get our hands dirty…

Yes, I really enjoy getting my fingers, hands, feet, legs dirty… investments connected to the soil…

Does it always have to involve perspiration?

Yes, with blood, sweat and tears (laughs). My grandfather used to say: “Paulo, never let go of this little patch of soil because it will be useful to you at any moment in life.” Investing also means investing in our happiness, not only investments at a monetary level. We have to also invest in a better world than the one we found, for us, for our children, for our grand-children…

So I’ll take these 25,000 euros. I’ll buy two pieces of equipment with 40 solar panels, capable of producing green electricity and which provides me with energetic self-sufficiency. What do you think of turning Monchique into a town, a municipality of zero emissions?

Zero-emissions may be utopian. This is part of our individual responsibility we discussed earlier. Renewable and alternative energies are important, and one of our projects, if we reach mayoral office, involves the promotion of energetic efficiency in the municipal buildings. This is lacking in Monchique. There’s a difference between domestic production of electricity with solar panels and the large outfits, which at the end of the day are based in profit. It’s not that profit isn’t important because everybody is looking to generate income. But we have to evaluate the environmental impact of those options because they too have them.

There is also wind energy. A little while ago we talked about the forest; we could also have discussed biomass. There is much talk of a biomass facility, which could use up debris from the forest, maintaining it clear

This is a project that has been talked about since the time when Carlos Tuta was mayor, and nothing happened… What to expect from the PS over the following four years on a planet with finite recourses?

Our presentation, to be launched on the 14th – and which will be divulged shortly – already includes some ideas along those lines. We want to intervene in housing, in the school infrastructure, promote respect for the environment… the effects of climate change are already here, it’s an inevitable reality.

We have to find strategies within the council that will protect us. One of our ideas involves the launch of a Municipal Emergency Fund, which could immediately help people in times of disaster, or a Municipal Reserve, which could provide materials (personal protective equipment, or others)… Our policy takes the people and their well-being as its starting point…

But, after the 2018 fire, the situation is deplorable.

The situation is indeed difficult, it’s easy to despair. The economic situation for those who lived off the forest – farmers, foresters, beekeepers – got worse. Probably, it will only be next year  (so four years after), that the medronho producers will be able to once more harvest fruit to a significant level. There was support funding – there were over 300 requests for funds in the agricultural sector (and there the Government did intervene); there could have been a different solution to cover small-scale losses, with less bureaucracy. Even so, there were many applications that received a payout.

What is missing in Monchique is a dedicated council office to support the companies and institutions in accessing public funds and programmes – and this is a council responsibility. This office might be composed by council functionaries, or external ones, which could involve recent university graduates who could do their work experience here, and who would directly support the municipality’s economy, to allow it to grow. One of the failings of the council is the incapacity it showed in sourcing external funds, because the municipal revenue is not available for investment. And obviously we have to promote the sectors producing honey, medronho, aromatic and medicinal herbs, nature tourism. Development for Monchique has to be sustainable and respect the environment.

What is behind the word sustainability? Two years ago we lost the IMT tax of nearly 500,000 euros in the sale of the Caldas de Monchique. The PS voted in favour of that measure at the council meeting. What is your position?

When the project was debated in the council, the PS councillors voted against. We had some doubts about the proposal. The company meanwhile improved the proposal, put it to the council, and it was approved, and not only with the votes of the PS, there were favourable votes from the other political forces as well, from the CDU to the PSD. We have to demystify this idea that we wrote off that money. There was never any tax levied on the citizens from this project, because before that it was a foundation. And we also have to support those who want to invest in Monchique.

But it didn’t create jobs …

Because there is one thing missing, a regulation of support for investments, so that those who invest know what they can count on, that provides support, so investors have safeguards.

And in relation to the investment made in the Caldas de Monchique… the company invested in  2017, when they bought the complex; in 2018 they had the fire, now they had to deal with a pandemic, all this to say that they have been confronted with situations that maybe could have stopped them from taking their business plan further the way they had it mapped out.

Yet the municipality lost a lot of money in IMT taxes.

It didn’t receive them because there is this prerogative that the town council may concede a pardon, and the company committed itself to move its headquarters here to Monchique, to pay its taxes here, and committed itself in terms of job creation, but there are always imponderables.

Also, we have to think beyond that. How were the Caldas before that purchase? They were lying abandoned. And we have a similar example with the touristic complex of the Caldas bottling facility, which has been a tremendous success, and which has members who belong to both companies. Probably if, a few years from now, the Caldas de Monchique grow and rejuvenate, creating a proper touristic-thermal complex, we’ll be able to see that this IMT exemption was well applied.

The citizens will decide with their vote on the 26th of September.

It’s always the citizen who decides. But he or she also has to have the notion that as much as those elected bear responsibility those who elected them also bear their own.

Thank you.

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