Wetenschap - 24 oktober 2002

Contradictions in the Portuguese countryside

Contradictions in the Portuguese countryside

Large-scale dairy farming is not suited to the mountains of northern Portugal, despite being heavily promoted and subsidised by the Portuguese government and the EU. Given the local resources and traditional irrigation systems, this form of farming will not contribute to regional development, argues new PhD graduate Adri van den Dries.

The farmers of Tr?s-os-Montes in northern Portugal use centuries-old small-scale irrigation systems: simple physical constructions with elaborate rules for their use and management. In winter and spring, when water is abundant, the meadows are irrigated. Cattle graze and hay is also grown for winter fodder. In the summer, when water is scarcer, the fields are used to grow food crops. The system relied on large amounts of labour also being readily available.

Now the situation has changed, as many people have left the rural areas, and some of the traditional irrigation systems have been abandoned. Van den Dries redesigned some parts of these systems, such as reservoirs, so that they could still be used with less labour input. But he warns that large-scale dairy farming being promoted by the EU will not work in these areas. The strategy requires that large amounts of fodder are grown during the summer, but this area of Portugal does not have enough water to be able to do that. It would require redistribution of water by building dams and land reform, the costs of which would be high. Van den Dries believes that agrarian development can be better achieved if it is based on the strong aspects of the traditional system, building on the local resources and dealing with the labour constraints that now exist. A more successful strategy would be to market their beef as prime meat and a regional product, as their neighbours do in Galicia. | J.T.

Dr Adri van den dries defended his PhD on 15 October. He was supervised by Prof. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg of the Rural Sociology Group, Wageningen University.