Categories Europe and Russia, Portugal, Updates

Exploring territories of life in Portugal

A new report supported by the ICCA Consortium explores common governance of natural resources and the meaning of community in the Portuguese context

Commoners of the Movimento pela Conservação e Desenvolvimento dos Baldios de Serpins (MCDBS) in search of landmarks and knowledge about their territory in January 2020. Photo: Rita Serra

First published on 02/02/2022, and last updated on 02/04/2022

By Sergio Couto (Regional Coordinator for Europe)

“Territories and Areas Conserved by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (ICCAs) in Portugal”, a new report authored by Rita Serra and João Gama Amaral, was published at the end of 2021 by the ICCA Consortium with co-funding support from Trashumancia y Naturaleza, MAVA Foundation, International Land Coalition and the Common Lands Network. The report explores communal governance in present-day Portugal and, more specifically, which examples and experiences strongly resonate with the spirit and understanding of territories of life. Rita and João propose baldios as the key potential ICCAs in Portugal. These are communal lands located mostly in mountain areas in mainland Portugal, which have been critical for the survival of mountain peoples and their connection with the mountains (serras) since time immemorial.

When considering and trying to better understand their current situation, State afforestation of common lands was a key event that disrupted the relationship between mountain peoples and the serra. In the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution (April 1974) and the democratization of the State, these lands were restituted to the local communities of commoners (Comunidades de Compartes) that claimed them, enabling those commoners the right to self-administer their lands. However, many mountain communities were already extinguished, depopulated or urbanized through the expansion of nearby towns, creating intergenerational gaps in knowledge, memory and connection to the land.

Nowadays, baldios face many tensions and conflicts between communities of commoners, parish administrations and municipalities, other collective organizations of forest owners, industrial companies such as mining, tree plantations, wind parks and other economic uses that further disconnect the population from local uses and benefits of baldios. Additionally, wildfires recurrently devastate and transform the landscape of communal lands. However, the long history of baldios and the flexibility of the law constitute cultural and legal resources for creative ways of continuously translating baldios’ efforts to conserve forests and nature under community governance into local well-being, whenever the communities of commoners aim to pursue the common good. For example, collaborative schemes for firefighting between the state and communities of commoners (Sapadores florestais) enabled for the first time the technical resources, human resources and equipment necessary for the communities of commoners to engage in forest administration.

Goats grazing on baldio of Ansiães. Photo: Marta Nieto-Romero

Rita and João describe three potential ICCAs in Portugal: two well-documented cases, potential exemplary ICCAs (Vilarinho in Serra da Lousã and Ansiães in Serra do Marão) that are currently self-managing the baldios forests, and an example of a desired ICCA by a movement of commoners aiming to democratically reclaim baldios from the parish and State administrations (Serpins, Serra da Lousã).

In Portugal, as a general conclusion, baldios can contribute to effective, equitable and vital local governance of land, water, natural resources, conservation of nature and biological and cultural diversity, to food sovereignty and livelihoods, and the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters, particularly wildfires, whenever the local community is capable of mobilizing the baldios institutional framework to collaborate and, when necessary, to correct the abuses perpetrated by collective and private institutions that divert from the common good. Thus, one of the key recommendations is to facilitate legal support for groups of commoners who aim to reverse the usurpation of the baldios institutions and lands through corruption or crime.

Recommendations include rendering baldios visible in official documents; disseminating best practices; strengthening the connection between local people and the land through non-timber forest products; and addressing the generational gap in memory and knowledge through diverse forms of education and informal learning.

Download the report in English or in Portuguese.