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The Botanical Garden of Caldas de Monchique

EDEN
The Botanical Garden of Caldas de Monchique

Here is some more good news! Over the next ten years, ECO123’s employees, friends, sponsors, subscribers and customers will plant more than 1,000 different young trees in the new botanical garden of Caldas de Monchique. To plant a tree, it’s not enough just to make a hole and put a plant in it. A biotope is a complex system that lives by giving and receiving, waiting and growing, while also resting in order to gain new strength and the ability to interact. This story will cover everything that is needed to make a tree feel good on the planet Earth. Because plants don’t only live in the soil. They also live thanks to air, water and a network of roots and fungi.

Everything started when ECO123’s founder and creator received a proposal in late 2016, inviting him to purchase much of the valley known as Barranco do Esgravatadouro. Initially, there was half a year of hesitation – because more land equals more responsibility and more work and there’s not been any lack of work. There is also the threat of fire hanging over us 24 hours a day. In the summer of 2017, the company ended up buying this 1.5-hectare plot, located between mountains and valleys, with the aim of taking care of it and thus offsetting CO2 emissions.

On the night of 5-6 August, 2018, a fire broke out, worse than a hurricane, threatening everyone and everything. It was an unforgettable time. A wall of fire fuelled by the wind came rushing down the mountain towards us. That’s how our forest warden remembers the moment. For several nights and several days, the small editorial team fought the fire by their own means. The firefighters never came, nor did the Civil Protection service, which, despite being financed by our taxes, does a pitiful job in Monchique. But this scandal is now in the hands of Justice. ECO123 is reporting on the case. On the other hand, since the municipality clearly isn’t capable of actively protecting its inhabitants and nature, we have come to the conclusion that we have to take care of our own safety. Basically, our aim is to prevent the proliferation of industrial eucalyptus plantations, which exacerbate fires and remove all groundwater from the soil. For this, we need an economic model consisting of sustainable mixed forests, which will be responsible for preserving the water table and, in themselves, creating a natural biotope full of synergy. Over the years, we have gained experience in treating our forest in a way that is healthy, and we know how to prevent and fight fires. But let’s go a little further back in time.

Let’s go back to the turn of the millennium. For more than 20 years – the length of a generation – between 1997 and 2017, the Nunes family were no longer able to take care of all of the terraced land that is now a new Garden of Eden. The head of the family, already elderly, died after a serious and prolonged illness. The valley was overgrown with brambles. The weeds had grown to as much as three metres in height. The olive trees, cork oaks and arbutus trees were buried under a blanket of brambles. However, the stream quenched this beautiful valley’s thirst all year round, forming mini-waterfalls and offering a constant flow of water that attracted wild boar to its banks, where they came to drink. The memory of the subsistence farming that was once common in this area is now only visible in its terraces.

The Nunes family’s ancestors had built solid and secure terraces, using stones from a quarry located higher up the mountain: hard, difficult and time-consuming work. Then they planted native trees: carob, olive, orange, lemon, arbutus berry, loquat, pomegranate, cork oaks… In 1905, one of the brothers planted a pine forest. The land attached to this pine forest was sold to ECO123’s mother company in 1997 by another of the brothers: António da Encarnação (now 82 years old). Both patches of land extend across the whole of the hillside, which, at its highest point, reaches an altitude of 305 metres above sea level. At the bottom of the valley, we are 150 metres lower down. Both areas of land are close to Picota, 776 metres above sea level.

 

Life then was full of hardship – although it still is today, after the fire. In the past, there was no Social Security and there was only one doctor to serve the entire population of Monchique. And tractors, even if there were any, could never make it down into the valley – the paths only allowed you to get there on foot. The essential tool in agricultural and forestry work was the enxada (a hoe). Then came the chainsaw. But the land was good, and there was never a shortage of food for the whole family; there was even enough to sell locally. Everything depended on the family’s ancestral knowledge about seeds, soil, farming techniques, sowing times – knowledge that had been passed down from generation to generation and was based on a complete respect for Nature and its elements, using only natural fertilisers. In many places around the world, this knowledge has been lost, because the philosophy of infinite linear growth (and the greed of always wanting more) has destroyed the cycles of Nature.

Let’s go back to this botanical Garden of Eden. Everyone here had a donkey to transport agricultural products to the market. The paths were narrow and ran up the mountain to Monchique or down to Portimão. These were golden times for local business. Monchique had everything it needed to feed its citizens. It was an autonomous and self-sufficient town and, in the middle of the last century, there were close on 15,000 inhabitants still living here. Farmers sowed corn and wheat for the summer and many varieties of cabbage in winter, which was normally mild. And there were many other vegetables and fruits, even bananas, kiwis and mangoes. In the valley, in some places, frosts occurred only two or three times a winter.

There are five different microclimates in Barranco do Esgravatadouro, near Caldas de Monchique. There is a lot of water by the stream and some very dry areas at the top of the hill, composed of granite rocks and sandstone, but also a lot of good soil. It was here that, in November, the arbutus berries were harvested, and, in February, on mild and humid days, the must was distilled to obtain the very strong medronho brandy. At nine in the morning, Zé Manuel would take his goats along the path to Fornalha and, in the late afternoon, he would return to Esgravatadouro. The goats cleaned the land and the verges besides the paths and road.

In the 1970s, a terrible tragedy befell the Nunes family, when their only son committed suicide. It was a sad and shocking event that left the family without a successor: life remained without any prospects for the future. There was no one left to pass on the knowledge, or the traditions either! It was then that a foreigner, a journalist, arrived, who was writing about life in the region. He was convinced that only a community that remains intact can be a guarantee for a decent life in the future.

 

A biotope full of diversity

“When I went down into the valley for the first time, I felt as if I were in Eden,” the editor of ECO123, tells us.

There came a time when the couple, the last generation of the Nunes family, were no longer able to work in their garden, due to their age. It had become increasingly painful for them to go down the path to the valley in the morning and return home in the late afternoon. In 2016, the day came when the owner also passed away, already over eighty years old. The following summer, the land was sold. A distant family member who lived in Silves divided the land up and sold two houses separately, with the rest of the land going to ECO123’s parent company. The following year, in 2018, the fire destroyed everything that was growing in the valley: only the flora along the stream survived. This was spared by the fire. And many wild flower seeds were also preserved underground: orchids, lilies, daisies, violets, camomile, mint, rosemary, lavender, fennel, oregano, juniper, nettles, watercress, nasturtium, lemon balm, rocket, dandelion, rock rose, yarrow, lupins, vetch, mallow, heather and many more. It’s still quite easy to spot the sundew – a carnivorous plant with an intense and sweet smell – and watch it as it devours flies. All of this wild flora is the treasure of the botanical garden and can only be experienced fully for a few weeks in late spring. The months of April and May are the best time for walking here in the Serra de Monchique.

Species diversity: accelerating until it stops

Everything is connected and all that people need at this stage in the transformation and development of the new botanical garden is attention, persistence and patience. Nor should the peasant farmer António da Encarnação’s traditional knowledge and experience be wasted. The diversity of this cultural heritage spans many years, many springs, and it continues to progress at its steady cyclical pace. In spring and early summer, from March to June, the flora blooms in a sea of ​​bright colours. Then the hot summer air spreads over all the vegetation like a blanket, and Nature remains asleep for three months. The wild herbs dry out in a few days. The vegetable garden, from which potatoes, corn, beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, courgettes and pumpkins are harvested for self-consumption, must be watered every day before sunset. Summer is the season when Nature evolves in slow motion. Everything goes more slowly and, by lunchtime, when it’s 40 degrees Celsius, it all stops.

But let’s go back to the spring. The blossoms demonstrate the strength of Nature and this is the time when life is most actively celebrated in the valley. The environment is filled with the smell of moist earth and the sound of running water, and the air is warmed by the sun. Bees can be seen flying from flower to flower, and many other insects come out of their cocoons. The many species of birds perform a wonderful concert just before sunrise and spread seeds throughout the region. In the afternoon, the turtles choose a quiet spot for sunbathing by the stream. The frogs’ mating season begins – but not only theirs – and at night we hear their rhythmic croaking. Only later, between July and October of each year, during the siesta, do snakes and scorpions appear, and the centipedes shed their skin. It’s the time when the anthills are active and the ants begin to gather food for the coming winter. Foxes and mongooses take the chickens. During the day, the crickets chirp and, at night, the nightingale sings. Now, the walnut trees already have all their leaves. The walnut is the slowest growing tree, even slower than the lime flower tree or the chestnut tree.

There were only two species of trees left from all the invasive plants that had occupied the land: two eucalyptus and two acacias. The founders of the botanical garden have also experimented with planting birch and maple and it has worked well. Canes and bamboo must be contained. The ideal time for planting trees begins with the first rains in the autumn. Monchique oak (quercus canariensis), ash (fraxinus augustifolia), alder (alnus glutinosa) and a hundred more species will gradually be planted here over the next ten years between the hill’s paths and trails. There will also be elm trees (ulmus minor), chestnut trees (castanea sativa), holm oaks (quercus ilex) and beech trees (Fagaceae). In the higher and drier areas of the botanical garden, stone pines, arbutus trees, cork oaks, cedars and cypresses will establish themselves, as well as many other species that can better withstand drought, wind and high temperatures. The old year comes to an end and a new year begins.

Ribeira do Esgravatadouro © Uwe Heitkamp

Biodiversity

ECO123 is replacing strimmers with goats and sheep to clear this steep land and fertilise it at the same time. It is also planning to create an energy production cooperative that will install a small photovoltaic plant with 500 panels on the southern slope of the botanical garden. Everyone who lives and works in Portugal can participate in this community, contribute to the creation of this botanical garden and receive green electricity from ECO123. ECO123 offers 50 places for participants in the new cooperative for subscribers with a vision for the future. Law No. 162/2019 now makes it possible to create cooperatives for the production of energy in the community. If you are interested, come and visit us in person. Let’s plan the future together as a community.

Now we are entering the summer of 2020 and, in the botanical garden, there is already a small seed bank, a nursery with trees to plant next winter, and a cistern with a capacity of 50,000 litres of water. The cistern is automatically filled with rainwater during the winter, and a water mine with an agricultural tank ensures the sustainability of the project. Because water is everything, and without water there is nothing. For the prevention of fires, in 2019, the creator of ECO123 began the job of installing piping with a sprinkler system from the cistern. Climate change requires it. And we are in a region where there have always been many periods of drought. Our ancestors have always built cisterns and stored the winter’s water to make it available during the summer. Special thematic trails are being developed in the botanical garden: the water trail, the seasons trail, the wild boar trail, the aromatic herb trail and the children’s garden.

Visitors who want to sponsor the Eden Botanical Garden can choose a species of tree and either plant it themselves or let it be planted by us during the winter. Then they will be registered as guardians, and ECO123, its gardener and trainees will take care of and water the tree. After five years, all trees will receive an identity card, containing the species, the guardian’s name and the date of planting. Each sponsor will then receive a certificate for offsetting CO2.

Every year, ECO123 offers seeds to donors who, as sponsors, help in the creation of Eden. Find out about the terms and conditions for sponsoring the botanical garden of Caldas de Monchique and become a member of our new energy cooperative.

Uwe Heitkamp

traduções: Fernando Medronho & Penny e Tim Coombs | fotografias: Uwe Heitkamp

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