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Interview with Alfredo Cunhal Sendim

Alfredo Cunhal Sendim (49) runs the Herdade do Freixo do Meio farm in Montemor-o-Novo. As a young man he worked on the fishing nets in Ferragudo in the Algarve, and planned to be a fisherman, but it is in the Alentejo that he is now at the helm of his dream to create a paradise on earth. The “montado” agro-system, which he regards as being the planet’s future and salvation.

What is the significance of the montado, whose importance you compare to that of the era of the discoveries in the history of Portugal.

Alfredo Cunhal
Alfredo Cunhal

The montado is a marvellous Portuguese story, which possibly only exists because many different cultures passed this way, from the Corinthians and Arabs to Romans and Christians. The montado is an ecosystem, but it is not a natural ecosystem, it is an agroecosystem. Agro because it is created, designed and managed by humans, and with results that are even more potent than the previous natural ecosystem.

How does it start?
It starts with a natural ecosystem, wild, with no domestic species, what we call the silva lusitana which established itself here after the second ice age. It is in this setting that humans started to cohabit with and modify the natural ecosystem to obtain what they needed, food, energy to keep warm, and space to live. They start to make these modifications by domesticating certain species, by introducing domestic species and cohabiting with some wild species. The montado is an agroecosystem that is even more complex than the previous one and with better results than those generated by nature initially.

Are trees important in this system?
They are a fundamental element. The Mediterranean climate is one of the few climates in the world where we try to produce anything with a period of at least two to three months of very high temperatures and with no rain, this is something that happens practically nowhere else where people want to produce things. The difficulty here is that the living communities in the soil, the bacteria, fungi, insects etc. die in these circumstances if there is no moisture. The trees here reach a depth of 30 or 40 metres, as far as the phreatic zone, if it exists, and in the summer pump water to the top layer of the soil. In this way the micro-organisms don’t die, it is our original irrigation system and probably the only one that is sustainable. In the winter they do the opposite and when there is too much water they pump it down to their root network. In addition, they create shade which is very important during the hot season, there is a series of symbioses, with fungi and bacteria which have relationships with other organisms and they generate a cycle of nutrients that is essential for nature to function.

What motivated you at the start to get involved in this project?
My personal motivation was to be a fisherman and I very rarely saw myself becoming a farmer. The main motivation was seeing an opportunity arising, the idea of taking care of a piece of land in a place where there were people around who needed the land to function. I had some agricultural training, after having studied at the University of Évora, my mother needed help and it was an acceptance of reality.

You have been living at the Herdade for 25 years; what continues to motivate you?
Alfredo Cunhal9Apart from the natural surroundings, I was lucky to find many people who helped me to understand what I still believe today. I don’t think that humans are very intelligent beings, they are part of a very intelligent system. We are part of a cosmic project on this planet, a very clear strategy which is the system of life. We have the capacity to understand nature and, just as the soil created very complex ecosystems, we too can create even more complex ecosystems and we can make a true paradise here, a true Eden. Our function is to understand and enhance nature. To have this awareness gives me huge satisfaction and peace. We humans are the new soil and we can make a difference on this planet for the better, and build.

How do you see the montado as an ecosystem in 20 years’ time?
We know that we will only manage to solve our problems on the planet through water and ecology. The future is agroecology and the montado is an extraordinary story in this approach and enables us to get a head start. We learned this philosophy more than a thousand years ago and we abandoned it a very short time ago. If we are able to save it, this gives us in Portugal and in the Mediterranean a competitive advantage as compared with the majority of other peoples for whom it will be much more difficult to introduce; that will be the way, the concept of agro-ecology. We have this advantage but we will not do it in the same way because we have meanwhile learned many other things, we will create a montado based on the same rules and philosophy but with different techniques and elements.

Is it the most intelligent system in the relationship between humans and nature?
Without doubt. The montado is a dynamic story that promotes symbioses rather than competition. With creatures that are able to eat stones, like fungi that gather phosphorous from the rocks, to organisms like bacteria that have the capacity to take the stable nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform it into reactive nitrogen that can be used by plants. It is a collection of different organisms that provide a dynamic system which can evolve. At the moment we are designing a new montado, on 120 hectares, with new techniques but with the same principles, thinking of other species and better use of the water.

What products do you produce on the farm?
turkey production in MontadoWe produce the whole Mediterranean diet, except fish. We have more than 300 foodstuffs, but all in small quantities. Ranging from forestry products like wood and cork, and fruits such as acorns, pine nuts, olives and fruits of the forest such as arbutus berries or wild mushrooms. We also produce many animals, pigs, cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, geese, hens, chickens. We have a wide range of edible fruits, vegetables, as well as cereals and pulses.

And has it been financially profitable?
We haven’t earned any money yet. For five years, we have managed to survive, always with a very big investment, but which we have managed to pay back, reinvesting what we have earned.

If not immediate financial profit, what is your objective?
The main objective is satisfaction. The most valuable capital in our work is the mission we are carrying out. There are other kinds of capital, although they are not valued by the current economy. Soil is the most important capital we can possess. A balanced, productive ecosystem, adapted to our needs and which satisfies us on all levels, be it in terms of nutrition or landscape. I am much richer if I have living soil, autonomous and capable of producing food for many people on this farm, than if I have a lot of money in the bank.

About the author

Alexandre Moura (39). Born in Faro, has a degree in Communication Sciences Journalism. He has been a professional journalist since 2000 for the national and regional press, television and radio in the areas of current affairs, culture, sport and general information.

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