Monchique is one of the municipalities in the country that has suffered most from depopulation and, in the last 40 years, its population has fallen by half, to around 5,000 at present. To reverse the trend towards depopulation and ensure the town’s sustainability in the coming decades, this Algarve municipality is focusing on incentives to retain and increase the local population, with support for the construction and reconstruction of buildings, exemption from municipal taxes and tariffs, and complimentary projects and technical support for people wishing to settle in the municipality, along with other initiatives. But will these measures be sufficient to reverse the trend that we have witnessed, and which has been worsening, in recent decades?
Monchique is one of the most depopulated municipalities, and with one of the oldest populations, in Portugal. How is the local authority attempting to reverse this trend?
This sharp decline in the number of inhabitants has slowed a little, thanks to the fact that we have made the municipality an attractive place to live, and this has attracted many people from outside, not only foreigners but also Portuguese. Our strong focus on keeping young people here involves giving them the conditions so that they don’t go to other places. The crisis meant that people realised that their own municipality also had great potential. Many young people are carrying on their parents’ businesses, making use of the land they inherited from their family. In the past, everything looked abandoned. Now you can see plots that have been cultivated and new shops opening up. In the past two months alone, nearly ten shops have opened in Monchique.
There are still a lot of people who work in Monchique but don’t live there, and have chosen to live in neighbouring municipalities like Portimão.
The difference is not as big as it once was. The number of births is still lower than the number of deaths, but greater balance is increasingly being achieved. The number of births has increased since we started focusing clearly on supporting the birth rate, but that’s not all. When I arrived at the municipal council, one third of workers were in precarious employment, and at present all are permanently employed. Many of the babies who have been born are the children of Council staff, because professional stability is a very important factor in the birth rate. Then we have other measures, such as awarding the “Baby Cheque” worth €500 for shopping in local businesses, and support for crèches and free school books up to year 9, for example.
And what measures are being taken to keep young people in the municipality?
We have a series of programmes that lead to young people being kept in the municipality. We have the municipal programme “Habita Jovem” which is wholly financed by the Council and enables every young person who wishes to buy a house in Monchique or to buy a house to live in to have direct support of five thousand euros (which can increase to up to 15 thousand euros if it is a house in ruins). If a young person or a couple wants to construct a house, the Council will give them the plans for free. We already have typical plans for two and three-bedroom houses, and, if the young people want to have their own design, an architect is appointed to design and monitor the whole project. We also have complimentary specialist projects, and exemption from taxes and licences. The municipality is making a big effort to try and get young people to stay in the municipality.
Apart from this support for young people, what other strategies does the municipality have for solving the problem of empty houses?
There are control mechanisms, in particular through the Municipal Tax on Buildings (IMI), because buildings that are abandoned pay more tax. In Monchique, there is something very strange, which is that people prefer to keep things rather than sell them. As there is at present an increase in the tax, people are thinking twice. A change in mentality can already be seen, and more and more people are regenerating their houses. Some years ago, the normal thing was to buy a detached house in an isolated area, but nowadays people are more urban and I can see that young couples prefer to live in the town centre and have their children walk to school. In Monchique, the situation is not that bad, but there are one or two buildings in the centre that need rehabilitation.
There are various kinds of support provided by the government through the National Policy for Urban Regeneration and Housing.
At present, the Operational Programme CRESC Algarve 2020 has funds for urban regeneration, but there were four municipalities in the Algarve – Monchique, Aljezur, Vila do Bispo and Alcoutim – which fell outside this project because, according to the CCDR (Commission for the Coordination and Regional Development of the Algarve), they did not have the appropriate characteristics. We are to some extent prevented from developing an Action Plan for Urban Regeneration (PARU), which is a major obstacle both for the Council and the private sector. We are striving to change this situation with the support of CCDR (Commission for the Coordination and Regional Development of the Algarve), and efforts are being made for us to be able to present projects as part of this programme.
And, as far as urban regeneration is concerned, are there rules about the traditional architectural design of the town being maintained?
We always suggest that there should be, but people who restore buildings increasingly take care to preserve the old style. In these regulations that we have approved, it is always compulsory to preserve the façade. Obviously we sometimes correct certain things, like replacing aluminium doors with other materials. In the case of listed buildings, there are both chimneys and certain buildings in the municipality that are already listed.
In terms of construction materials, does the Council suggest that local raw materials are prioritised?
Our regulations suggest what raw materials to use: wood or our local stone. We are restricted in construction: practically the whole municipality is situated in agricultural and ecological reserves, and anyone wanting to restore a house faces many restrictions. For example, if you buy a ruin, you can only extend it to double what exists, which is an obstacle. As it has not been possible to change these rules, we wanted to create the possibility that buildings made of taipa (using mud and stones) or local raw materials would not count towards the area of authorisation. It is a very important step that I wanted to take here in Monchique and which would enable people to return to a healthy type of construction, a natural one, using earth, and not with bricks and cement.
Apart from Monchique’s traditional economic sectors, what other businesses are emerging in the municipality?
Monchique has huge potential, but it cannot just be a land of cured sausages, medronho brandy, intensive pig farming and fires. We have created a series of strategies and programmes in four strong areas: nature tourism, health and wellness tourism, gastronomic tourism and cultural tourism. We have involved local players, the local population, businesses and associations, and nowadays Monchique is a municipality with a range of high quality tourism facilities to complement what is on offer in the region, as an alternative to sun and sand.
And has this altered the situation at all?
Monchique is no longer a municipality for just going to Fóia (902m above sea level) and then leaving, as it was in the past because there was nothing to do or to see. There are a number of well marked, signposted or guided routes along footpaths. In the area of health and wellness, we are the only municipality in the south of Portugal and Spain with thermal baths, a landmark here since the time of the Romans. We are also focusing on the creation of hotel facilities in the region, of local tourist offices, agro-tourism businesses, and local accommodation, which at present number close to 70 in the municipality, most of them set up in the last few years. The fact that close to 20% of our population is foreign means that we have a lot of people involved in activities in the area of sound therapy, art therapy and others. We also have the Tibetan Karuna Centre, in the area of spiritual wellness.
Has the fact that there are now younger people and people of other nationalities living in Monchique helped to get things moving in the municipality?
Some ideas have appeared through contacts with shop owners, for example the idea of flowers – it was a shop owner who told me that people themselves are coming to us and giving us suggestions. For that reason, I am very pleased to see new people opening businesses, young people who have bought premises to settle here, but also to get things moving. That is very important for me. We have to create strategies with them so that people say what they want: “this summer on Saturday evenings we want to have all the doors open,” so we prepared street entertainment. Finally, lots of people are starting to appear with this mentality.”
This new sense of dynamism also implies a focus on cultural events. Is the old Casa do Povo in Monchique not being underused?
The Casa do Povo in Monchique isn’t closed; that’s where the Social Security offices and the Jornal de Monchique operate, as well as others. We are in touch with the Social Security to hand the building over to the Council in order to upgrade it. We want to turn the building into a venue for events, mainly cultural ones. At that time, the head office of the Jornal de Monchique will move elsewhere. We are hoping to do this next year.
Will the Social Security stay there once the work is complete?
Yes, it will. What has been agreed is that the property will be divided into sections, with the Council keeping the upper part and the Social Security staying in the lower part.
In terms of incentives, you told me about those that already exist to develop business areas, but what is there to encourage new investors to come?
We have a business ideas competition called “Monchique – Creative and Enterprising” in which a cash prize is awarded (partly for the idea and partly for the implementation). But we have no direct support for businesses, to open a shop for example. The office “Monchique Investe”, which was set up three years ago, has essentially been an important asset in supporting shop owners and shops, but also in supporting investors who come to the municipality, i.e. people who want to invest.
And what is being done in terms of job creation?
We want to focus to a great extent on employment in the area of local products, starting with our high quality raw materials such as the small-scale production of agro-food products (cured meats, medronho brandies and others). We also want to focus on the processing of wood and stone. We have the possibility of having businesses in the municipality devoted to the processing these materials, and for that reason we are going ahead with the business park and a Monchique start-up, a kind of business centre which will attract young companies. Young people who finish their courses can start their companies here in the area of transforming and developing products.
Monchique is also very well known for its water and has even gained a new image. Is the sector still growing?
In the past, it was commonplace to talk about medronho and cured meats. Nowadays, everyone is talking about water, not only from the thermal point of view, but also in the form of bottle water. It is healthy water, prescribed by doctors and is expanding fast. Another bottling factory is planned in the light of its success worldwide. At the moment, 30% of production goes to Macau.
Another important local product is Monchique stone.
Nepheline syenite has spread the name of Monchique abroad. I recall that, in the 1980s, the architect who is known for being the precursor to brutalism in architecture, Kenzo, started buying stone in Monchique and the Bank of Japan was built out of it. Since then, Japan and China have purchased a lot; at present, 90% of production is destined for China.
We cannot end this interview without talking about medronho.
We have at present 85 distilleries in the municipality. The local authority has reduced the bureaucracy in the process of legalising small distilleries that pass from father to son. Nowadays, the young people are looking after the land, planting arbutus trees and continuing to sell their brand, their family’s brand.