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Where, in God’s good name, are we headed?

Saturday 13th January 2023.

Right now, in wintertime, is a good moment to start thinking about the coming summer and to take some decisions on how we citizens in Monchique and elsewhere in Portugal should prepare for the coming drought and forest fires. Personally, I’m someone who likes to combine my experiences from yesterday and the day before with a perspective for the future. Monchique is a case in point here. It is ourselves who have provoked the high number of forest fires, because some large-scale landowners have planted monocultures nearly everywhere, thus destroying the traditional, long-established, organically grown forest, sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. And if I argue with the owners of eucalyptus monocultures, they will claim without batting an eyelid that eucalyptus cannot burn. What kind of cleverclogs do I have to discuss these issues with? it’s a bit like conducting an interview on the roots of lung cancer with Doctor Marlboro, where he states that ‘smoking is healthy!’ Ah well, happy New Year!

Now let me suggest the following. I won’t discuss the one-dimensional plan with you of earning easy money, by cutting down fast-growing, quick-turnaround trees every eight years for instance, selling them to the paper factory. I’ll cast my mind towards a viable future, a future worth living without forest fires, without drought. For both forest fires and droughts are not a God-given fate, but created by humankind. We can change this at any moment and we are able to protect ourselves if we wish to do so. However, first we have to switch on our brains and make use of this valuable tool, instead of constantly and exclusively thinking about easy money. For earning money is not quite as easy as the paper industry planting eucalyptus monocultures would have us believe. Who pays for the devastating damage wreaked by disastrous forest fires, who pays for the losses? All of us bear some responsibility inside of us. Can you feel it?

It’s like what happened after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 or after Tschernobyl in 1986. You could take these things down and build solar-power plants in their place or produce energy with wind turbines. In fact, they should never have been built. Nor is it necessary to plant eucalyptus.

Experience tells us that you have to place a seed into the soil, knowing which kind of seed. Then of course you need to know how to look after the seed and treat it well, so it can become a tree for example, a large tree in a varied forest to be sustainably managed – a forest that keeps the humidity in the soil – so the forest is less likely to catch fire. That would be sustainability. And sustainability takes time. Sustainability is not up for discussion nor up for sale. Let’s stay frugal.

Sustainability is a difficult sell. Many people don’t know what „sustainable“ means. It’s just a handy phrase, used any which way, because it sounds good. Language too is only a means to an end. Those who truly want to live sustainably will manage resources and work, and be already thinking in winter of the coming summer, thinking … of the future. Continually reducing risks, so the forest doesn’t burn again and the good soil stays humid – all that is part of sustainable politics – year in, year out Thinking about the future and learning from past mistakes. That’s only one aspect of sustainability. Another aspect is reforestation planting mixed forests. That too is sustainable. Something that burns down is immediately replanted, not with eucalyptus however. This is something we in ECO123 have woven into all levels of our life.

Let me give you another example: in 2016, ECO 123 created the Monchique shoemaker‘s project. At the time there were only three elderly shoemakers left, all aged around 80 and long since retired. Thinking about the future, we could foresee that soon there would not be a single shoemaker left in the former shoemaking capital of Monchique. Now, in 2024 there is no shoemaker left. It’s hard to believe but the profession has died out. These days, people buy their new shoes from the China store, and when they’re broken, something that can happen pretty quickly, the shoes are thrown away, because no-one repairs them – thrown onto the rubbish heap…

The story from that time goes like this: in the winter of 2015, I made my way to City Hall and spoke with the mayor, who at the time was still Rui André, about the idea and the plan to send two young people to the GEA shoe factory (Waldviertler Schuhe, https://www.gea.at) located in Schrems, Austria, to learn the trade as part of a proper traineeship with a certificate at the end. We do live in the EU, and both Austria and Portugal belong to the EU. Easy, I thought. There – in Austria – each of them gets a proper contract and a proper salary ranging between 800 and 1,000 euro, depending on the year. This is something you can only dream of in Portugal. You learn the shoemakers trade in a two-to-three year dual training course in the workshop and at school, and after successfully taking your exam receive a certificate of apprenticeship.


At the time, the current mayor Paulo Alves was still acting leader of the opposition in the same City Hall, and participated in the same session as Rui André. I remember it well. There were five municipal deputies present, who unanimously voted for supporting each of the two youngsters undertaking this traineeship in Austria with a grant (bolsa) if they came back after finishing their course, and City Hall would contribute financial support worth 10,000 euros (20 months x 500 euros) as a start-up grant to open a workshop in Monchique dedicated to this ancient trade. Hurray to a new lease of life for the traditional shoemaker’s trade! Obviously, a shoemaker requires sowing machines and tools for setting up a workshop and to make the shoes. For many years, City Hall has offered this kind of support to its university students taking a degree in Faro, Lisbon,  Évora, Coimbra or Porto. Why then not do the same for a trade if it helps Monchique maintain its diversity…?

Over the course of one year of preparations (2015) I held intense talks with some 400 young people, with their parents, with teachers and school pupils, with the shoe factory. For free. I thought long and hard about the sense in writing about this once more. I taught myself a lot of patience, discussing this issue several times over, picking up on it again and again in various meetings, including with the former mayor Rui André. Nothing has come of it. Now wait for it, the surprise is still to come.

Then we had the first trainee who I took from Monchique to Huelva to change into the climate-friendly train to Schrems, the trip being paid for by ECO123. Over two years of traineeship, Zé Pedro Mira, of the last shoe shop in Monchique, learned the shoemaker’s trade in Schrems (Austria), an old family tradition in fact. So when he returned in 2018 after two years abroad wanting to set up his workshop, he went straight to Monchique City Hall to apply for the grant for his workshop. This was nearly six years ago. Then, in August 2018, Monchique was burning.

In 2024, Zé Pedro is still waiting for the City Hall support. At the time he was 25 years old, a young man of artistic talents and mature craftsmanship, who had the goal of continuing the shoemaker’s trade in Monchique. The grant promised by City Hall was never paid out. The mayor was not able to remember which municipal council session had seen the drawing up of the protocol. Is this due to the poor memory of a mayor which doesn’t stop at the forest fires? To this day, no-one can locate the notes from that municipal council meeting, a monstrous failure for a communal entity. Zé Pedro Mira, who, with the aid of that support could have opened his workshop long ago, is today travelling around Europe as a shoemaker’s apprentice, expanding his professional experience abroad. And so it is that Monchique loses its most precious capital, its young people, its future.

I do ask myself what the confirmation of a grant by Monchique City Hall is worth? What is the value of assurances in politics? I’ve waited many years to talk about this, because I assumed that City Hall just needed a little more time to implement its (empty) promises. However, maybe I simply haven’t waited long enough yet; possibly 2024 is the decisive year for realising my idea, the plan we thought up at ECO123, to not let the shoemaker’s trade die in Monchique. For what mustn’t die, will not die – or will it?


Uwe Heitkamp (64)

jornalista de televisão formado, autor de livros e botânico por hobby, pai de dois filhos adultos, conhece Portugal há 30 anos, fundador da ECO123.
Traduções: Dina Adão, John Elliot, Rudolfo Martins, Kathleen Becker
Photos:Uwe Heitkamp


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