The Barroso region, in the mountains of northern Portugal, is one of the most isolated, and poorest, in the country. It’s known for its harsh climate, rough terrain, and stunning beauty. Over the centuries its residents have developed a complex system of agriculture and cattle ranching that relies on the collective management of the water resources and of the pasture areas used by their animals. This method has kept the region’s soil fertile, its rivers and springs clean, the landscape unblemished, and its communitarian cultural traditions alive.
In 2018 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recognized the uniqueness of the region and declared it a World Agriculture Heritage Site, the second region to receive such designation in Europe. The title was a morale booster for local residents, who saw an opportunity to benefit from the new status by certifying their products as Protected Designation of Origin, highlighting the environmentally friendly way in which they are produced and taking advantage of the fact that Portugal recently became one of the hottest touristic destinations in Europe to promote their region as a prime location for eco-tourism.
But in 2019 they were blindsided by the announcement that the Portuguese government had started giving mining concessions for the exploration of the large lithium deposits in the region, seriously endangering the unique environment of the Barroso, which is also a Biosphere Reserve and a buffer zone for Portugal’s only National Park, the Peneda Gerês, home to endangered species like the Iberian wolf. Facing an existential threat to their centuries-old way of life and to the investments they’ve been making to promote the environmental virtues of their region, residents started to organize in order to try to stop the mines.
The Portuguese government hopes the country’s large deposits of lithium will give it a chance to transform its perennially struggling economy and become a manufacturing hub for the batteries used by electric cars. The plan has strong support, and funding, from the European Union, which fears it is lagging behind the US and China in the race to dominate the new technology.
Authorities claim that the mines will bring desperately needed jobs to the Barroso, a region dominated by small-scale farms and ancient villages with increasingly old populations, from where many of the young emigrate in search of better opportunities. But locals, among them many who have made significant investments hoping to take advantage of the World Heritage designation, say that the number of new jobs pales in comparison to the livelihoods that will be ruined by the environmental impact from the mines, which will raze mountains, divert rivers and make explosions and heavy truck traffic part of them until now bucolic routine of the region.
Some of the mines are planned to start operations still in 2021, despite a series of legal challenges being brought to the courts. Since the spring of 2019, I’ve been following the lives of residents of some of the villages that will be most affected by the mines, documenting the lifestyle that prompted FAO to declare the region a World Heritage and following their struggle to organize a solitary fight against powerful local and international mining companies, an unsympathetic national media and the Portuguese government.