Alentejo is a region in south-eastern Portugal at the Spanish border. It is inhabited by more than 750,000 people. When driving through the region, you can see its typical rural character. Along the roads there are plantations of olive trees, grapes and especially the „Montado”. A characteristic feature in the landscape is a large dam which was built for irrigation of the agricultural areas.

Meanwhile the water reservoir has also become a place of tourist activities. However, the construction of the dam is not without controversy since the large-scale project also raised questions with regard to the region’s future sustainability. The region is facing opportunities and challenges; the biggest of the latter include unemployment and social exclusion.

Social enterprise ADC Moura is located in a small town Moura which currently has about 8,000 inhabitants. Clara Lourenço and Filipe Sousa are local actors of this association involved in quite different projects. Together with their fellow campaigners in ADC Moura, Clara and Filipe aim at inspiring the inhabitants of the greater Moura area to commit themselves and jointly create new forms of social activities and cooperation in the changing social, economic, and cultural environments.

An important objective of ADC Moura is to facilitate social innovations by strategically organising and using the existing resources in a new way, by means of knowledge, technology, human resources as well as local traditions.

The idea of networking

A crucial approach to the Alentejo region taken by ADC Moura is promotion of networking, particularly between individual actors as well as between associations and small towns. At the same time, they intend to ensure that the distinct identity of each of the collaborating social entities is maintained and that the entities involved can assert their autonomy and independence.

It is therefore vital for the effectiveness and fruitfulness of these cooperation networks that they are facilitated by “intermediary actors” who can help the involved entities to organise their joint activities – this is the role of ADC Moura.

Local and international cross-sectoral networking: South-West Archaeology Digs

For networking it is essential to combine the knowledge and practices of people from different social strata and social fields with different experiences. Creation of a constructive tension between different forms of knowledge and practices is an important prerequisite for the promotion of new activities.

One example of networking activities facilitated by ADC Moura is the South-West Archaeology Excavations project. It is an international archaeological camp operating in the vicinity of Safara.

The works are related to the remains of an Ancient Roman settlement located in the region. ADC Moura has been able to bring together and to increase the capabilities of different actors: Mariana Nabais who heads the archaeological works; universities in the UK, Ireland and Portugal; local farmers who own the land and local authorities who give permission to carry out the excavations.

Casa de Moagem in Safara operates as a local centre of education and culture. It offers classes to the participants of the archaeological camp, including interested residents of the region. So far, a series of lectures and workshops has been organised, not only on the research topics but also on the local history and traditions.

Networking for elderly people: Centro Social de Safara

The Centro Social de Safara is an institution organising day care for the elderly. In cooperation with ADC Moura, Isabel Gaivao, head of the institution, raises funds for the daily activities and sets the direction for other (local) events.

Isabel attaches great importance to the history of the Centro Social de Safara and states that past actions influence future programmes and novel solutions for day care in the changing reality of elderly people. She emphasises how useful the support of ADC Moura is for her work because of the actors’ expertise in writing grant applications.

Networking and the Roma community

Near Moura, in Póvoa de São Miguel, there is a large Romani community. Together with other local actors, ADC Moura is involved in activities aimed at integrating the local communities and reducing social inequalities.

A major part of the work revolves around engagement in places where local communities, Romani and other Portuguese, meet, be it in the context of schools, work or leisure . At weekends, the local actors jointly organise events with and for Romani children, especially in the field of sports and digital education, to name a few.

Networking of farmers

Another field of ADC Moura’s operations are networking facilitation services for farmers and other stakeholders in the medicinal and aromatic plants sector.

Researcher’s Notebook: Jamie Scott Baxter
Emerging aromatic and medicinal plants sector in Portugal

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The emerging aromatic and medicinal plants sector in Baixo Alentejo – combining rural and urban practices

I spent two months in Baixo Alentejo in Portugal researching the emerging PAM (aromatic and medicinal plants) sector. The sector consists of over 200 small-scale farmers nationwide with around 45 in Alentejo. These numbers are constantly changing as more producers come into the sectors or, as is more common at the moment, farmers decide to leave. I witnessed the difficulties of farming in the oppressive heat of Alentejo. This is not life for the fainthearted.

Former city-dwellers become farmers

As the research shows, many of the new farmers had decided to leave their lives and jobs in cities for a new existence living off, or at least in the land. Although many found adapting to their new working practices challenging, most if not all said they did not regret the move.
During the economic recession of the late 2000s, many had decided to quit professional careers in, for example graphic design or architecture, in search of a more ‘sustainable’ way of life. Perhaps the recession and weak economic situation provided the impetus they needed to make this change.

Creating novel approaches by bringing urban and rural practices together

However, what did become evident is that the competencies they had learned in their careers in the city were being put to work in new locations and combined with their newly acquired farming practices. These combinations, entangled with other practices propelled by a local development organisation, are resulting in novel approaches to farming and living in the countryside.
Let’s hope that this is enough to stabilise this emerging sector and allow people the choice to live and work in rural locations, such as Alentejo.

Fernando Santos owns the Aromas da Lousa farm. He admits that he would not be able to purchase all the technology required for the plantation or to work out the whole procedure on his own.

Small autarkic farms would not be able to compete with large agricultural corporations. This is why farmers in the Alentejo region, particularly growers of aromatic herbs, have understood that they need to cooperate with other farmers of the segment, in order to gain a better position on the market.

ADC Moura helps to create a cooperation network of local farmers who, interestingly, are often newcomers from big cities. Isabel Fernandes and Jorge Alves grow aromatic herbs in their new home. On the one hand, the small local entrepreneurs are supported by the collaboration on technical and organisational issues as well as by exchanging knowledge and expertise. On the other hand, they remain independent and unique.

Researcher’s Notebook: Anna Umantseva
Social innovations in Alentejo, Portugal

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Reflections on how social innovations occur in Baixo Alentejo (Portugal)

I spent two months in the Baixo Alentejo region in Portugal, doing research into the emergence of social innovation in rural areas. Alentejo is a region of breath-taking beauty: the landscapes, local agricultural products, archaeological sites are a real gem that made me fall in love with the region. At the same time, the region is considered by many as terra incognita in Portugal. Population density is really low in comparison with other parts of Portugal, public transport is quite problematic and the unemployment rate is high. Moreover, recently another issue has surfaced: the surge of the so-called super intensive agriculture in the region that has far-reaching consequences to the traditional landscapes and soil quality.

New ways of re-connecting rural residents with the land and the region

In my research I am interested in sites of emerging socially-innovative projects where rural residents re-consider their relations with land, farming and local production and consumption. In Alentejo I was fortunate to have come across a “cooperative integral” Minga and Herdade do Freixo do Meio, a CSA-based organic farm. These two initiatives are run by people passionate about reviving the local agriculture and re-connecting rural residents with the land and the region. Besides, they create jobs for local residents, have positive environmental impact and generate tourists’ and policy-makers’ interest in the region.

Stony paths

Of course they face great challenges in their work. There are very few small-scale producers. It is hard for them to compete with industrial producers, they struggle to have their products certified and registered as legal business because the procedures are very expensive. It is often more profitable for a small landowner to rent the land to bigger producers than to work on it. Moreover, the consumer mind-set is not used anymore to supporting local development – it is often more convenient and cheaper to buy imported, conventionally grown products.

Understanding how novel approaches are jointly created – the case of ADC Moura

My research indicates how various groups of people with different goals and different relations to the innovation sites come together and interact, making the emergence of socially innovative practices possible.
I was fortunate to have worked closely with Clara and Philippe from ADC Moura, an organisation focused on sustainable development and social innovation in the Alentejo region. It was impressing and inspiring for me to see how they work together with other people in the region. I have hardly met anyone who knows so much and is so passionate about a region. More importantly, their knowledge and passion are consistently used to stimulate socio-economic development.
For example, they support archaeological projects in Alentejo where many important ancient sites are abandoned and do not draw attention of local or national authorities. Furthermore, they play a very important role in supporting PAM-farming (aromatic and medicinal plants), a network of aromatic and medicinal herbs producers – a new promising farming sector in Portugal with considerable potential for job creation and revival of local production in Alentejo.

Lessons learnt

With regard to the issue of how socially innovative approaches are forged, the work of ADC Moura shows the importance of dialogue and collaboration with various actors and its role in shaping the desired mindset and tools for novel approaches to solutions. ADC Moura manages to create interest and to engage the locals of Alentejo, at the same time scaling up and connecting with institutions at an international level.

This approach to farming is the main part of their socially innovative project. Nevertheless, developing more high-end products and diverse sources of income is still a challenge to herb farmers.

History and tradition as elements of innovating

When talking with local actors and residents, it became evident that traditions and history are very important in Moura, the surrounding villages and the entire Alentejo region. It became also clear that all of the undertakings in the region, including the networking and other support services rendered by ADC Moura, are in some way or other rooted in the cultural traditions. This is a seeming antagonism with regard to the creation of socially-innovative initiatives.

Facilitating social innovations in rural regions does not involve erasing the past or introduction of completely novel approaches. The local actors rather emphasise the fact that the past could be creatively used in innovations. Like in many other rural European regions, in Moura the residents might have better access to novel solutions when they contain familiar patterns of the local cultural traditions.

In the first half of July, the region hosts the Festas de Moura, an annual festival lasting several days.

The culmination of the festival is a procession in honour of Nossa Senhora do Carmo that passes the entire town. It is preceded by many secular traditions, both centuries-old and new: bullfighting, fireworks, concerts and a selection of local food and beverages.

Challenges of innovating in Moura

One of the biggest challenges faced by ADC Moura is funding of the networking and intermediary activities because neither these activities nor the organisation as such are financially supported. The funding strategies in Europe and Portugal rather rely on projects with international consortia with a respective international orientation or focused on intermediate job creation in a region. Applying for international funds and carrying out projects restricts the capacity of ADC Moura. As a consequence, the association has less time to mark its presence in the Moura region and fewer opportunities to design its best suited to the region as experience would suggest.