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Posted by portugalpress on June 30, 2017

A small, sleepy and impoverished Portuguese village has been thrust into the global world without notice. Barbara Wimmer, an ethnologist and photographer living in Prague, grabbed her cameras and her notepad and began documenting the transformations in São Teotónio.

São Teotónio is located 7kms from the Portuguese Atlantic coast and has a population of about 5,500 people, 3,000 of which are foreigners from 20 different countries. Long before people from India, Bulgaria, Pakistan and Thailand settled here, my parents bought land in the area and moved here with my siblings and me in 1994.

Now, when I walk around the village’s alleyways with my two daughters, I remember how I myself experienced being in a strange place, that period of adaptation and acceptance.

Whenever I was accepted as a member of the community, I felt great pride. I had to move away from this village 16 years ago, where I fought so hard to be accepted as “almost-Portuguese”, and went to live on the other side of Europe.

There are barely any (native) locals on the streets

Now, I am back in São Teotónio and I see a travel agency with Cyrillic lettering on the window. And ads for bus or air travel to the hometown of the rural Bulgarian workers, who have been moving here since 2001. Meanwhile, São Teotónio has the largest Bulgarian community in Portugal. Around 13% of the village’s population is Bulgarian and since they settled here, birth rates have increased by 40%.

A few steps ahead, I find a new grocery with Indian produce. Stricken by curiosity I end up going inside and the owner tells me it has been a long time since he was the sole Indian shop owner around. There is an increasingly large number of Indians working in the emerging agricultural industry in the South West Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park (PNSACV).

I keep wandering through the alleyways and become somewhat upset when I can barely find any Portuguese people in the village. I run into Bulgarian teenage girls giggling, Indian men in flip-flops and on the phone, Indian women wearing Sari, Pakistani people wearing the traditional Salwar Kameez garment, Punjabis in turban and drunken Thai people sitting in the town square accompanied by a few bottles of beer. I see Chinese shops where rural Bulgarian workingwomen go in wearing rubber boots to buy clothes. I see Indians lining up at temporary work agencies.

Where are all the old people who used to sit for hours on benches in the sun without saying a word? Now they can only be found in very few places. Where are all the coffee shops with customers nursing a beer for hours (with 0,2l, the smallest beer in the world)? They were either shut down by ASAE or the owners died. Where are the women who used to put their heads together mysteriously to gossip about someone, to describe strange events and ask a psychic for help? They no longer have time for it and there are few of them left. The witches and the psychics are dead.

Homesickness weighs heavily but prosperity takes priority

Next to the old and dusty stores, whose Portuguese owners are old and grey, there a few new Portuguese ones. In contrast however, there are a lot of walls and roofs falling and closed windows.

A lot of young people have left the poor village in search for a better life in central Europe. Are they better off there? Actually, many miss the south greatly. However, few would be willing to give up the lifestyle they achieved far away to return to the south. What would their perspectives be? For those who don’t want to work in the greenhouses for half a penny there is only one alternative: the tourism sector.

As the rural exodus increases, so does the number of people coming to Portugal in hopes of finding a better life. But do they? Actually, more and more Bulgarians complain about the exploitation they face in the greenhouses and leave Portugal, or at least consider that idea. Will the Indians stay? Many Bulgarians say the Indians are only here to get a visa to go to England. Still, at dawn you will find many Indian workers waiting for the van that takes them to the greenhouses. And what about the Thai people? They live as slaves in sheds near the greenhouses and only see the village when they come in band to shop. Afterwards, they wait for van to take them back or for the washing machine at the launderette to finish working.

“We would be nothing without the foreigners”

In one sitting, a small, sleeping and impoverished Portuguese village has been thrust into the world without notice and all it can do is watch, helplessly. The government abandons it to its fears and it must learn to handle change by itself.

Many of the locals have never left the village, they are poor and uneducated. They have no means to deal with these changes. Can the community reach the balance between maintaining its cultural identity and assimilating foreign cultures? The young and the not-so-young people of São Tetónio have been reviving traditions and customs.

Every day here I see that which ethnologists defined as resources against globalisation, like staged traditions. Traditions such as the slaughtering of a pig, in which the whole family and neighbourhood participate, are coming back.

Traditional garments that have long been at the bottom of a drawer see the light of day once again. Others are sewn again and worn with pride at the new “Ancient Fair” in the summer. Festivals honouring the patron saints take on new breath. Young people find interest in traditional music. People organise fairs with typical regional produce such as the new Sweet Potato Fair or the Octopus Festival.

However, some Portuguese people seem to have no problem with these changes. My old schoolmate Luís Duarte, who owns an ice-cream shop, simply said: “We would be nothing without the foreigners. If it weren’t for them, who would come here?”

The “new foreigners” look for a better life in Europe but can they find the much-desired prosperity here, beneath the asphyxiating tarps of the greenhouses and labour exploitation?

Help requests ignored by the government

People from central Europe should look closely to what is happening in São Teotónio, because those who cannot spend the winter without strawberry ice-cream or blueberry pie should be aware of the consequences it has in the world.

The search for fresh vegetables throughout the whole year also contributes to the ransacking and exploitation of the PNSACV’s natural resources. The agricultural industry uses too many fertilisers and pollutes the coast with pesticides. The uncontrolled discharge of these chemicals into the sea has already led to the extinction of endemic algae. In addition to that, the plastic greenhouses, going as far as the eye can see, rob the locals of their cultural heritage.

There is no Portuguese person in São Teotónio who doesn’t refer to the PNSACV as “our park”. Throughout the years the park became an important part of their identity, so it’s no surprise that many shake their heads in dismay at the expansion of the agricultural industry. Meanwhile, the Portuguese government authorises daily new agricultural areas in the natural park, ignoring the population’s wishes. Until today the mayor of Odemira City Hall has never received a reply to the letters, emails and requests for help that he sent to the Minister for Agriculture and the Environment.

So long as the fridges in central Europe are full of red berries all year round and while the Portuguese government doesn’t take a stand against the extensive agriculture at the PNSACV, the situation in the south of Portugal will become more and more similar to what we see in the south of Spain, in the Almeria area. It’s important to mention that the “new foreigners” aren’t to blame. They, like so many others, are trying to find their luck in a peaceful continent. It’s the politicians, who allow this kind of economical procedures, who should assume their responsibilities.

By Barbara Wimmer

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