Alentejo Region is one of the seven NUTS 2 regions of Portugal. In the 1960s, a dam was built there under the Estado Novo dictatorship, with promises that irrigation would develop agriculture and improve production in the dry area. The reservoir was named Santa Clara.
While some farmers replaced the traditional patchwork of cereal fields, grassland, and fallow land with irrigated crops, it was only in the late 1980s that industrial farming picked up, with the establishment of hundreds of hectares of strawberry greenhouses by millionaire French businessman Thierry Roussel.
However, even with subsidies from the European Union and funding from the Portuguese state and a state-owned bank, the 550-hectare greenhouses went bankrupt in just a few years, ending with an estimated $30 mln loss.
In the last 18 years, foreign companies have started investing in Odemira again, turning the region into a hub for intensive monoculture farming. The availability of land, water from the Santa Clara reservoir, and millions of euros in EU agricultural subsidies fueled an export boom that saw Portugal’s sale of berries grow exponentially over the past ten years, bringing in an estimated 250 million euros ($242m) in 2020.
”[Southwest Alentejo] is one of Europe’s most precious nature preserves and last wild coastal areas,” says Paula Canha, a biologist who has dedicated most of her career to studying the region’s unique biodiversity and endemic species. Now, greenhouses cover more than 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of the nature park. In 2019, the government approved a resolution to allow the area in which greenhouses can be established to reach 40 percent of a designated agricultural zone inside the park, allowing greenhouse-covered areas to nearly triple to 4,800 hectares (11,861 acres).
According to biologists and conservationists, intensive monoculture farming depends on the use of agrochemicals, and to establish greenhouses, companies are leveling the ground, draining the soil, and covering it with plastic. Water with fertilizers runs off into watercourses and seeps into the soil, contaminating the region’s scarce water resources. The damage can be irreversible.