Thursday, 11 June 2009

Transition in the Minho

Last Saturday we hosted a small gathering around our new table. It was organised by José Morais, a local landscape gardener entrepreneur / permaculture pioneer from the neighbouring town of Valença. We’ve been sharing ideas for months; he has plans to open a permaculture training centre and is part of a regional network that includes North Portugal and Galician permaculture projects and practitioners.

We had agreed to meet this day to widen our discussion on possibilities for an abandoned bit of local mountain (Mount Faro) and to see who else might be interested. He said he’d invite a few fellow visionaries. Many came, including:

José, the catalyst. Well tied into to local Government, business and the media.

Hugo, Portuguese chartered accountant, business consultant and advisor on EU grants and funding streams;

Miriem and Boghi, from Equador and Galicia (respectively), recently relocated from the city to forge a new life in the country, building a home with natural materials, teaching yoga and exploring new ways to live from the land;

Henrique, local businessman and entrepreneur, running a furniture shop and involved in a variety of interesting sustainable land-development initiatives;

Eurelio, Henrique’s friend, also in business, along to find out more about our discussion;

Juan, from just over the water in Galicia, works with steam turbines, should really be a professor of economics and social transformation;

David, Galician landscape gardening business manager;

Peter, Dutch and living in Portugal for almost 20 years, working in the local transport/metro company in Porto. Also enormously well read on straw bale construction and micro-renewables;

Donald and Eleanor, from Scotland and Phillipines, here for over 17 years, a former vet and teacher respectively. Living in a bit of rural paradise in a forest near Valença, virtually self sufficient, with hoards of animals, eco-buildings and innovative projects on the go;

Louis and Illiana, from nearby Camninha (Portuguese side of the river), mechanic and crafts/leather-worker extraordinaire, accompanied by their charming daughter;

Me, from Scotland in Portugal since last August with wife and kids, starting eco-renovation of ruin,. Former humanitarian aid worker, now finalising post-graduate studies in renewable energy and natural building systems.

Our Agenda

We decided to discuss:

- Abandoned land and resources

- Local development

- Local food production

And also to present on, and discuss where relevant:

Ø Ecological / sustainable construction

Ø Renewable energies (I was supposed to present on the watermill thing)

Ø Biological agriculture

Broader Context

Discussion launched into local agriculture and food supply. It’s clear that the majority of people working the land in this area are now well past retirement age. Food, in general, comes from far away. The Government has, we are told, not actively supported local agriculture. This area is known for growing wine - not producing food, despite its near-ideal location: ample rainfall, plenty of sun, fertile soils, few frosts past February. Agriculture, I kept hearing, is a forgottern sector. What is produced en masse is monoculture plantations in the South: cork, fruit, wheat, olives. I'm not sure of the statistics of how much food is imported versus exported, this would be useful to know.

That said, all my neighbours seem to have their own little plots. I doubt everyone does, but a passion for locally grown tasty food is still alive, and the necessary knowledge to generate healthy yields are still here.

Use of pesiticides and fertilisers in both the vineyards and kitchen gardens is widespread, but really because they are seen as cheap and effective. People do like to point out when something you are sampling has “nothing” added (ie, don’t worry it’s not covered in toxic dust).

The building industry

In terms of local construction, there has been a clear victory for the cement marketing board across the region. Everything is built with cement: walls, floors, almost all roofs. Builders claim this to be cheaper, and more “resistant”. Well, I guess it’s not going to rot, but everything inside the house may well rot first, as these cement-lined homes cannot easily dispel water vapours and other gases generated within a home.

Houses designed like this will need to rely heavily on a ventilation system to reduce indoor condensation. Imagine mid winter, when the rain doth fall and the steamy showers and soups are many, this is when people usually shut the windows.

Insulation is now mandatory for new buildings by local building regulations, and the cheapest and most common is a blue polystyrene product, about as far from natural as it’s possible to get. I’m not sure what went into the production of this stuff, but it’s probably off-gassing various toxins, and without doubt caused pollution somewhere in its manufacture.

In short, the construction industry here, like everywhere else, is reliant on heavily polluting man-made materials. Materials that could be replaced with local, renewable products which perform just as well, if not better. All that’s needed is to reduce the environmental impact of all construction materials, return to traditional techniques of working with lime, earthen plasters, locally grown wood, stone and other natural materials.

We discussed straw bale construction (as Miriem, Boghi and ourselves are planning on using this system, and the Galician straw bale network has been involved in several others). Straw is unknown in these parts as a wall-fabric, especially load-bearing (where the roof is actually supported by the straw-bale walls, rather than a timber frame). When I see how many layers of different materials conventional building has to add to a wall to achieve the thermal performance of a straw bale, it seems bizarre.

Surely it’s more expensive to buy all those different products (bricks, insulation, more bricks, cement mortars, non-permeable plastic lining, timber frame wall for plasterboard, plasterboard, internal plaster, paint). Straw, on the other hand, requires nothing more than an earth plaster made from clay from a few hundred meters away, some sand, some local fibres, and water. You can use either lime or clay-earth render on the outside – known to be highly weather resistant, once dry (or cured in the case of lime). Miriem and Boghi will use lime. We’ll probably go for earth. We will monitor outcomes.

We were being distracted by talk of straw. There is so much more to ecological building than straw, but we decided to take it up another time. We had an agenda to stick to, insisted José, brandishing his “talking stick” (you had to wait your turn).

New Economics

Things got interesting again when Juan talked about the collapse of our current economic system, how it is doomed to collapse due to its very design, how the current economic crisis is only the beginning. How society based on constant growth and debt cannot be sustained. How alternatives are needed, and our need to create something new, based local resources and systems that do less damage to the biosphere. (More on this subject later).

José reminded us that we could be a network of self-supporting projects, that provide examples of alternative models, that offer regional initiatives like Agenda 21 some capacity to do something.

Agenda 21 in the Minho is the officially adopted forum for discussing “sustainable community” issues. Pamphlets are printed, priorities highlighted, but it would appear that little meaningful actions are taken, if our measure is, say, to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2020, or to reduce pollution in local rivers. We discussed this, and wondered if their problem was capacity to implement, after all few of the people attending these meeting have the time, money or resources to really implement something substantial, in the right direction. Our objective then, is to join these meetings and offer suggestions.

Boghi and Miriem, who are already “doing” this shift, suggested that we need to just get on with our projects first. After all, our projects already consume our entire energy, time and resources. And we should make sure they are done well so they are positive examples. Otherwise we’ll be all theory and no action. We agreed, but also agreed that others need to be informed too.

Abandoned Lands

There are many rural areas out there – valleys and mountains once inhabited, now empty or in dilapidation, sometimes under pressure from over-eager tree-felling policies (José spoke of an ancient woodland that recently fell victim to such devastation). Another problem is fires in summer that rage over dried out undergrowth and dead trees, areas which used to be kept clear by local communities collecting firewood and their herds of goats eating away the small plants before they dry out and become fire hazards. .

Something must be done, we agreed, but how – we ask José who certainly has a vision for a grand plan. How? When we are few and the scale of such projects so enormous? How do we mobilise the people to embark on these kind of initiatives on a largely voluntary basis?

Someone pointed out that most young people these days are motivated by cool phones, consumer gadgets, better cars and jobs in cities that will pay for these consumer lifestyles. Others countered that this may be a trend, but it’s not true of everyone. There’s increasing interest in something more meaningful and… real (at least I think that’s what was said, my Porto-Galego is still a bit rough).

Davide, said there’s more people doing this type of thing now than you think. Should they be brought together then? What happens if we all remain independent, unaware of each other?

Nothing wrong with that, essentially. We all get on with our things. However, if we all want to achieve a broader shift, if we all believe our current system is heading for a fall then we need to get prepared. Create something different.

Informed as we are, at least partially, of the converging energy and climate crises, then we need to mobilise. After all, together we are stronger than by acting alone. Revolutionary talk, almost. Except we’re not challenging any political party. On the contrary, we talked of helping local communities and councils, schools, students and businesses of having a chance to see another perspective.

We realised, after some debate, that a first step is one of raised awareness of the external crises and pressures. After all, what motivates us to seek alternatives. Is everything fine? Can we continue to consume what is left of the planet’s natural resources in a world of never-ending limits?

No! there are limits: limits to fresh drinking water, to greenhouse gas concentrations before we cook our planet; limits to how depleted our over-exploited soils can become before they blow away in the wind; limits to oil and gas supplies, to fish stocks and natural habitats for species above ground and under water. Limits to growth in general.

Gradually we agreed that others need to hear these stories. This can be our first move. Ge the info “out there”.

My story

I looked up at some point and saw a copy of Rob Hopkins’ Transition Towns Handbook I’d brought along.. It reminded me of Davie Phillips, a good friend, who back in 2004 showed me the film The End of Suburbia, one of the first about Peak Oil.

I was shocked – it took me weeks, if not months to process the fact that our entire modern world is completely dependent on oil and other fossil fuels.

I had just started working in the Maldives with the UN on post-tsunami recovery projects, advising the Government there on how to deal with the thousands of displaced people (my line of wok for the past decade and half or so). I started seeing things in a whole new light. I saw communities of islanders now firmly addicted to oil like the rest of us – for their energy (every island has a diesel generator), most food was imported, most of it made with fossil fuels. Their transport, most of their drinking water, their entire way of life reliant on an ever-increasing flow of that black gold.

I looked at our collective efforts to help people rebuild after disaster and realised we were just reinforcing that very vulnerability. Instead of building some form of local self-sufficiency. And why? Because local Government, the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other organisations didn’t know about the potential peaking of world oil production.

This led me to return to school to learn more about it all, about what alternatives might be out there. So into the Green of Wales I went to the Centre for Alternative Technology to do a Masters in Energy and Environment Studies. A privileged position to be in indeed – to be able to afford time off work to learn and read and debate, an opportunity I feel I have a responsibility to do something with.

Actually I’m convinced now that the most vulnerable folks to the combined climate and energy crises are those in developing countries, and one day I want to find a way to share my new found knowledge with them. Towards this end I helped set up RESET while in Wales (but that will have to wait for another time to explain further).

To Portugal

For now we’re in Portugal, in the river valleys of the mighty Minho, engaging in this fine community we have chosen to call home.

Here, like the sparkling Maldivian islands, there’s limited awareness of a rapidly approaching decline in cheap oil and gas. Like everyone, we consume and enjoy as if these “good times” will go on forever in a collective belief that the life-blood of modern civilisation – oil – will continue to flow to meet rising global demand.

One of our biggest concerns should be food production. Oft-quoted research says that it now takes 10 calories of energy to create 1 calorie of food. When you add-up the various inputs it makes sense: first we plough the fields using diesel-fed tractors, then add fertilizers which are produced with natural gas. Then we add herbicides and pesticides, made from oil-based products. We harvest these foods with even bigger machines, also running on diesel fuel. Then ship them around the world and process them in energy-hungry factories, and move them around further with still more fuel. Our food is virtually made from oil.

Most of our world’s biggest fields are so exhausted, depleted of the complex life forms that provide soil nutrition indefinitely, that we are forced to continue this cycle. This system also causes enormous damage to local rivers and oceans. Dead zones” are now appearing in oceans near industrialised agriculture areas where everything is dead. These are linked to agricultural fertilisers and pesticides. So even if we weren’t running out of the raw material to continue this madness, it will destroy more and more of our land, river and oceans.

In terms of peak oil there is a compelling array of ‘experts’ on the other side – assuring us that alternatives are just around the corner, that new oilfields are ready for the picking as soon as the oil price rises a bit. And maybe they’re right. Though as I read and learn more on the subject I suspect they are running a high stake risk – largely based on un-verifiable data from a handful of the world’s largest producers. This map shows how many countries have already past peak, and when.

Davie Phillips, Rob Hopkins, Vandana Shiva, Richard Heinberg and many others have decided it’s time to start a process of transition to a society based on locally produced food, energy and economics. To create communities more resilient to these global energy shocks. We can learn from the Transition Town Movement and other initiatives around the world who have already started down this road. No point re-inventing the wheel after all.

The nice thing is that this transition can actually lead to more fulfilling and pleasant lives. Why pay to go the gym or expensive organic foods – asks Indian activist and campaigner Vandana Shiva – when you can get both by working your own garden? Why not save money and the planet by localising our heating and power sources. It’s all possible but it takes enormous collective effort...

In conclusion

So under our bamboo shade in late April we agreed that we need to get existing materials and media out there, in the local language, expose more people to these issues. They can do with this information what they will, of course. But at least they’ll have the choice: continue on our current trajectory or get together to design our local form of transição – for our own bit of future security.

It was clear from the meeting that we had people from around the river Minho region. A bio-region you could say (defined by our common river valley, the Minho) and anyone else in the surrounding areas that wants to be involved. There’s certainly interest and motivation to create something dynamic and practical, that moves us in the right direction. Let’s see where it goes.

Notes on above

Much of this is my own musing, and doesn’t entirely reflect the discussion. These aren’t minutes after all. I’ve also decided not to rant on about climate change and how vital and desperate that whole situation is. There is so much known about this now, and so much information available, but there isn’t space here. Suffice to say that Transition is about tackling both crises, about creating a low carbon society – one that produces far less cabon emissions because it is dependent on local, renewable sources for food, energy and transport.

Some good links for more information:


The Oil Drum

Transition Culture

Wake Up Freak Out

New Economics Foundation

Portugal Permaculture Network

All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas (UK)


The Party’s Over

Peak Everything

Twighlight in the Desert


Six Degrees

Films (will finish links later!)

Power of Community

End of Suburbia

The end of the line

Farm for the future


Age of Stupid

Crude Impact


Climate Safety

Zero Carbon Britain (Now we need Zero Carbon Portugal)


The Hirsh Report

WEO World Energy Outlook 2008


Rupert Wolfe Murray said...

This is more than a blog. It is a guide to a sustainable future, an inspitation to us all, a manifesto and a useful reading list. It is a great resource and I'm glad it's on your blog and not an email. My only comment about your issues are that the answer would seem to be in The Transition Handbook, which is a practical guide to coming off oil dependency and become "resilient". I know you have it but I am not convinced you have read it. If you really study it you will find very useful advice about how to coordinate and communicate the process.

abelhas said...

just like to add to your book list:

endgame by derrick jensen - if you really want to know how bad the present system really is.
and edible forest gardening
which will change the way you view the world.

Magnus said...

thanks Abelhas crew for this.
will add them.
went to your site (not sure if you'll get this comment) and found the dismantle civilisation link, and that mighty interesting post just up on their blog. wow, it shows that we've been blowing it for millenia. We do indeed have a long way to go...
I also watched "what a way to go. life at the end of the empire" film. Wow. have you seen it?
cheers, Magnus

Niels Wennekes said...

Dear Magnus,

There is also another excellent link:

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