HA: 018 Barroso

A Changing Way of Life in Remote Portugal

Words and Images by Andre Vieira | Website | Instagram

I come from Brazil, but my great grandfather grew up in a village in The Barroso before migrating to South America. In late 2017, tired of living in post-Olympic Rio de Janeiro, I decided to move to Portugal, where photography became my way of getting to know a country which, despite my family origins, I knew only superficially. When I read about The Barroso’s World Heritage designation, I realized there was something special about my family's roots that I wasn’t aware of, a unique reality that my work as a photographer could give me the privilege of exploring in depth.

The Barroso in northern Portugal is part of the historical province of Trás os Montes — or “behind the hills,” in Old Portuguese. It’s one of the nation’s most isolated areas, known for its harsh climate, rough terrain and stunning beauty. Its residents are sometimes dismissively (and wrongfully) portrayed as simple and unsophisticated. The truth is that their profound attachment to their land and traditions make Trás os Montes one of the most culturally unique parts of the country.

The main square of Vilarinho Seco, one of the oldest villages in the Barroso region. Vilarinho is considered the best-preserved example of the traditional architecture of the Barroso.

Isolation has made the traditions here particularly rich and diverse. Ancient Catholic rites have combined with the cultural vestiges from the many other peoples who, over several centuries, have found their way to the region: Visigoths, Celts, Romans, the soldiers of Napoleon’s army. To survive the unforgiving geography, residents of the Barroso have, over time, developed a complex system of agriculture and cattle ranching that relies on the collective management of the water, forests and pasture areas used by their animals. This method has helped keep the soil fertile, the rivers and springs clean, and the landscape unblemished. It is a system based on self-sufficiency, where residents eat what they grow, bake their own bread (often in their village’s ancient community oven), step on grapes from their vineyards to make wine, and slaughter hogs to make sausages and ham — which they smoke above their kitchen’s fireplace.

Nelson Gomes tends to his cattle at his small property in Covas do Barroso. Mr. Gomes’s wife, Aida, is the village’s President of the Baldio, an elected official charged with overseeing and keeping official tabs on the use of the forest areas and water springs used collectively by residents.

In 2018 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognized the uniqueness of the region, declaring it a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, making it among the first European sites to receive such designation. The title was a morale booster for residents, who benefitted from the new status by highlighting the environmentally friendly way in which their products are made and promoting the region as a prime location for ecotourism.

Four families in Vilarinho Seco pool their labor and equipment to plant potatoes in early spring, a practice common in the Barroso. The agriculture plots are small and scattered on the mountains around the village. Most have been in production for centuries, kept fertile by alternating cultures and cattle grazing.

However, the beloved and age-old Barroso way of life may be changing. Elias Coelho, the patriarch of one of the oldest families in the traditional village of Vilarinho Seco, said, “Life here was very hard. Many people have left. The young don’t want the heavy work in the fields anymore.” And, while the region was largely spared from the coronavirus pandemic — likely due to its isolation — its large diaspora which typically returns each summer from all over the globe was impacted more severely. Many still made the journey home, though they were largely denied the celebrations that make up a big part of the homecoming experience: shared wine and food, village festivals, traditional games, songs and dances. 

Another threat pre-dating the pandemic arose when residents of Covas do Barroso were surprised by the news that a mining company was awarded a permit, given by the Portuguese government, to prospect for lithium in the mountains surrounding the village. Another company was awarded the rights to explore near the village of Morgade, some 40 minutes away.

The news inspired fierce opposition from residents. Eventually, the companies were forced to delay their plans and produce a detailed environmental impact report for their projects. One of the companies, Savannah, recently presented that report (produced not by an independent organization but rather one Savannah hired), and the specialists residents consulted say it ignores most of the biggest impacts they’ll suffer. Residents now have a month to contest it, but the final decision will be made by an agency of the federal government which is an outspoken supporter of the mines.

“The government is always complaining that the interior of the country keeps losing population. Well, we are the ones who chose to stay and raise our families here. We are here out of choice, not because of a lack of options. And now they come to threaten our way of life,” said Nelson Gomes, one of the leaders of the resistance movement in Covas do Barroso. “They talk about the jobs that will be created, but they don't realize that those are much less than the livelihoods that will be destroyed.”

Paulo Pires, one of the few residents of Covas who raises sheep instead of cattle, reflects, “The mining company offered a ridiculously low amount as compensation for my property. But even if it was good, what would I do with it?” he said. “Why would I want to leave a place like this?”

Paulo Pires holds a newborn dwarf lamb at his barn in Covas do Barroso. Pires’ property lies less than 500 meters from the site of a planned open-pit lithium mine, which residents fear will destroy their traditional way of life.
Residents of Vilarinho Seco sing and drink after a religious procession. Catholic celebrations dictate the rhythm of life in the Barroso, with festivals and processions marking important points in the agriculture cycle. Many ancient Catholic traditions remain alive in the Barroso, sometimes incorporating customs from other peoples who roamed the region in the past, like the Celts and the Romans.
Rancher struggles to control his bull right after it received an award at the National Tournament for the Barrosã Cattle Breed in the city of Salto. The Barrosã, known for its small size, large horns, and agility in mountainous terrain is native to the Barroso region. Its meat is a delicacy increasingly popular in restaurants around Portugal.
Women cook inside an old kitchen in Covas do Barroso while sausages hang overhead. Every year at the beginning of the winter residents slaughter pigs to make ham and sausages that feed them throughout the year. The slaughter is a communal event, drawing the help of neighbors and friends. In the end, helpers are treated to a feast.