The Uncertain Future of the Rural Soul of Portugal Fábio Paulos
Trancoso, the hometown of the writer

Like in many countries today, young people flee from the countryside of Portugal. They look for employment on the seaside or abroad, leaving culture and tradition to be nurtured by the elderly. Will the rural soul of Portugal be forgotten soon?

August is the month of holidays for the Portuguese. The big cities like Lisbon are almost free of them but full of tourists. Some of the former go abroad, but others return to their hometowns in the countryside of Portugal.

While remaining inhabited only by the elderly for most of the year, these days the small villages are full of life. August is also the time for those who emigrated from Portugal in recent years to return to their hometowns.

The old expect to see their families reunited again, anxious to meet the new offspring, celebrate weddings and meet old friends.

Some villages from the countryside more than duplicate their population for a month and without big industries open to employ and keep the economy running all year, August is also the bloom of smaller shops and convenient stores. For them it is time to work. They stay all month open in order to welcome Portuguese emigrants. It Is during August that small entrepreneurs accumulate savings to survive a hard winter when income is low.

The political leadership has done more harm than good so far

Year after year, government after government, new promises are made for smaller towns. One of the most talked about was about highways. Funds from the European Union arrived in Portugal in recent decades and our government decided to build new roads in order to reduce the time of a trip from the countryside to the seaside or to large cities which would supposedly help urban development in these rural areas. However, the opposite is what happened.

The countryside began to loose more people to the seaside because the highways did not help to drive investments to inward the country. Instead they pushed large industries to the seaside. During the last crisis a new wave of emigration happened. This left the already weak rural economy even more fragile and even more dependent on summer business.

During August many small parties are held, which are called “bailes”. Some places have public markets as is the case of my hometown, which has one of the oldest public markets of Portugal. It was created during the 13 century, “Feira de São Bartolomeu”. But markets like this one only persist because of the Portuguese emigrants who take the occasion to get back in touch with their family and friends. Otherwise they would not be able to further exist.

Nowadays Portugal expects more money from the European Union (Portugal 2020) and the current government is - again - planning to invest part of it in the countryside. It may finally be too late. Most of the young have already left their hometowns and live in cities or abroad, seeking opportunities in a bleak economy. 

The countryside needs to regain the trust of those who left looking for employment elsewhere, it needs to develop what they have. Since the people left, the fields remain deserted. The Portuguese government has created a “Bank of Fields - Bolsa de Terras” , a platform where people can share their fields. If you own a field but do not use it, you can sign an agreement to rent your field to someone else who is looking for more land for his business. Unfortunately this idea was not that successful for now.

The agriculture industry could be a potent driver of rural development, and some of its members are already excited, betting on the surge of agriculture and a small industry of related products. 

Some of the smaller towns have not only fields to cultivate, but a rich historical heritage as well. Still, the positive impact on the employment situation remains too weak for a significant change, or even to create a strong and sustainable economic basis. 

Is it too late to reverse the trend?

On one hand our current government is trying to develop this region of Portugal, on the other it closes schools and public services, often leaving rural citizens far from hospitals. Some politicians defend more political decentralization, which they say would help to develop and improve the life conditions far from seaside. The government is now checking options in order to delegate the management of some schools to municipal authorities, but most of them a suffering from heavy debts and cannot afford more expenses.

The future of the Portuguese countryside won't be easy if the rural exodus cannot be reversed. It is quite possible that small towns will disappear from the landscape in the course of this century. This would be a big loss because it is there, in the countryside where the soul and origin of Portugal reside.

Fortunately some people have already started to contribute to the development of small towns, creating organizations that help entrepreneurs to develop their own businesses, like “Novos Povoadores” , and a few people who had left before, are actually returning.

The small municipalities are now waiting for the funds from Portugal 2020 in hope to find ways to attract more investments that create new jobs in order to grow population once again. This time the money needs to be carefully spent. Time is running fast and I hope it will be not too late to save small places like my hometown, Trancoso.

Edited by: Cherian Grundmann