Vale das Lobas

A Regeneration project in the heart of Portugal

Once Upon a Time…..

…there was a valley high in the Beira Alta region, in the foothills of the Serra de Estrela range, the highest mountains in Portugal, and it was known as Vale das Lobas. The Ribeira Muxagata runs along the valley, between the villages of Aldea Nova, Fuinhas and Sobral Pichorro, and the rich fertile soil supports a variety of fruits and forests, including figs, olives, oranges and vines. Five kilometres upriver is a hot sulphur spring. From November to May, the mountains are filled with rainwater, and rivers and waterfalls cascade down the valley sides, and tumble towards the Rio Mondego. Above the valley is a wide-open plateau, with patches of forests and bold granite outcrops. 

The river is home to a variety of reptiles, amphibians and insects, and many mammals drop down to drink or forage, especially at night, including badgers, foxes, wild boars and genets. The river line supports alder and willow trees, and many medicinal plants including datura, urtica and mullein. The wide water meadows that surround the river were traditionally the food stores for the villages, with plantations of grains and root crops, for as long as there has been agriculture.

The mountain climate is harsh and extreme here, with heavy rains in the winter months, and dry, hot summers. Rain water collects together into water-lines, and creates underground rivers, that flow under the surface throughout the year. These seams of liquid gold provide the life-blood to the valley. Historically, the ancestors accessed these winter rains in a series of wells and water-mines, and through careful water management, the irrigated areas could support large populations. This was and is a forest garden agro-ecology landscape, with small vineyards nestling beside olive groves, with fruit trees of all types growing in a maze of natural abundance.

At the northern head of the valley is the Neolithic temple of Fraga da Pena; nine kilometres down river, is another temple site called Castro de Santiago. There are also Dolmens and other archaeological monuments, that confirm that there was a sizeable population supported by this valley more that 7000 years ago. There are no written records of life in those ancient times, but when the Romans arrived, some five millennia later, they would have found a thriving community with an already ancient history, and a tried and tested system of forest garden agriculture, supported by horizontal water mines that penetrated 60m into the mountain.

The Romans built a road into the valley, and the valley provided food and sustenance to soldiers, traders and no doubt, the natural resource of these mountain slopes was further enhanced during the period of Roman occupation, with the introduction of the olive and the Roman flare for natural engineering and irrigation.

The 8th to the 12th centuries saw the spread of Islam throughout Iberia, and connected this remote mountain community to a new paradigm, with its own agricultural and irrigation traditions, new cosmologies and new practices. From 11th century onwards, the expansion of Christianity resulted in the medieval kingdom of Portugal, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 16th century, the Noble family Beltrão established feudal control, and with the construction of the Solar and Capela de Girões, they placed their own unique stamp on the valley.

From the original people to the current age, the tides of culture have ebbed and flowed, through cycles of subjugation and liberation, periods of expansion and contraction; throughout this long voyage, of more than 7000 years of subsistence, our predecessors cultivated the same fields and terraces, using only hand tools, and drawing their water from the same springs and wells.

This unbroken chain of subsistence living is the fundamental heritage of humanity. But in recent times, a new trend began to emerge. Triggered by the industrial age, and fuelled by the heady mix of war, oppression and the yearning for change, rural populations began to dwindle. Waves of migrations swept people away from their fields and forests, and washed them up in cities. The diaspora from Vale das Lobas took hold in the 1970s, and families settled in Central Europe, Brazil and USA, leaving only the elderly to take care of the lands – the final custodians of an ancestral tradition.

Where once sheep and goats roamed the hillsides, now the eagle soared over uncared for terrain. Fruits and olive trees untended and unharvested, became entangled in bramble and broom, and returned gradually to the wild. Bush fires levelled the playing field from time to time, and the landscape took on the aspect of abandonment. Time passed. The migrants raised their families in new surroundings, and for their offspring, born as citizens of a different world, the link with their homeland became weakened and even broken. Grandmothers continued to collect the olives, and even make the wine, but now there were fewer people to help with the harvest. They wept for what had been lost; they themselves felt abandoned, relics from a past that no-one cared for or wanted any more.

Every beginning has an end, and all things must change. The ebb and flow create a cycle, and what is real cannot be denied forever.  The people who left perhaps will not return, but the valley has seen these comings and goings many times before. There is a new wind blowing now, a post-industrial yearning, mainly within urban populations. They are rejecting the hollow resonance of the consumer-based lifestyle, and searching for a deeper connection that links them again with ancestral tradition. The era for blindly consuming the resources of the Earth is coming to a close, and it will eventually be replaced by the understanding that we are participants in a living planet.

It is in this context that the project Vale das Lobas was born, supported by Korashan Association. Vale das Lobas means “Valley of the She-Wolves.” The wolf represents instinct, the spirit of wild nature, and a well-ordered community, where everyone has their role, and all are cared for. The name “Korashan” is an anagram for Noah’s Ark (in English), and it signifies the challenges of the current transition in our world. 

It is part of an emerging new paradigm that recognises the need for reconnecting humanity with nature – including the support of bio-diversity, and the conservation of our heritage, both cultural and natural.