Alcoutim, a critical low density area

Alcoutim will only be a recognized territorial brand if it privileges and is exemplary, in all circumstances, with its most vulnerable citizens, the oldest and the youngest

On the 19th of May, another Journey of the Rural World took place in Alcoutim. Here are some brief reflections that summarize the intervention I made at the time on the theme of low-density areas.

A well known history

For many decades now, Alcoutim and the Northeast Algarve have continuously lost resident population. If we add to this fact the severe and extreme impact of climate change, we can say that Alcoutim has been living in a vicious circle of desertification and depopulation for a long time.

Today, the municipality of Alcoutim, with 575 km2 and 2521 inhabitants, has a density of 4,4 inhabitants/km2, the lowest in the country (Pordata 2021) and about 2/3 of its population is over 65 years old.

The causes of this vicious circle are well known and go back to the Great Forgetting of the entire interior and border region that ended up creating a dual, unequal and discriminatory country, congested on the coast and deserted in the interior, the consequences of which are now in plain sight.

We have, on the one hand, a long cycle of desertification and depopulation and, on the other, shorter cycles of emergence, mitigation and adaptation, whose meager results are not enough to reverse the severe restrictions of that long cycle.

In 2023, we are truly at an impasse. Once again, everyone is waiting for the implementation of the PT 2030 and the POCPT 2027, and now also the PRR. Meanwhile, the Northeast Algarve and the Baixo Guadiana have a smaller and older population, poorer soils, very limited water resources and a high risk of forest fires, in addition to almost zero political representation.

Furthermore, the sub-region is an indirect victim of the Algarve's model of intensive tourist mono-industry, of severe conditions in relation to the opportunity cost of investments, of the low existing network and agglomeration economies and of an administration of the territory that is manifestly out of tune with nature. of your problems.

2030 Territorial Development Strategies

Despite the difficulties pointed out, we are now experiencing an extraordinary decade with regard to the complex of programs and policy measures, as well as the financial means involved.

The Great Transitions of this decade – climate, energy, ecological, food, demographic, migration, digital, security – due to the impacts they provide raise a major question, namely: will the complex of programs and policy measures of the PRR, PT 2030, Can POCTEP and other European programs trigger a paradigm shift in this sub-region and thus reverse the vicious circle into a virtuous circle of territorial development?

Let us briefly see the territorial development strategies or approaches that are presented:

1) A conventional or conservative approach of a merely bureaucratic-administrative nature: operational programs, call for tenders, applications that, in the end, are exhausted in emergency, mitigation and adaptation measures, that is, everything as before;

2) A conservationist approach to a critical area of ​​protected landscape: it is about negotiating a special conservation program within the framework of the European Ecological Pact for a biogeographical region at high risk of desertification and depopulation;

3) An integrated approach to territorial development for the sub-region of the eastern Algarve: this involves carrying out a programming and planning exercise of ten programmatic bases for the entire region of the eastern Algarve within the scope of a territorial development contract;

4) An intelligent approach to smarting the entire municipal and sub-regional territory: it is about taking the digitization of the municipality of Alcoutim as far as possible within the scope of a specific program of intelligent specialization;

5) An integrated and comprehensive approach to territorial development, contractually established, on three interconnected scales of intervention, the municipality of Alcoutim, the Northeast Algarve and the Baixo Guadiana and the eastern Algarve: it is a matter of outlining a complex of preventive measures ( 1), urgency (2), mitigation and adaptation (3), intelligent specialization (4), structural reform (5), in accordance with the programmatic bases inscribed in the development contract.

The programmatic bases of territorial development

Northeast Algarve and Baixo Guadiana will never leave their vicious circle of development if they are not able to apply a critical mass of measures, on an appropriate scale and for at least a decade, and if they do not have a dedicated administration that has contractual autonomy to execute all these measures on the ground. This complex of measures and respective financial means can be deduced from a well-articulated set of ten programmatic bases that I will now list:

1) Base nº 1, the lost seeds: it is about caring for biodiversity, soils (soil bank), vegetation cover, local agro-food system (SAL) and agriculture accompanied by the community (AAC);

2) Base nº2, the energy mix: the composition of renewable energies, the formation of local energy communities, the energy efficiency of housing;

3) Base nº3, the multifunctional thicket: the formation of the agrosilvopastoral mosaic, the function and role of agrocinegetics;

4) Base nº4, smooth mobility: the creation of ambulatory services close to all places and parishes in the municipality;

5) Base nº5, active ageing: priority given to a long-term care programme, the formation of a senior village, a program of activities for active ageing, the formation of a volunteer bank;

6) Base nº6, microcredit and participatory financing: a support program for the entire needy population of the municipality, if you like, a kind of guaranteed minimum income that can be ensured through participatory financing operations;

7) Base nº 7, circular economy services: a program for the recovery and treatment of domestic, agricultural, forestry, industrial waste that can be used as a source of income for the municipality's population and whose reuse solutions can be exemplary;

8) Base nº 8, agro-tourism services and socio-environmental entertainment: the creation of a local accommodation bank can provide an additional source of income for the municipality's population and encourage small shops and local circuits; accessible tourism must be the subject of special promotion;

9) Base nº 9, complex of educational, pedagogical, recreational and therapeutic services: pedagogical farms, special education, voluntary work residencies, artistic and research residencies, accommodation for digital nomads, etc.;

10) Base nº10, historical-heritage and cultural services: reinvent the county's territorial distinctive signs, recreate new itineraries in the region and visitation circuits, as well as two or three events, design a territorial marketing strategy and create two or three brands for the municipality, the Baixo Guadiana sub-region and the eastern Algarve.

Final Notes

Finally, four brief final notes. The first to underline the fundamental mission, in a senior municipality, of a multi-parish citizen's shop, that is, a one-stop shop that simplifies the journeys of the elderly and, in all cases, that reinforces the role of parish councils in supporting and interaction with the population.

A second note to emphasize that the municipality of Alcoutim will only be a recognized territorial brand if it favors and is exemplary, in all circumstances, with its most vulnerable citizens, the oldest and the youngest; this is the only way to create a kind of sentimental geography for all those who live in and visit the municipality.

A third note to underline the importance of territorial cooperation with neighboring municipalities, Portuguese and Spanish, as they all suffer from the same ailments of desertification and depopulation; We must not underestimate this resource of cooperation, as it is quite accessible and can be very useful politically.

Finally, a low-density area requires a dedicated administration or mission structure that is capable of acting as a sub-region's actor-network and fulfilling the main recommendations of network economics on the ground, namely, the multi-scalarity of interventions, connectivity /digital interactivity, the interoperability of policy measures, the fundamental links between the productive economy and the creative economy.


Author António Covas is a Retired Full Professor at the University of Algarve



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