Mértola's Laboratory for the Future an experimental space to facilitate the agroecological transition towards a resilient local food network
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The initiative for creating a local food network in Mértola was presented as a case study at the 2019 summer school organized by the World Food System Center (WFSC) at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Since then, a team consisting of members from the WFSC Alumni Network (WFSCAN) have been actively engaged in the ongoing initiatives in Mértola to establish a local food network and the development of a food system vision for the year 2050.
The WFSCAN team has benefited from the multicultural and multidisciplinary composition of its members and provided support in the form of ideation and scrutiny for the developing Food Network in the region.
The practical experiences faced by the Food Network in Mértola represents an unparalleled opportunity to partake in the development of a future food system, with a community living on the forefront of climate change. Mértola could serve as an example of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies for places in a similar situation in the world – thus as a Laboratory for the Future.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Among the arid landscapes stretching across the Alentejo region in southeastern Portugal, the municipality of Mértola has bravely endured since ancient times. Mertola has witnessed a peaceful change of civilizations thanks to the strategic location of the Guadiana river which motivated people from a variety of races, cultures and religions to live in harmony.
The encroaching desert, an existential threat faced by the population of 7,274 people who are sparsely located (4 people/ 1km2) and of old age.
Situated along the Spanish border, the municipality extends over an area of approximately 1,292.87 km2. Since long before the Romans, Mértola has hosted the flux of civilizations inhabiting the area and is enriched by traditions brought by the moors and archaeological pieces by the Phoenicians.
This history has left a unique cultural heritage evident in the people and the food system in which they are a part of. An example is an Islamic festival that welcomes artists and musicians from Morocco and other Northern African states. It is among the regions in Europe most susceptible to desertification. Its semi-arid climate and high vulnerability to climate change make it one of the regions most affected by drought throughout Europe. These intrinsic geographic characteristics are clear to the eye, but can be heard in the beautiful melancholic songs passed down through generations, and still sung today in their native language Portuguese.
The diet in Mértola was diverse and made use of seasonal fruits and vegetables. It included wild plants, acorns, stews, lot of cabbage and similar leafy vegetables. Bread and beans were also consumed in considerable amounts. Mértola is the national capital for hunting. Game has always been a very important part of the diet and continues to be so to this day.
Wild plants are also an important part of foods in the region. Aromatic herbs and herbaceous perennials have long been used in a variety of dishes for seasoning and healing practices. A distinct scent of herbs like rosemary and lavender casually drifts in the air over low hills of Mertola. Rockrose, a species well known to the region, is a flower that marks its presence throughout the hills of Mertola. It contains many medicinal properties and many folks feel that it is a signifier of Mertola, in both good and bad ways. Some of the older locals believe it brings bad luck, as it grows in poor soil conditions, while others believe it brings prosperity.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Mértola is heavily impacted by climate change witnessing change in rainfall patterns, longer and more severe droughts and more extreme temperatures. Owing to large-scale deforestation, the soil has been continuously degraded leading to desertification of the area. Moreover, EU agricultural policy has long promoted unsustainable agricultural practices such as large monocultures of potato and wheat. Besides losing soil, Mértola is also losing its people: population ageing and rural exodus of the younger generation in search of better economic perspectives slowly depopulated the region, leaving many of the elderly in solitude. The separation between the generation is also causing loss of precious indigenous knowledge which is an integral part of Mértola’s culture. The narrative that Mértola holds no future is being passed on from generation to generation and continues to strengthen in the absence of an economic system that could provide job opportunities. As tourism has become an important source of income for the local population, many choose to rent out their properties as vacation homes, leaving them empty for a large part of the year and putting a lot of pressure on the housing market. Lack of residential space is thus another obstacle that prevents people who do want to move (back) to Mértola. The lack of human resources can be felt profoundly in the agricultural sector. With a lack of labor force, less food is produced locally and external sources are sought to meet the demands. Today, the local diet largely depends on imported foods from Spain. Losing touch with the traditional diets, Mértola is not spared the global consumption patterns of the increasing use of processed foods and meat consumption; taking its toll on people’s health. The depopulation is also limiting the capacity for innovation and search for alternative solutions. Regarding technology, farmers are in need of more specifically designed tools that would facilitate conservation tillage practices on small scale farms. Storing and processing facilities are lacking. There is currently a gap in technological knowledge between the highly educated urban areas and the low educated rural areas. Lack of public services such as teachers, health care, and connection to more urban areas further adds to the poor infrastructure of the region.
The temperatures are expected to rise with every passing year along with a decrease in the rate of precipitation making agricultural production more difficult. The adoption of a dietary pattern based on ultra-processed and animal products will increase cases of chronic non-communicable diseases, having negative on environment and economy too. It is dire need of time for an agroecological shift, but currently, it seems not economically viable. The daunting task at hand is to develop a sustainable economy, with more job opportunities, even for people with high education. Availability and affordability of high quality locally produced foods irrespective of people’s purchasing power is another challenge that calls for attention.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Mertola’s vision adopts a bottom-up approach to tackle the challenges at hand. A participatory process lies in the very core of the vision that builds on empowerment, inclusiveness and transparency. It embraces the complexity of the local food system by using the interconnection between the prevalent challenges.
This vision aims to regenerate the soil in Mértola through a paradigm-shifting change in agricultural practices. This is done by implementing regenerative agroecological approaches, such as syntropic farming, to attain a regional food belt that can sustain the community with locally produced foods and build trust in a common future. This will also shift the local diet to a more healthy direction, giving access to locally produced high-quality foods to everyone.
Aspiring farmers are trained and inspired to take on the challenging, but rewarding work of farming. A basic income will be appointed to aspiring farmers to secure their livelihood. Besides generating food, future farming approaches will add to the regeneration of the regional environment. Gardens and greeneries have taken the place of deserts, and provide water and nutrients to the local ecosystem.
Empowering the people to be able to influence their common future is facilitated by the Creative centre, which hosts a FabLab. It is a place to connect with each other while creating goods that are needed in daily life. With the help of 3D printers, distinctively designed tools for farming and other agricultural needs are manufactured. Excess materials will be used as the basic raw material. Moreover, the facility can also help local small scale companies to add value to the food chain.
A prospering DIY culture will lift the self-esteem of the community. The Creative centre will be run by visiting artists and creative minds, who are prone to connect with national and international level researchers and artists.
In addition to initiatives like the farmers' basic income and the Creative Center, cultural and culinary events and celebrations will make Mértola an attractive place to live. Improvement in regional infrastructure will additionally lead to a migration back to Mértola.
The collaborative governance structure that connects farmers, municipality, entrepreneurs, associations and other entities within the Food Network Mértola creates conditions for and supports rural entrepreneurial activity in those areas that contribute to sustainable regional development and values the cultural and natural heritage of the region. Furthermore, there exists a transparent structure of subsidies that encourage regenerative agriculture in contrast to the subsidies of the past that benefitted large scale monoculture farming approaches.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
In 2050 Mértola is a recognized “Laboratory for a resilient future in rural regions”. Mértola shall be on the pathway for ecosystem regeneration and a resilient local food for healthy citizens. The agroecological transition has empowered farmers to regenerate the land and the increased vegetation has positive impacts on water cycles and regional climate. The formerly abandoned ancient gardens around Mértola have been regenerated and produce healthy and regional food for all school-, municipality- and elderly home canteens as well as for the community. Many citizen-based initiatives collaborate to improve the economic, ecological, technological and social conditions for people and the territory Mértola. The initiatives are part of the transparent, participatory and collaborative governance approaches that diminish bureaucracy and facilitate engagement, community and creativity. Mértola is home to regenerative farmers, artists, designers and entrepreneurs from field to table, from food processing to sustainable gastronomy, that drew their inspiration from the wisdom of the cultural heritage of Mértola, and the necessity to embrace the change that is constantly surrounding us. The educational focus on agroecology, design, technology and healthy regional food empowers young people from primary schools to vocational education for a self-determined future in Mértola or beyond. The inspiration that comes with celebrating locally produced healthy food from healthy soils, brings all generations together to be part of the vivid and creative community of Mértola, where no one is left alone.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
At Mertola our work started at the core, which is food and at the bottom, from the community. From the urgent need of the local population to collaborate and adopt new and revive old practices to secure their future livelihood. We chose to envision a better future in this challenging life because it has a huge potential to be representative of many peripheral regions in the semi-arid climate zone that is affected by similar conditions.
We trust in the tremendous human capabilities that are embedded in every human being to collaborate with each other and Nature. To find solutions beyond the severe and fearsome impacts of climate change on our community we were left with two alternatives. To leave or adapt. We have chosen to adapt in many creative ways.
While this region is affected deeply by climate change, we have chosen to change with the climate. This is a journey of empowering local citizens, the municipality and all the institutions towards a resilient, regenerative and sustainable food system for Mértola. You are welcome to join!
In 2050 the narrative of Mértola as a peripheral region without perspectives for a prosperous future has been replaced by a new narrative: the future is to be built on a rich natural and cultural heritage and will be what we make out of it. We will gain resilience by integrating these elements.
We are to find pragmatic and innovative solutions to turn our challenges into opportunities as this is a matter of survival, for both Nature and people.The soil is, what nourishes and feeds both, nature and community of Mértola. It is the soil that provides the essential scents, tastes and flavours that are valued by the community.
In 2050, the soil is recovered, and actively taken care of. Agroecology will lead to flourishing biodiversity that enriches the local ecosystem and provide sources of food and value-creation locally as well as for some high-quality products that are also appreciated and valued in other regions.
The formerly abandoned ancient vegetable and fruit gardens around Mértola are regenerated and productive. They stand for the collaborative endeavour by the community to regenerate soil and vegetation while using the areas for sustainable food production. It visualizes a common dream that has become a reality.
The agroecological transition and regeneration-by-use has empowered people and has added trust to a prospering common future. Besides soil, skilled power has increased. Mértola, though still a rural area, is an attractive and vibrant place to live in, and people from cities are longing to move to the peaceful and inspiring countryside. The infrastructural system allows it
Mértola is internationally recognized as the Laboratory of the Future, especially for developing viable alternative pathways for peripheral rural areas affected by desertification and drought. this recognition extends to the population's long experience agroecology and sustainable local food production and consumption
Knowledge and access about ancient and adapted seeds and plants enable farmers to embrace agroecological practices, and to transition to agriculture that is better prepared for a changing climate.
The increased vegetation in the area has changed the regional climate in the area and led to more precipitation. The majority of previously abandoned gardens are now regeneration-by-use and the agroecological transition has improved the ecological and soil conditions on more than 2'000 ha. Housing a diverse variety of plants and animals.
The pilot- and demonstration-areas for agro-ecology in Mértola are recognized by farmers and researchers as learning and inspiration-centre for ancient and new best practices. The agroecological transition has made Farming cool again in Mértola and farmers are proud of their work. It is no surprise that becoming a farmer is a popular option amongst the youth.
The Food Network now delivers 100% locally produced food to the local community, including school canteens, elderly homes. Community supported agriculture is thriving in Mértola. People living in the area can purchase their vegetables and fruits directly from the farmer. Traditional foods are processed and used widely in local cuisine. Acorn flour is used in baking, and it has gained its reputation as one of the local staple foods. Local food, especially wild edible resources are the pride of the region, and traditional ways of cooking have regained its popularity and are asked for by tourists. Monthly happenings like the night of the open market and pop-up restaurants are driven by local active grandparents, sharing their knowledge and skills invite people to enjoy good food and to connect with each other.
The diet of the local community has contributed to overall good health through prevention within the community. Actually, “the Mértola diet” is seen as a benchmark regarding a healthy Mediterranean diet and stands for the positive effects of health and ecological footprint of a resilient community
The seemingly scarce natural resources around Mértola will lead to blossoming creativity and DIY-culture amongst the community. The local community is very proud of the farming tools and machines that they have managed to design and produce to serve the needs of the local farmers. Upcycling workshops in local schools help the kids to embrace a creative and sustainable lifestyle where the material that formerly was seen as waste is now seen as something useful. fostering imagination and creativity from childhood. Furthermore, the self-reliance of the community has risen clearly, since the people are not deeply reliant on external players.
The learning centre for syntropic and agroecological farming approaches attracts international scientists, volunteers, interns and artists to visit Mértola and to contribute in the exchange of knowledge and experiences towards future thriving communities. This makes it easy for local entrepreneurs to be aware of current technological developments, and to build up their businesses accordingly. A thriving economy exists, which is partly driven by the creative use of side stream materials from agriculture as raw materials for the production of material goods.
The collaboration with universities and research centres is prospering and leads to a positive circle where the rural area can benefit from relevant research findings The academia can conduct research in Mértolas Laboratory of the Future. The experiences and learning’s and specifically the agro-ecological and food-system measures taken in Mértola in response to climate change are continuously monitored and are recognized by regional, national and European policy- decision-making.
Small scale local companies are adding value to the food chain. Combining ancient common knowledge with specifically designed technological solutions leads to distinctive food products. High-end technology is implemented in farming is helping us to tackle challenges as water scarcity. In general, technology is harnessed to serve the people. It is designed, manufactured and led by the people.
Innovative logistic-solutions, such as digitally-supported transport-sharing, and good digital connectivity has created good conditions for young urban digital nomads to choose Mértola for temporary or longer residencies and ensures interesting perspectives for the younger generation to stay or return to Mértola. Strategic collaborations with other regional initiatives and urban initiatives based on the same values and visions enable a good connection between the rural and urban areas.
The Regeneration and agroecological transitions, as well as healthy local food, is an integral part of the education in Mértola on all levels: In all primary schools the school gardens are transformed into agroecological areas and all kids learn to regenerate soil, vegetation as well as healthy regional food. The vocational school has established an attractive education and training offering from farm to table that trains young people from Mértola and beyond to gain knowledge and experiences from farm to table, from agroecology to food-processing and sustainable gastronomy that allow them to develop perspectives and contribute to the sustainable development of the region and beyond. The elderly population is actively contributing to the regeneration process in Mértola with knowledge and within the different cultural and culinary activities that create a climate of inspiration and inter-generational connectivity and solidarity within the community that celebrates a culture of regeneration and food as a collaborative commons.
The collaborative governance structure that connects farmers, municipality, entrepreneurs, associations and other entities within the Food Network Mértola, creates conditions for and supports rural entrepreneurial activity in those areas that contribute to sustainable regional development and values the cultural and natural heritage of the region. This improves the value-creation of the local and small-scale farmers, minimized administrative barriers for market-entry and creates a broader reach to high-value markets for sustainable regional products from the Region of the Vale do Guadiana natural park of Mértola. A combination of ancient traditions and knowledge with innovatively designed technological solutions leads to high-value products in food and sustainable materials. Mértola has developed a high degree of expertise in participatory decision-making and community involvement. Within the process of regeneration, innovative approaches, such as an agrarian basic income and other measures are implemented and receive support and recognition within and beyond the region.
There exists a transparent structure of subsidies that encourage regenerative agriculture in contrast to the subsidies of the past that benefitted large scale monoculture farming approaches.