At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic with worldwide travel restrictions, we started a new series – The world through a lens – in which photojournalists virtually transport you to some of the most beautiful and fascinating places on our planet. This week André Vieira shares a collection of pictures from Portugal.
The Barroso in northern Portugal is part of the historical province of Trás os Montes – "behind the hills" in old Portuguese. It is one of the most remote areas in the country, known for its harsh climate, rough terrain, and breathtaking beauty. Its inhabitants are sometimes portrayed dismissively (and unjustifiably) as simple and unsophisticated. The truth is that their deep attachment to their country and traditions make Trás os Montes one of the most culturally unique parts of the country.
Isolation has made the traditions here particularly rich and diverse. Ancient Catholic rites have connected with the cultural remains of the many other peoples who have found their way into the region over several centuries: Visigoths, Celts, Romans, soldiers of the Napoleonic army.
In order to survive the irreconcilable geography, the inhabitants of the Barroso have developed a complex agricultural system over time, based on the collective management of the water, forests and pastures used by their animals. This method has helped keep the soil fertile, the rivers and springs clean, and the landscape pristine.
It is a system of self-sufficiency, where residents eat what they grow, bake their own bread (often in their village's old communal oven), step on grapes from their orchards to make wine, and slaughter pigs for sausages and ham to make – which they smoke over the fireplace in their kitchen.
In 2018 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations added the region to its list of "Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems". It was one of the first European regions to receive such an award. The title was a moral booster for the residents, who benefited from the new status by highlighting the environmentally friendly manner in which it was made and promoting the region as a prime location for ecotourism.
I'm from Brazil, but my great grandfather grew up in a village in Trás os Montes before he emigrated to South America. Portugal, once the seat of one of the richest empires in the world, has suffered from deep poverty in recent history, especially in the countryside. In search of a better life, millions of Portuguese emigrated to the country's former colonies and richer countries in Europe. Many of these migrants came from Trás os Montes.
At the end of 2017, tired of life in post-Olympic Rio de Janeiro, I decided to move to Portugal, where I got to know a country through photography that I only knew superficially despite my family origins. As I read about the UN designation of the region, I found that my family's roots were something special that I wasn't aware of, a perspective that my work as a photographer could give me the privilege of exploring in depth – which is what I do over many did stumbling blocks until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
My first stop was in the village of Vilarinho Seco, considered to be one of the best preserved examples of traditional Barroso architecture. It is made up of rustic stone houses, often with a barn for the animals on the ground floor and ornate granite granaries to them, and public fountains of water every few hundred yards line the streets. Vilarinho is located in one of the highest parts of the Barroso, about 300 meters above sea level, in the middle of a windswept plateau.
On my first visit, a cold and wet fog covered the landscape and restricted the view. I roamed the streets of the village without meeting a soul until I heard the low and approaching sound of bells ringing. Soon, small groups of cows emerged from the mist and marched neatly in a row to their stables to spend the night. Soon the village was full of life, neighbors greeting each other in their muddy boots and wet clothes and taking time to chat before going home to sit by the fire, have dinner and finish another hard day at work.
My first acquaintance in town was Elias Coelho, the patriarch of one of the oldest families in the village. He seemed to have something to discuss with anyone who passed by. It wasn't long before he invited me to his home, with a blazing fireplace in the kitchen and rows of sausages and smoked ham hanging from the ceiling above.
"Here we do everything at home," he proudly declared and poured wine into my glass.
Beatriz, his two-year-old granddaughter, the youngest resident of Vilarinho Seco, clung to his arm like a koala. Her seven year old sister Bruna is the second youngest. There are no other children their age to play with, but most adults seem to take responsibility for looking after them when they are free to roam the village.
“Life here was very difficult. Many people have left, ”he said, lamenting the possible loss of the village and its traditions. "The boys no longer want the hard work in the fields."
Covas do Barroso, about a 15-minute drive south of Vilarinho, is about 2,000 feet above sea level. The architecture is similar to that of Vilarinho Seco, but the landscape here is very different. The village is on the edge of a valley, surrounded by pine and oak forests. A pristine stream runs through it, and apparently every house has an orchard full of vines and persimmon trees.
The coronavirus pandemic has largely spared the Barroso, who has benefited from its isolation. Montalegre, one of the region's two parishes, has had fewer than 200 cases and one death since March. Boticas, the other church, made it into November without a single infection. There is currently an outbreak of around 30 cases.
But the great Barroso diaspora, who return every summer from all over the world to the place where they are still at home, was affected. Many still came, although they were largely denied the festivities that make up a large part of the experience: the shared wine and food, the village festivals, the traditional games, songs and dances.
The region is also exposed to other threats. In 2019, Covas residents were surprised by the news that a mining company had received permission from the Portuguese government to mine lithium in the mountains surrounding the village. Another company obtained the rights to the mine near the village of Morgade, about 40 minutes away.
The news sparked fierce resistance from residents. Eventually, companies had to postpone their plans and prepare a detailed environmental impact report for their projects.
“The government keeps complaining that the interior of the country keeps losing population. Well, we are the ones who chose to stay here and raise our families. We don't have a choice here, 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 are being created, but they don't realize that they are much smaller than the livelihoods that are being destroyed."
Mr Gomes' close friend Paulo Pires would be most affected if mining plans continued as the processing facility would be built just over a quarter of a mile from his property.
Mr. Pires is one of the few Covas residents who raises sheep instead of cattle. Most of the pastures they graze on are either shared by the village or on the wild mountain slopes of the area, much of which could be affected or destroyed by the mine.
One day we discussed the mine while we were bringing his flock back to their shed. The baby lambs were waiting for them inside, a bunch of bouncing cotton balls. Mr. Pires spread fresh dry hay on the ground. Outside, the sky turned purple and the sun set behind the mountains at the other end of the valley – the mountains that house the main lithium vein that crosses the region. After he let the mothers in, we went outside to look at the landscape as the evening began.
“The mining company offered a ridiculously low amount in compensation for my property. But even if it were good what would I do with it? " he said. "Why should I want to leave a place like this?"
André Vieira is a photographer and lives in Portugal. You can follow his work on Instagram.