The cost of agricultural produce in Portugal’s Alentejo region
Diana Takacsova’s photography stresses the role of the essential workers who are frequently trapped outside the formal system, juxtaposing it with the intensified land use and the inadequate living and labour conditions present in the Alentejo region.
June 29, 2021
Photo essay: Diana Takacsova

Reporting: Diana Takacsova, Odunola Oladeji, Miguel Filipe Silva

Web design: Fanis Kollias

Edit: Iliana Papangeli

Proofreading: Gigi Papoulias

This project was funded by the National Geographic Society

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Portugal’s agricultural sector has gained significant importance. The country initially suffered from the European Union’s common political agreements, and in the 1990s Portugal was even subsidized not to produce certain products such as milk. The revival has been fueled by the relatively low cost of production, as well as local, national and European initiatives to support the trend of large-scale monoculture agriculture – and the dynamics of a globalised supply chain. The city of Beja – as well as the Alentejo region are the main areas undergoing rapid agricultural intensification. Here, the land’s dynamics are partially shaped by the Mediterranean climate and by human intervention and market needs.

Due to its dry summers and mild winters, Alentejo has been historically known for the production of grains – especially wheat, and other winter-spring crops. Spring-summer crops are dependent on deep soil or irrigation. The construction of the Alqueva Dam, largely subsidized by the European Commission and inaugurated in 2002, was largely driven by the promise of developing a sophisticated irrigation system and consequently increasing land use. Intensive agricultural production is, however, dependent on fertilisers, pesticides and increased water needs, creating ecological and sustainability-related concerns. The irrigation system resulted in a change in the types of crops that are grown: the region is currently known for olives, grapes, red berries and, most recently, almonds. Portugal has gone from being a chronic importer of olive oil to one of the world’s largest exporters.

A flock of birds flying over the civil parish of Baleizão – a freedom contrasting with the situation of many seasonal workers trapped outside the formal system.

“We worked in agriculture farming before coming here, in rice fields and some other vegetables and fruits. We came to learn about agriculture – and I want to start my business here,” says Guriqbal from India’s Punjab region.

In order to meet the growing need and the market’s low prices, the country is often, and increasingly, relying on undocumented migrant labour. According to Alberto Matos from a prominent migrants’ rights organisation, Solidariedade Imigrante – SOLIM, at the peak of the olive harvest, there are approximately 28,000 immigrants in Alentejo. Looking at the trend of events that gave rise to this, José Orta of the Polytechnic Institute of Beja stated that the agricultural mechanisation-migration causality in the region resulted in a demographic shift where the longstanding trend is a rural-urban exodus with young people migrating especially to Lisbon, or abroad. This is leaving Alentejo with an ageing and increasingly scarce population.

Migrant workers are now at the forefront of sustaining the agricultural sector. The first groups were mainly from Eastern Europe, later on from Asia, and most recently from Sub-Saharan Africa. Arguably, these labourers play a pivotal role in keeping the country’s agricultural sector afloat, yet they are subjected to extended working hours with an abysmally low wage, irregular payments and more despicably, maltreatment from the contracting companies which provide temporary work. Workers receive as little as €30 per day, from which the cost of social security and often accommodation as well, is deducted. In terms of living standards, the options available are extremely limited, often forcing labourers into living in subhuman conditions where 10 to 50 people are left with no other choice than to share a living unit.

A view of a backyard in the suburbs of Beja. Many migrant workers live in deplorable conditions in accommodation for which they often have to pay a rent of 100 to 150 euros per bed.

Dry palm leaves cover the ground in Nossa Senhora das Neves. Alentejo’s Mediterranean climate favours agriculture – but it also means that summer temperatures are regularly reaching up to 40 °C, making working conditions especially challenging.

The union members of SEF, the Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service, described the situation as modern-day slavery. Cases of human trafficking were also investigated. Sophisticated chains of agencies and intermediaries appear and then disappear immediately, often evading taxes, social security contributions or wages altogether. SEF employees also pointed out that as certain seasons, such as the olive season, are short, thus it’s easier to promise the workers that they will be paid at the end. But when the season ends, they refuse to pay them as the work is already done. This creates many cases of vulnerability across Alentejo. Workers often move, or are moved around, the entire region, depending on the harvest times of various crops. Seasonal work depends on external factors such as weather, too, further contributing to the precarity of the situation.

Satwant from India’s Punjab region worked in the red berries industry in São Teotónio, Odemira from September 2020 to February 2021. The daily wage was about €30. He received a wage only for three months. He worked around 20 days between October and November, only three to five days in the rest of the working period. In December his Indian supervisor left Portugal. Payments stopped, and social security contributions – a responsibility of the contractor – ceased. The need to eat and have a roof over one’s head did not. He pays €120 to have a place to sleep, sharing the house with many other workers.

The creation of the Alqueva Dam, which was completed in 2002, significantly altered the region’s agricultural landscape. One of the dam’s primary functions is to provide the water supply necessary in order to meet the needs of intensive agriculture.

“I cannot afford to buy the produce I grow” – many agricultural workers are not paid regularly and can hardly get by.

The discussion frequently revolves around the institutional framework and actors, and only marginally around the rights and aspirations of migrant workers. The prospects of legalisation constitute an important motivation: the relatively liberal legal requirements of gaining a residency permit in Portugal require only a year of proven work documentation and social security contributions. This is an aspect highlighted by many workers who sacrifice much to create a better future for themselves and for their families, including leaving for other European countries where agricultural workers receive slightly higher wages. Such destinations are Andalusia, Spain or Lazio, Italy. On 23 May the Italian L’Espresso magazine reported about a wage of €56 euros per working day, referring to migrant workers from Punjab. However, the description of brutality and disrespect painted a picture similar to the one in Portugal or Spain.

Thanks to the numerous greenhouses and the sophisticated system of production, berries are grown in the Alentejo region all-year-round.

Indian seasonal workers creating a feeling of home in their shared accommodation in Ferreira do Alentejo.

Some, such as Amritpal from India, left behind an agricultural field, a farm and a large house, escaping the difficult working conditions of farmers in the Punjab region. Others like Mustafa from Senegal have not seen their families for years. Some reported that the “mafia” kept their documents, some that they cannot leave because they need to pay the debts they have incurred with intermediaries. L’Espresso references an average of €15,000 that workers pay just to be able to reach Italy, from where many move first to Andalusia and then to Alentejo. Others are traumatised by the physical violence they may be subjected to, as reported by Carlos Graça from the Portuguese Work Conditions Authority (ACT).

Indian seasonal workers sharpen their tools for cutting olive branches – the only major task available in the March, which is considered early season.

“Home? It is very difficult. Home is where my family is. I haven’t seen them for fiveyears,” says Lamin from the Gambia who now lives in the outskirts of Beja.

The creation of the Alqueva Dam was one of the most ambitious and controversial construction projects in Portugal. It occupies an area of 250 square kilometers, together with approximately 2,000 kilometers of canals and pipelines in a network that provides irrigation to 120,000 hectars of land.

The precarious situation of agricultural workers translates into many forms: Amritpal Singh and his colleagues have been struggling to receive all their social security coverage for the past season.

Night falls over olive trees in one of the many fields surrounding Beja. Intensive and super-intensive production around olives transformed the landscape of the region.

Living conditions are often precarious: many workers share the living space. Here, Indian seasonal workers created a feeling of home in their shared accommodation in a former café.

Alentejo’s old cork trees are still a sight in some parts of the region – but they are in many cases being replaced by more lucrative items.

Sukhninder Singh prunes an olive tree in an olive grove in the vicinity of Ferreira do Alentejo, covering himself from direct sunlight. The pruning of trees of this size takes only a couple of seconds – while other, smaller ones are left out.

The system of intermediaries and the lack of accountability and legal protection makes the dream of the freedom of legalisation hard to achieve for many. Some workers spoke of satisfactory working conditions and relatively stable employment, yet the overall situation can be described as dire, with many surviving only thanks to the support of the community and sharing resources.

Agricultural workers are picking up their tools from a van which transports them to their workplace every morning. Workers spend the day in the fields, stopping only for a lunch break.

Almond tree plantations are emerging across the Alentejo region, replacing the less lucrative olive trees. As of 2018, they grew to cover 5,500 hectars of land.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal announced that it will treat migrants and asylum seekers with an ongoing residency request as permanent residents. Many, however, still lack the necessary documentation and cannot access unemployment benefits. The pandemic has also further worsened the overall situation of agricultural workers. Seasonal work has decreased, leaving a large number of labourers without the already unstable income. In May 2021, the debate around the overlooked situation ignited once again. As Portugal’s lockdown began to ease, restrictions were imposed on the parishes of Odemira and São Teotónio – both known for their greenhouses and reliance on migrant workers. Due to the detected COVID-19 cases, people were not allowed to enter or leave these parishes. The precarious living conditions were cited as a public health risk, yet the discussion emerged only because it couldn’t be avoided due to the toll of the pandemic.

Mustafa Diop lived and worked in France and Italy prior to coming to Portugal. The pandemic has worsened his situation – and he could only rely on small jobs. He and his colleagues cannot rely on any charity as they live in a village near Ferreira do Alentejo.

Nature is taking over an abandoned hotel building now surrounded by agricultural fields near Ferreira do Alentejo. The region is faced with a rural-urban exodus with young people migrating especially to Lisbon, or abroad.

In many instances, migrant workers move around (or are moved around) the whole region in order to reflect the harvest dates and seasonal changes. This precarious existence hardly allows any settling in.

A vineyard of Touriga Nacional planted in a way called “Pé Franco” in the Alentejo region, marking the beginning of the season. Both table and wine grapes are an important produce of the region.

The cost of agricultural produce in Portugal’s Alentejo region
Diana Takacsova’s photography stresses the role of the essential workers who are frequently trapped outside the formal system, juxtaposing it with the intensified land use and the inadequate living and labour conditions present in the Alentejo region.
June 29, 2021

Reporting: Diana Takacsova, Odunola Oladeji, Miguel Filipe Silva

Web design: Fanis Kollias

Edit: Iliana Papangeli

Proofreading: Gigi Papoulias

This project was funded by the National Geographic Society

Since the beginning of the 21st century, Portugal’s agricultural sector has gained significant importance. The country initially suffered from the European Union’s common political agreements, and in the 1990s Portugal was even subsidized not to produce certain products such as milk. The revival has been fueled by the relatively low cost of production, as well as local, national and European initiatives to support the trend of large-scale monoculture agriculture – and the dynamics of a globalised supply chain. The city of Beja – as well as the Alentejo region are the main areas undergoing rapid agricultural intensification. Here, the land’s dynamics are partially shaped by the Mediterranean climate and by human intervention and market needs.

Due to its dry summers and mild winters, Alentejo has been historically known for the production of grains – especially wheat, and other winter-spring crops. Spring-summer crops are dependent on deep soil or irrigation. The construction of the Alqueva Dam, largely subsidized by the European Commission and inaugurated in 2002, was largely driven by the promise of developing a sophisticated irrigation system and consequently increasing land use. Intensive agricultural production is, however, dependent on fertilisers, pesticides and increased water needs, creating ecological and sustainability-related concerns. The irrigation system resulted in a change in the types of crops that are grown: the region is currently known for olives, grapes, red berries and, most recently, almonds. Portugal has gone from being a chronic importer of olive oil to one of the world’s largest exporters.

A flock of birds flying over the civil parish of Baleizão – a freedom contrasting with the situation of many seasonal workers trapped outside the formal system.

“We worked in agriculture farming before coming here, in rice fields and some other vegetables and fruits. We came to learn about agriculture – and I want to start my business here,” says Guriqbal from India’s Punjab region.

In order to meet the growing need and the market’s low prices, the country is often, and increasingly, relying on undocumented migrant labour. According to Alberto Matos from a prominent migrants’ rights organisation, Solidariedade Imigrante – SOLIM, at the peak of the olive harvest, there are approximately 28,000 immigrants in Alentejo. Looking at the trend of events that gave rise to this, José Orta of the Polytechnic Institute of Beja stated that the agricultural mechanisation-migration causality in the region resulted in a demographic shift where the longstanding trend is a rural-urban exodus with young people migrating especially to Lisbon, or abroad. This is leaving Alentejo with an ageing and increasingly scarce population.

Migrant workers are now at the forefront of sustaining the agricultural sector. The first groups were mainly from Eastern Europe, later on from Asia, and most recently from Sub-Saharan Africa. Arguably, these labourers play a pivotal role in keeping the country’s agricultural sector afloat, yet they are subjected to extended working hours with an abysmally low wage, irregular payments and more despicably, maltreatment from the contracting companies which provide temporary work. Workers receive as little as €30 per day, from which the cost of social security and often accommodation as well, is deducted. In terms of living standards, the options available are extremely limited, often forcing labourers into living in subhuman conditions where 10 to 50 people are left with no other choice than to share a living unit.

A view of a backyard in the suburbs of Beja. Many migrant workers live in deplorable conditions in accommodation for which they often have to pay a rent of 100 to 150 euros per bed.

Dry palm leaves cover the ground in Nossa Senhora das Neves. Alentejo’s Mediterranean climate favours agriculture – but it also means that summer temperatures are regularly reaching up to 40 °C, making working conditions especially challenging.

The union members of SEF, the Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service, described the situation as modern-day slavery. Cases of human trafficking were also investigated. Sophisticated chains of agencies and intermediaries appear and then disappear immediately, often evading taxes, social security contributions or wages altogether. SEF employees also pointed out that as certain seasons, such as the olive season, are short, thus it’s easier to promise the workers that they will be paid at the end. But when the season ends, they refuse to pay them as the work is already done. This creates many cases of vulnerability across Alentejo. Workers often move, or are moved around, the entire region, depending on the harvest times of various crops. Seasonal work depends on external factors such as weather, too, further contributing to the precarity of the situation.

Satwant from India’s Punjab region worked in the red berries industry in São Teotónio, Odemira from September 2020 to February 2021. The daily wage was about €30. He received a wage only for three months. He worked around 20 days between October and November, only three to five days in the rest of the working period. In December his Indian supervisor left Portugal. Payments stopped, and social security contributions – a responsibility of the contractor – ceased. The need to eat and have a roof over one’s head did not. He pays €120 to have a place to sleep, sharing the house with many other workers.

The creation of the Alqueva Dam, which was completed in 2002, significantly altered the region’s agricultural landscape. One of the dam’s primary functions is to provide the water supply necessary in order to meet the needs of intensive agriculture.

 

“I cannot afford to buy the produce I grow” – many agricultural workers are not paid regularly and can hardly get by.

The discussion frequently revolves around the institutional framework and actors, and only marginally around the rights and aspirations of migrant workers. The prospects of legalisation constitute an important motivation: the relatively liberal legal requirements of gaining a residency permit in Portugal require only a year of proven work documentation and social security contributions. This is an aspect highlighted by many workers who sacrifice much to create a better future for themselves and for their families, including leaving for other European countries where agricultural workers receive slightly higher wages. Such destinations are Andalusia, Spain or Lazio, Italy. On 23 May the Italian L’Espresso magazine reported about a wage of €56 euros per working day, referring to migrant workers from Punjab. However, the description of brutality and disrespect painted a picture similar to the one in Portugal or Spain.

Thanks to the numerous greenhouses and the sophisticated system of production, berries are grown in the Alentejo region all-year-round.

Indian seasonal workers creating a feeling of home in their shared accommodation in Ferreira do Alentejo.

Some, such as Amritpal from India, left behind an agricultural field, a farm and a large house, escaping the difficult working conditions of farmers in the Punjab region. Others like Mustafa from Senegal have not seen their families for years. Some reported that the “mafia” kept their documents, some that they cannot leave because they need to pay the debts they have incurred with intermediaries. L’Espresso references an average of €15,000 that workers pay just to be able to reach Italy, from where many move first to Andalusia and then to Alentejo. Others are traumatised by the physical violence they may be subjected to, as reported by Carlos Graça from the Portuguese Work Conditions Authority (ACT).

Indian seasonal workers sharpen their tools for cutting olive branches – the only major task available in the March, which is considered early season.

“Home? It is very difficult. Home is where my family is. I haven’t seen them for fiveyears,” says Lamin from the Gambia who now lives in the outskirts of Beja.

The creation of the Alqueva Dam was one of the most ambitious and controversial construction projects in Portugal. It occupies an area of 250 square kilometers, together with approximately 2,000 kilometers of canals and pipelines in a network that provides irrigation to 120,000 hectars of land.

The precarious situation of agricultural workers translates into many forms: Amritpal Singh and his colleagues have been struggling to receive all their social security coverage for the past season.

The precarious situation of agricultural workers translates into many forms: Amritpal Singh and his colleagues have been struggling to receive all their social security coverage for the past season.

Living conditions are often precarious: many workers share the living space. Here, Indian seasonal workers created a feeling of home in their shared accommodation in a former café.

Alentejo’s old cork trees are still a sight in some parts of the region – but they are in many cases being replaced by more lucrative items.

Sukhninder Singh prunes an olive tree in an olive grove in the vicinity of Ferreira do Alentejo, covering himself from direct sunlight. The pruning of trees of this size takes only a couple of seconds – while other, smaller ones are left out.

The system of intermediaries and the lack of accountability and legal protection makes the dream of the freedom of legalisation hard to achieve for many. Some workers spoke of satisfactory working conditions and relatively stable employment, yet the overall situation can be described as dire, with many surviving only thanks to the support of the community and sharing resources.

Agricultural workers are picking up their tools from a van which transports them to their workplace every morning. Workers spend the day in the fields, stopping only for a lunch break.

Almond tree plantations are emerging across the Alentejo region, replacing the less lucrative olive trees. As of 2018, they grew to cover 5,500 hectars of land.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal announced that it will treat migrants and asylum seekers with an ongoing residency request as permanent residents. Many, however, still lack the necessary documentation and cannot access unemployment benefits. The pandemic has also further worsened the overall situation of agricultural workers. Seasonal work has decreased, leaving a large number of labourers without the already unstable income. In May 2021, the debate around the overlooked situation ignited once again. As Portugal’s lockdown began to ease, restrictions were imposed on the parishes of Odemira and São Teotónio – both known for their greenhouses and reliance on migrant workers. Due to the detected COVID-19 cases, people were not allowed to enter or leave these parishes. The precarious living conditions were cited as a public health risk, yet the discussion emerged only because it couldn’t be avoided due to the toll of the pandemic.

Mustafa Diop lived and worked in France and Italy prior to coming to Portugal. The pandemic has worsened his situation – and he could only rely on small jobs. He and his colleagues cannot rely on any charity as they live in a village near Ferreira do Alentejo.

Nature is taking over an abandoned hotel building now surrounded by agricultural fields near Ferreira do Alentejo. The region is faced with a rural-urban exodus with young people migrating especially to Lisbon, or abroad.

A vineyard of Touriga Nacional planted in a way called “Pé Franco” in the Alentejo region, marking the beginning of the season. Both table and wine grapes are an important produce of the region.

A vineyard of Touriga Nacional planted in a way called “Pé Franco” in the Alentejo region, marking the beginning of the season. Both table and wine grapes are an important produce of the region.

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