To mine or not to mine? Should a wilderness be defiled and exploited? Would the people benefit?

Monday, November 4, 2019, 04:49

Posters campaigning against lithium mining in the Serra d'Arga

Between our house and the sea there's a long, rounded mountain ridge. Though its lower slopes are clothed with eucalyptus and pine, it's a bald mountain, the bare granite crown enlivened with just a little scrub in between the boulders. It looks inhospitable, as though no one would choose to live there, yet as we drive through the foothills and start to climb, we see a homemade sign: "Em Cabração, Lítio não." Translated, that reads as, "No Lithium in Cabração."

Cabração is one of several villages that subsist in the Serra D'Arga, villages which though modernised in many ways, still cling tenaciously to tradition. And none of them is happy about the idea of mining on their mountain.

To read more of the Serra and one of the villages which are fighting a threat to mine lithium, click here.

Part of the long bald ridge of the Serra d'Arga

It's a long climb up the rugged side of the mountain and you might think from the way the brambles encroach upon the road that relatively few people do so. Maybe, though, it's just that local councils have so many more calls upon their small budgets that road clearance is a low priority.

Brambles creeping across the tarmac road

On the way up we pass a sign to a settlement with a curious name: Lugar das Mãos – the Place of the Hands. One day we must turn down the lane and find it, discover if we can how it came by this strange name, but for the moment we're going to the top. Just before we get there, we sense a village coming as we pass rustic enclosures made from dry stone walling and massive flat slices of granite.

Rustic drystone and slab walls in the Serra d'Arga

There it is, Arga de Cima, nestling in a fertile dip. It feels remote here, like the only settlement in the back of beyond but Arga de Cima is not alone. Further on, we will come to Arga de Baixo (in British terms these two might be known as Upper and Nether Arga) and finally to São João d'Arga – but that one may be for another day.

The first signs of Arga de Cima are where we see a brand-new statue of Santo Antão, the patron saint of the village, erected as recently as 2018, and beyond a little locked chapel with a naïve statue of a saint dressed in a monk's habit.

Statue of Santo Antão and a nearby chapel

Behind the statue, down a rough road optimistically called Avenida da Igreja, Church Avenue - though as well as lacking tarmac, the trees are yet to be planted - we come to the village church. Churches up here – and there are others - are squat, solid walled almost bereft of windows. Many have an external bell tower, with one or two bells, reached by a flight of steps. Bell ringing as we practise it in Britain is unknown in Portugal. Nearby my York house the bell ringers are capable of ringing many changes. In Portugal they just ring the bells continuously and cacophonously with no sense of a tune.

Simple though they may be, these churches are well looked after and clearly loved. A plaque on Arga de Cima's church records that, thanks to the whole village pulling together, a restauration programme was carried out in 1974.

In the vale below the church there are picnic tables, benches and a bar-b-que. They serve the dual purpose of providing a space for hikers to stop at for a snack - you can take guided walks up here or just follow the infrequent signs with the thrilling risk of getting lost - and a party spot for the people who come for the Festa de Santo Antão. On the other side of the avenue there's a bandstand and a space for accordion playing and dancing. (There is almost no settlement in Portugal so insignificant that it cannot afford a bandstand.)

The church and the nearby picnic area

So, what you may be wondering, do people do up here at the end of the world? My guess is that the old carry on as they always have, growing beans for themselves and maize to feed the chickens and provide bedding for cattle. "For the chickens, not people?" I can almost hear you ask. Well this maize is a hard variety unlike the soft ones that you buy in the supermarket. Friend Sérgio tells me that in the olden days, when his grandmother was young, some people would make a heavy bread known as broa with this maize but that it was a labour of love, or perhaps in those days, a necessity. First the housewife had to grind the corn, then mix the resulting flour with water and a raising agent; then she had to kneed it and leave it to rise. She had to light the fire and get it hot enough to bake the broa. "It took all day to make a loaf," he said. "No one wants to do that now. It's easier to buy broa from the baker's. It's not the same though," he conceded, "It's not as good."

This autumn, the maize is ready for harvesting. Some dried stalks and leaves have been made into stooks while they dry. Eventually they will be layered into stacks whose apex is protected from the rain with a plastic cap.

Maize in the fields, stooks of drying maize stalks and stack

The people I saw carrying out these agricultural tasks were not the young who would be fitter and better suited to such demanding work but the old. The lady below was carrying her corn cobs on her head in the traditional fashion, though the plastic bag may be considered a new-fangled addition. She told me she was taking it to her espigueiro, her grain store. (For more on espigueiros see The strange sarcophagi of Soajo.)

n old lady carrying maize cobs on her head

Some of the espigueiros, the maize granaries, in Arga de Cima are enormous. The one in the background of the picture below is so long it looks like a railway carriage. Many, as elsewhere, are now disused but at least one is used in the traditional manner.

espigueiros in Arga de Cima

The world has not left Arga de Cima completely behind though. As well as traditional stone houses there are large, posh, new ones, occasionally with a Jeep parked outside. Almost certainly these have been built by expatriate Portuguese sending money home from France, Germany or the USA.

A big new house in Arga de Cima

Even those who don't have a spanking new house have labour saving devices. From the look of the communal washing tubs, they are no longer in use. Even the old must have washing machines. Wood fires, though, are still a major source of heating

Piles of logs for the fires and old fashioned washing tubs

Life in the Serra d'Arga is still hard, though much less so than traditionally. Many folk have indeed left for the city or life overseas but even these cling to their roots, returning to build what often turns out to be a holiday house rather than a home. It's hard to see their children continuing the custom, though: they have been born city people. In 1970 there were a recorded 191 inhabitants: in 2011, the last figures I can find, there were only 73.

So what of the threat of lithium mining in this community? First of all, let's think what lithium is needed for. It's a major component of the batteries which have transformed our beloved computers and mobile phones. It will be instrumental in reducing pollution by enabling electric cars to drive further and faster. In short, lithium will be key to limiting climate change.

Why mine lithium in Portugal? Northern Portugal and Spanish Galicia have the largest known reserves in Europe. There's lithium in Chile and Zimbabwe. Do we want to rely on them? Both have their instabilities at the moment.

What would mining lithium mean for the inhabitants of the Serra d'Arga? (They will all have mobile phones, by the way, and need and love them as much everyone else.) Presumably there would be jobs, perhaps less emigration and, if it were refined in Portugal, there would be taxes and money for the state. On the other hand, the kind of mining expected is open cast, clearly a blot on the landscape. How ugly and polluting of the area would it be?

The Serra d'Arga is not densely populated but it is a wilderness that is loved by both the locals and nearby townsfolk. Young men on mountain bikes career down the Roman road – or at least that is what it is called. Did the Romans really need to make a road in such a high inaccessible place? There's a modern circuit for motorbike enthusiasts too.

And there are festas. Ah the beloved Portuguese festa with its food and wine, its accordions and dancers! People from roundabout flock in their thousands to the feast of St John the Baptist in Arga de São João. To townies these villages represent quintessential Portugal. Would all that authenticity be lost?

I am always ambivalent about such things. Britain benefitted from coal mining and the industries enabled by coal. Of course, there were, and still are, costs as well as benefits. For the Serra d'Arga which would be the greater, the costs or the benefits? And in the final analysis will the people of the mountain actually have a say in their future if the government needs the money?

What do you think? Should lithium mining go ahead? (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

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