Participatory Rural Appraisal for the municipality of Odemira – The characterisation of a rural environment

Por: Kaya Schwemmlein , Lanka Horstink & Miguel Encarnação

Source: Project logo.

Drawing upon the challenge of creating inclusive, regenerative, and sustainable food systems, it is very important to address not only questions related to sustainable agricultural practices, but also issues regarding power asymmetries that can be found along the supply chain.

The European Union (EU), in its “Farm to Fork Strategy”, maintains that it is vital to “preserve affordability of food while generating fairer economic returns, fostering competitiveness of the EU supply sector and promoting fair trade”. Nonetheless, several studies, journalistic pieces and other EU documents (such as the EU´s Inception Impact Assessment) have already clearly acknowledged the existing challenge of imperfect competition : one that creates disparities in market power across the entire food chain, from production to retail.

These power asymmetries are indicative of an enormous representation challenge in agriculture, globally. As addressed in the past by numerous civil society organisations, such as La Via Campesina (LVC), the only viable solution is to strengthen farmers’ positions, views and demands (in particular those of small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers).

The complexity of the food system and the divergency of food-system actors are some of the factors that have accounted for the existing power and representation imbalance, but the political and economic factors that have facilitated the development of an agro-industrial “elite”- heavily subsidised since the inception of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – could be conceived as the chief cause. In fact, 20% of farmers receive approximately 80 % of the European CAP subsidies.

La Via Campesina (LVC), through their European Coordination, has called for a reformulation of the CAP: in their view, the “new” CAP should also benefit small-scale farmers and should not have the disadvantage of leading towards more land grabbing, land artificialisation and land concentration, as it has done in the past.

Image 1. Alentejo’ s large-scale subsidised agriculture vs small-scale not-subsidised agriculture

Source: The Authors

The landscape and human presence in the territory of Odemira: collective design of an evolution

In the Portuguese case, a solution that fosters integration of peasants and offers more opportunities for participation and political representation is yet to be found (LVC).

To fill this gap, a team of researchers associated with the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, and the Erasmus+ trAEce Project (Vocational Training in Agroecology for Farmers) coordinated by the environmental association GAIA, are currently promoting a “Participatory Rural Appraisal”  (PRA) for the municipality of Odemira, on the Alentejo coast. Details of the project can be found here.

This scientific action-research project, which runs from February to October 2022, intends to foster emancipation through engagement, networking and participation from “below”. The project is intended to be informative, critical, empowering for residents and producers and focused from beginning to end on collaboration and dialogue.

One might ask: why Odemira? First of all, in terms of governance, this region is part of both the National Ecological Reserve, the European Natura Network 2000, as well as the National Agricultural Reserve, meaning that its environmental and resource management can have serious repercussions for agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. It is also a region that is especially sensitive to climate change, with high aridity and great pressure on the availability of water (see for instance EMAAC 2016). Finally, this region has been the object of an intense national as well as international debate about different farming options and precarious rural labour conditions to which the following journalistic pieces can attest: New York times; Der Spiegel; or Público

The PRA for Odemira is an action-research response to the above-mentioned challenges that this region is facing and hopes to support not only a sound diagnosis of the agri-food sector, as well as point out possible sustainable farm & food futures.

Firstly, the PRA for Odemira aims to analyse the current situation of the territory, in particular the current state of the agri-food sector, identifying, among others, the main tensions and convergences between the different agrarian model(s) in Odemira and the natural and social limits imposed by the resources, agro-ecosystems, and the socio-economic and socio-ecological conditions of the territory. Secondly, by collecting data related to the characteristics of the local food chains, the project aims to encourage the collective imagination of possible scenarios for an agri-food future of the region and test innovative diagnostic tools (in particular the TAPE tool from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, to be used in farm sustainability assessments) so that they can be replicated in other challenging areas.

The project is currently halfway through its data collection. An important milestone will be the upcoming workshop in Vila Nova de Milfontes on the 18th of June 2022. This workshop’s main objective is to listen the locals  by bringing together the knowledge of a diversity of agents in the agri-food sector. With the help of experienced facilitators and well-tried dynamics of sharing, exchange, and compilation of the knowledge of each participant, we intend to provide an informative, as well as fun day for participants, of which the results will benefit the knowledge and learning of all.

Figure 1 presents the different objectives of the participatory workshop:

Figure 1. Objectives of the Participatory Rural Appraisal Workshop

Source: authors

By fostering dialogue among the principal local food system actors, the PRA team hopes to stimulate some of the principles of food justice, to assess the imperatives imposed by the socio-economic and socio-ecological challenges experienced in Odemira and, in some way, work towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) – in particular SDG 2: zero hunger and sustainable agriculture, but also SDG 5: gender equality.

Finally, taking to heart the European Commission’s challenge to “leave no one behind”, this project aims to highlight the importance of representation of all people who depend on the agri-food systems of a given territory, when considering decisions that concern their livelihood and ultimately, their life.


Kaya Schwemmlein é doutoranda no ICS-ULisboa, no Programa Doutoral de Alterações Climáticas e Políticas de Desenvolvimento Sustentável. Trabalha atualmente sobre sistemas alimentares sustentáveis e desenvolvimento socio-ecológico na perspetiva do nexus água-energia-alimentação. É igualmente investigadora no projeto “Diagnóstico Rural Participativo de Odemira”. Contacto: kaya.schwemmlein@ics.ulisboa.pt

Lanka Horstink é socióloga, afiliada ao ICS-ULisboa. Trabalha nas áreas da economia política e ecologia política dos sistemas agro-alimentares, com ênfase na qualidade ecológico-democrática. Entre os seus projectos actuais estão o desenvolvimento de um curso em agroecologia para agricultores e um Diagnóstico Rural Participativo na região de Odemira. lanka.horstink@ics.ulisboa.pt

Miguel Encarnação é agrónomo, mestre em Agroecologia pelo Instituto Politécnico de Bragança. Trabalha atualmente na implementação de modelos inovadores de aprendizagem de agricultores e agricultoras e colabora com o projeto do Diagnóstico Rural Participativo.

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