Herdade da Maroteira is a 500 hectare family-owned estate in the Alentejo region of central Portugal. The farm is part of a unique ecosystem that includes cork oaks, holm oaks and a substantial vineyard. In addition to farming, the estate operates a successful home-stay business in three separate self-contained cottages.
The local area has very high unemployment due to a gradual decline in active farming, in particular vineyards that are being systematically closed down due to falling grape prices caused by a surplus of local wines that typically are of medium quality.
Our principle contribution to the local economy is through employment and resource-sharing. By continuing to engage in labour-intensive activities such as growing vines and running an active tourism business we are able to offer almost full employment to staff members in a region where the few local jobs as seasonal. In addition, we try to maximise employment by being active in the wine value chain. In addition to hand-pruning vines, we maintain full control of off-site wine making and insist on bottling our own wines with our own staff.
Resource-sharing with the local community takes two forms. Pasture is shared with local shepherds who pay peppercorn rent and pay in-part in lambs that can be shared with guests. Another important element of resource-sharing is closely tied in with sustainable management of the forest. All trees eventually and die and in a relatively large forest, there are always dead trees that need to be removed. Furthermore, cork oaks typically loose large branches which on their own represent a significant potential resource. This wood is shared with the local community on two level. Local entrepreneurs (typically, one man with a tractor) are given a proportion of the wood for free on the condition that they leave no wood detritus behind. In any single year, two such community members ask to take wood. The wood is then cut for firewood or used to make charcoal. On a smaller level, local villagers ask to take wood for winter heating. In this case, they are invited to prune holm oaks which offer a double benefit for the villager and the forest.
A mid-sized olive grove is no longer economic to harvest. As a result, the olives are offered to staff members who pick the olives in their own time and take it to the local olive growers cooperative where they are paid in olive oil.
A final example of community support is bee-keeping. The cork forest typically has wild cystus and lavender that make it ideal for beekeeping and results in a uniquely-flavoured honey. Two local beekeepers have their hives in the forest at not cost. As a reciprocal gesture, they look after a few of the farm’s hives that provide honey for the farm and its guests.
Our guests make a substantial additional contribution by providing increase revenue to the farm to make it economically sustainable and continue to offer employment. We invite our guests to eat out in local restaurants and to take home local produce: wines, chouriços, olive oil etc.
Our ecosystem is quite unique. Managing the forest sustainably is not just a key priority but represents a major investment. In particular, the forest needs to be kept relatively clean while ensuring that it remains a habitat for foxes, wild boar and rarer species such as the Egyptian mongoose. This requires a balance between reducing undergrowth that can damage the trees (and creates fire risk in a area prone to forest fires) but also provides cover for the above-mentioned species. Maintaining the balance is an art and a science that we have honed over the years. The proof of success is the growing number of species helped by the initiative that I will go on to describe.
In the past, fauna was almost eliminated by a government policy that allowed free-for-all hunting. However, in a unique partnership, the estate handed all hunting and access rights to a local hunting cooperative run by local villagers. Under the arrangement, the local cooperative agreed to hunt in a sustainable manner (by reducing hunting days) and leaving a large area as a no-hunting area for breeding. As a result, for the first time in decades, partridges can be seen on the estate and wild boar are abundant. Over 100 species of birds have been logged on the estate.
Our region is in trouble. Jobs are scarce and economic opportunities are limited. Yet this is an area famed for its artisans, most notably its potters in the local town of Redondo. Tourism can generate increased economic activities with an obvious social impact. Our model of encouraging guests to tour, shop and eat out is aimed at ensuring a degree of social equity, however small. Local communities welcome foreign visitors and their presence is of mutual benefit.