Portugal: damned dams again

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Damned dam

TRACCE no. 13 – by M. Simoes de Abreu, A. Arcà, A. Fossati

With the complicity of the European Union new large and important rock art areas will be submerged by the Alqueva dam (Portugal – Spain).

13 – April 2001      special issue devoted to the Guadiana Rock Art

damned dams again

With the complicity of the European Union new large and important rock art areas will be submerged by the Alqueva dam (Portugal – Spain)


Each European citizen paid about one Euro, and will pay more, of his taxes for the building of one of the largest (Alqueva’s overall construction will take 20-25 years and will cost around USD 1.8 billion), dangerous (as already defined by the WWF) and unuseful (as confirmed by the totality of environmental documents) dam-building projects ever imagined in Europe. But he doesn’t know. Even if he has the conscience that natural and environmental heritage should be preserved he has to contribute to its destruction. All this with the complicity of the European Union, which funded with 203 millions of Euros the building of the Alqueva dam.

The Alqueva dam(n), 17.4.2000

The facts are hidden, but very clear. The Alqueva dam, quite already erected in the Guadiana river, will inundate 250 square km in the Alentejo (Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain) regions. It will be the largest European artificial lake, 80 km long and 152 m deep. The project was firstly presented in the 1952, when there was the idea of building there a new industrial city (the area is one of the poorest in Europe), which would need a lot of water. This industrial city has never been built. The second aim of the old project was to intensively irrigate the Alentejo region: the irrigation projects already realised in the area are only used by less than 40%. The third aim of the old project was to produce electricity: when the dam will be finished it has been calculated that it will contribute only to the 0.18% of the total Portuguese electricity production, while probably more than the electricity produced will be sucked by the pumping stations.

With the arrival of the fresh European money the project has been re-taken, and the dam(n) lobbies restarted to weave the loom of their huge interests. The problem is that quite all political Portuguese parties are favourable to the Alqueva dam: mainly they point over the great development of infrastructures (680 km of main irrigation channel, 4400 km of secundary irrigation channels, 114 pumping stations, 1100 square km irrigated), while socialists and communists look at the dam as a potential benefit in favour of stopping emigration and helping poor farmers.


The project has been approved by Europe on 28 July 1997 (European Regional Development Fund programme N., period covered 1997-99), as a “specific integrated development programme for the Alqueva area (PEDIZA – © European Communities, 1995-2001)1“. It takes part of the Priority 4 (‘Strengthening the regional economic base’) of the Community Support Framework for Portugal (1994-1999 period). “The programme aims to revitalise the economy of an area which covers about one-third of the Alentejo region, or 216.000 people. The Community co-financing will amount to 53.9 % of the total expenditure (ECU 376.7 million), the remainder being provided by the national authorities, the private sector and other bodies”.

Its main goals are:

  • Construction of a dam at Alqueva capable of holding 4,150 hectometres of water and irrigating 110,000 ha of land. It will be able to provide a constant supply of water to the populations of Alentejo, top up river levels and generate hydroelectric power.
  • Construction of various multi-purposes support infrastructures.
  • Development of an agricultural model.
  • Measures to encourage a more balanced regional development.
  • Measures to exploit the potential of the Alqueva project.
  • Upgrading human resources.

A PEDIZA II program is already foreseen, with other 199 millions of Euro of funding.

In 1997 there was a fierce opposition of environmental organisations. Martin Hiller, WWF president, qualified the decision as an ecological catastrophe. He pointed over the fact that the artificial basin filling mainly depends from Spain, where the Guadiana river comes from. It is difficult to think that in droughts periods Spain will concede its waters for a foreign region. Despite all oppositions, and despite the fact that even in the European Commission doubts arose about the project, Mme Monika Wulf-Mathies, commissary to the regional politic, approved the European funding assuring that all the preventing measures will be kept “to save the environment”. How to save environment while flooding it is really a hard question to explain.

Environmental concerns

Heavy concerns about fauna and flora are various, concrete and documented2. Although the ICCRA (the Portuguese Ministerial commission retained to manage the financial helps to the Alentejo region) clearly cites in the in the IORA document (Operative Intervention in the Alentejo Region) the main importance of “preserving and promoting the natural heritage by saving the natural environment with particular regard to the bio-diversity”3, the PEDIZA project with all evidence goes against this point. The left hand doesn’t know what the right one is doing… probably she knows very well, but we don’t want to be malicious.

The Iberian Imperial Eagle Aquila Imperial Iberica
The Black Stork Black Stork
The Lynx

In the Guadiana area four biotopes, on the total of nine qualified by the Habitat Direction of the European Union, would be destroyed. Many menaced species are living here: the Otter, the White and the Black Stork, the Iberian Imperial Eagle. Here there is the second major western European colony of Herons. Black Stork and Iberian Imperial Eagle in particular are already menaced of extinction: the Alqueva dam will dramatically reduce their presence in the area. Among other animals it is possible to find wolves, lynxes, turtles, cranes, and so on. Regarding the flora the area of the international Guadiana river (corresponding to the borderline between Spain and Portugal) constitutes one of the most important south-western Iberian endemic Mediterranean woods. more than one million trees will be cut before building the dam, which represents one of the largest tree-cutting in Europe of which we have memory. The cutting already began. There is also the presence of a great variety of natural habitats.

It is calculated that the Alqueva dam will heavily menace 38 species of birds included in the European directive (Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds), 26 species of vertebrates included in the European directive (Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora), 9 RELAPE (Rare, Endemic, Localised, Threatened with Extinction) vegetal species.

Great effects also on the estuary part: the dam will truncate the river, reducing the contribution of fresh-water, augmenting the contribution of polluted water (artificial fertilisers), with a potential negative impact not only environmental but also economic (fishing and tourism).

The negative impact will be reinforced by the large web of irrigation channels. It is important to specify that the Alentejo agriculture is based on a large estate property. The ground is poor, not suitable for intensive agriculture. The quality of the water is bad, and it will be very expensive to pump it into the fields, as already documented by the actual scarce use of artificial irrigation. Only giving subventions it will be possible to start profitable cultivation. It is totally unclear which kind of development plan will transform all this into a green hilly valley. Probably the golf fields which are previewed as a great tourism attraction (sic!, Publico 17.3.2001). Do we really need a dam to obtain a nice golf field?

 Legal concerns

Strong legal concerns are presented in the online site of the ADENEX4, a Spanish association which promotes the defence of the Extremadura natural environment. In particular it seems that the evaluation of the natural impact is affected by many irregularities.

First of all it doesn’t present any alternative about the localisation of the dam, its technical characteristics and its volume. So there has never been a possible choice since the project was presented.

Second the restricted competition to obtain recommendations regarding the environmental impact proclaimed by the European Community allowed only 9 days to be presented since the announce was given (25.1.1996 in the official diary of the European communities) and two months for the study of the environmental impact. Two months for what a kind of scientific and complete study? Did someone already have its study in the drawer? And more, if the European directive (85/337/CEE 27.6.1985) states that the main reasons for a particular choice must be specified in the environmental study impact, if no alternative is foreseen in the competition to obtain recommendations the environmental impact study risks to be null and void. No choice, no validity.

Some irregularities are also present in the way of completing the study in the Spanish part. In fact among the 11 volumes of the “Integrated Study of the environmental impact of the Alqueva project” no one is specifically devoted to the Spanish section, so not respecting the minimal content rules for such a study.

In conclusion three European Directives seems to have been infringed: 79/409/CEE (bird protection), 92/43 (habitat conservation) and more 85/337/CEE, which clearly specifies that any decision must be taken only after the impact evaluation, and not before. But a specific company, the E.D.I.A.5, with the name itself clearly stating the localisation of the project, was created by the Portuguese Government in 1995, based on the works already started in 1976 and interrupted in 1978, so well before the presentation of the impact studies.

The curious result of this inversion of phases is that the main goals of the entire project are clearly contradictory: the unlucky term of “minimisation” has been chosen, and repeated hauntingly to try to masque the sad truth. The only correct way of minimising the negative impacts would be to minimise the dam itself.

 Archaeological concerns

The menu of the Alqueva restaurant is now completed by the archaeological side. The minimisation resulted in one of the biggest funding sources for the Portuguese archaeology. Five millions euros were granted, and a public competition was presented at the end of 1996 to find so many people to be involved into the job. Deadline to accomplish the work was fixed in three years, i.e. at the end of the 2000. Each part of the project was conducted under the scientific direction of the most important Portuguese archaeologists. Three hundreds of archaeological sites were examined and/or discovered6, divided in 16 areas, both geographical and chronological. The intervention plan consisted in surveying, digging and studying, while the publication of data will start in 2002. The main archaeological evidences are constituted by the Xerez cromlech, which will be digged and transferred, and by the Lousa castle, a fortified building of the 1st cent. BC, absolutely unique in Portugal. It won’t be transported.

The shocking fact is that the public company responsible for the building of the dam co-ordinates at the same time the archaeological digging and surveying. So it seems that chef and waiters themselves are eating and judging their own deliciousness.

Molino Manzanez, cow figure

But the main course is once more rock-art. Do you prefer it fried or boiled? Or simply underwater? A new Côa -like international rock-art case is growing up, with probably a far worse plight. During the 4th Prehistoric Art course led in March 2001 by the Instituto Politecnico de Tomar, the announce was given of a discovery of a very important rock art area at the site of Molino Monzanez7 (Manzanez mill, Cheles, Badajoz de la Frontera, Spain) with hundreds of engraved rocks. The first impression of many rock art scholars was that also the Portuguese side should have significative rock art presence. The complex was studied in the first months of 2001, under enchargement of the E.D.I.A, by an experienced Spanish team of 15 archaeologists directed by Hipólito Collado Giraldo of the Archaeological Museum of Badajoz. 134 engraved rocks has been found. The documentation project included tracing, recording, and photographic and topographic documentation. As most surfaces are covered by lichens, many other engraved rocks are likely present. A new campaign is foreseen for October 2001.

Comparison between Guadiana and Mt. Bego rock art

The engraving techniques are scratching and pecking. As scratchings are in most cases overlapped by pecking, it is possible to establish a relative chronology. Overlapping are also present between pecked figures. On a very first view the complex seems to present Neolithic-Chalcolithic patterns, with some Paleo-Mesolithic figures. Possible Paleo-Mesolithic figures are constituted by scratched animals, in some cases similar to the Parpallò ones, and by pecked cows. Neolithic-Chalcolithic figures are constituted by circular patterns, in some cases repeated, in some other cases with a diffused dotting or a central point. This phase strictly recall some motifs of the alpine topographic engravings, mainly present at M. Bego (Vallée des Merveilles, zone IV, France) and Valcamonica (Vite, I). In the alpine territory this kind of topographic modules are dated by studying the superimpositions into a final Neolithic – first Copper Age range (prior to 2700 BC calibrated). Very impressive is also the presence of meandering and zig-zagging figures, often covering large parts of the engraved surfaces. The entire complex shows clear connections with the Tagus valley rock-art, submerged by the Fratel dam in the 70’s. It represents at this moment the unique (we hope not the last) large extension in the Iberian peninsula of such a kind of figures.

As foreseen in the Tomar meeting, rock art discoveries arrived also from the Portuguese side. At the end of April 2001 a ten km long rock art area was officially disclosed by an environmental NGO, the LPN, advised by an anonymous tip-off. The Portuguese archaeologist Manuel Calado, from the Lisbon University, immediately reached and controlled the area As it is possible to see from an online gallery9 circular motifs are very similar to the Spanish ones, while constituting for the moment one of the most diffused figures. It seems also that some figures could be turtles ones. Many other complexes are probably present. The differences between Spanish and Portuguese sites will probably result in a great typological variety and richness.

The problem is that in Portugal just two years before the formalisation of the Alqueva project there happened the Côa-case, and that this international case not only fortunately led to the protection of the site by a UNESCO declaration and by the institution of the Côa Park, but also caused a kind of earth-quake in the Portuguese archaeology allowing the creation of the IPA (Institute of Portugues Archaeology) led by João Zilhao and of the CNART (Nacional Center of Rock Art) led by Antonio Martinho Baptista. So why nor the IPA nor the CNART didn’t undertake a rock art related research in the area, although being such a presence highly probable, as said by J. Zilhao on April 2710? And then, as the main goal of the CNART is to study and to preserve the Portuguese rock-art, why no survey fieldwork was undertaken in order to simply detect if there was any engraved rock? Did they look for it? And why the environmental impact study didn’t preview at all an extensive survey to look for it?

Once again the history of Portuguese rock art risks to be transformed into the history of a hidden underwater rock art, as the Tagus rock art teaches11, good to print some books, but not good enough to try to change the situation, with the unique great exception of the Côa Valley rock art saving movement. We must ask ourselves if this conduct and this situation are still acceptable.

The IFRAO already sent an official communicate, asking for the creation of an International Commission encharged to evaluate the entire complex and to promote a complete and exhaustive study of the area. Similar position has been taken by the participants to the Europreart project.

This TRACCE Online Rock Art Bulletin special issue is devoted to the Guadiana river rock art. You are all kindly invited to expose your point of view, your suggestions, your “news” in the Guadiana river forum: we hope it will be useful to obtain a significant result. The maximum of media exposure is needed. And finally we hope that the Alqueva dam, built over two active geological faults, won’t ever cause any kind of damn or disaster.

Mila Simoes de Abreu – Andrea Arcà – Angelo Fossati

  1. http://www.inforegio.org/wbpro/prord/reg_prog/po/prog_632.htm
  2. http://mastercom.bme.es/adenex/alqueva/
  3. http://www.ccr-alt.pt/ccra/indice1.htm, doc_all.doc pp. 124-125
  4. http://mastercom.bme.es/adenex
  5. E.D.I.A., Empresa de Desenvolvimento e Infra-estruturas do Alqueva S. A., constituted by public capitals.
  6. SILVA A. C. – LANCA M. J., 2001. Alqueva, 4 Anos de Investigação Arqueológica, Alqueva, 3° colóquio de arqueologia, E.D.I.A, Mourão
  7. http://rupestre.net/tracce/13/manzanez.html
  8. Liga para a Protecção da Natureza
  9. http://pwp.netcabo.pt/0167542401/noticias/noticias.htm
  10. “Such a discovery was foreseeable, as engravings were discovered three years ago in Spain”, Público, Portuguese newspaper, 27.4.2001, http://noticias.sapo.pt/artigos/CDCIBH%2Ccigfga.html
  11. After 30 years no complete publication relating about the submerged rocks is available.

(links no more working)

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