An agroforest at my window: MedTOWN in Portugal through the eyes of a volunteer

Diogo Palha - Lisbon / MedTOWN

We close this series of articles about our Portuguese team & Demonstrative Action: Bela Flor Agroforest, sharing here this precious testimony about the significance of MedTOWN project’s field work in Portugal for the people and the community that make it possible. You can read the original text in Portuguese and more about the Bela Flor Agroforest here


An agroforest at my window

By Leandro Myslo (volunteer and neighbour at Bela Flor)

On the 5th August, a Thursday, I decided to spend most of my day at Campolide Agroforest, curiously located in front of the living room window of the house where I grew up and lived most of my life. It's true that I've been there several times, in short and punctual visits, but this was the first time I went in full, without counting the hours, with the sole purpose of getting to know this project in greater depth. 

On a small hillside, between the gates of Duarte Pacheco viaduct, which gives access to a very busy highway, and the back of a row of buildings joined together horizontally, in the Bela Flor neighbourhood, the day begins with the lightness and serenity that we can find in a forest. 

On one side of the slope we have the reflection of the city's agitation, sustained by a giant agglomeration of cars, driven by people who live at a frenetic speed to keep to their schedules. On the other, we have a remnant of the tranquillity of a village, due to customs brought from other times, and the rural environments from which the oldest inhabitants of the neighbourhood came. 

In the middle we have virtue, Campolide´s Agroforest, a piece of wasteland that has been reused by a group of entities, who came together to bridge the gap between both sides. In previous generations, this place has served as a house, a garage, a source of food, and over the years, it ended up forgotten and abandoned.

The Bela Flor Respira project, through the revitalization of this space, managed to regenerate, not only its soil, but also the sense of community that was beginning to dissipate due to the pressure of modern times, and the technological evolution that pushes us more and more into our private sphere.

This pressure leads us, little by little, to lose social skills, and to disconnect from our human nature. It is true that the very location and structure of the neighbourhood naturally confer a certain resistance to this pressure of contemporary life. It's a small place, with green spaces in abundance, with a privileged view to the Monsanto, and whose access by car is made through a single road that ends in a cul-de-sac - a detail that promotes a greater proximity between neighbours, and makes the street a safe place for children to play freely, something that I consider a luxury in a European capital. 

However, these advantages alone are not enough to preserve certain values. As a resident for over twenty-five years, I know from empirical knowledge that it is easy to forget what a privilege it is to live in this place. We tend to long for what exists beyond our home, and only when someone else sees gold in our ceiling do we remember to look up.

Here, a group of activists with little or no connection to the neighbourhood came on the scene and recognised its potential for developing and implementing a pilot project that consists of transforming green spaces in the city into forests that generate food. In this way, they reopened the doors of the neighbourhood to the rest of the world. 

Joaquim, with the appearance of a viking, and the wisdom of a native, is responsible for introducing the syntropic agriculture techniques used in the agroforest, and for sharing this knowledge with the rest of the community, and with any and all enthusiasts that pass through. 

If three years ago we could find in this place various species of waste, that is to say rubbish, today we can find various horticultural species, fruit trees and also aromatic herbs

In syntropic agriculture, besides favouring the maintenance and reintroduction of native species, the cultivated crops are combined with each other in parallel lines, in order to take advantage of the different characteristics of this association and the land. In this type of agriculture, apparently disorganised, the creation of empty spaces between crops is avoided, in order to maximise the process of photosynthesis that makes the system more vigorous.

Herbicides and insecticides are not used either, because unlike traditional agriculture, insects and living organisms are seen as helpers in signalling possible deficiencies in the productive ecosystem. The waste resulting from pruning the trees and shrubs, a technique for accelerating the process of natural succession, is reused to feed the soil with nutrients. What is also returned to the soil are the residues left over from crops, this makes for an enrichment of the soil as the crop cycle progresses. As Lavoisier would say, here nothing is lost, everything is transformed.

At first, the presence of this group in the borough was strange, but it was Cátia Sá who became entranced by the project's presence in the lives of the residents - particularly the children who love being around them so much. She is the person responsible for the social part of the project and it makes perfect sense that they chose her to be the bridge between the project and the community.

Cátia is a wild spirit, that is, a person of free nature who questions social conventions. The only rule she follows is that every step she takes must be in line with the intentions of her soul. Endowed with an incredibly fertile imagination, she sometimes seems to belong to another world, a world where it is impossible to conceive a strictly rational vision, such as the one we tend to create in the one we live in, and where we try to define and categorize all aspects of life - a mistake I myself made when trying to figure out her age, something I still don't know, and which matters so little. When I look at Cátia I see the curiosity of a child, the determination of an adult, and the serenity of an elderly person, I see them all in one. 

These characteristics made her naturally attract some of the people of the neighbourhood, searching, listening and welcoming, with all her simplicity, the aspirations and restlessness of their souls. This is how I met her, a year ago, while walking my dog near the agroforest, and when I finally got to know what she was doing, a group of "strangers", at the back of my building, to which I looked with suspicion through the living room window. As a resident of a social neighbourhood, and someone who has collaborated and founded community projects, I can assure you that it is in the lack of these qualities that many projects fail.

In the morning, when I arrived at the agroforest, I noticed a movement above the usual, something common on days when special activities take place with other partners. In this case, it was Jardins Abertos [Open Gardens], a festival that opens the gates of the most beautiful gardens in Lisbon, as they describe themselves, and they were there collecting images and information.

The first person I met was Isabel, welcoming me with her usual genuine smile that makes anyone feel at home. Isabel is a volunteer in Campolide's Agroforest since it materialized in the territory, and it seems to me that she is also Cátia's right arm in this bridge with the people. When I saw her I was chatting with Dona Jacinta, one of the oldest residents of Bela Flor, and also a frequenter of this space where she shares her stories in exchange for tea leaves. Not knowing yet where to turn, I joined them in conversation for a while. 

I met Isabel precisely at the moment Cátia first approached me. She loves hugs and life stories, and hers has already taken many turns, but that doesn't mean she doesn't live each day as if it were the first. She constantly questions life in order to discover more about herself and her mission. In this discovery, she understands that her purpose is to find projects that are already on the ground, with or without difficulties, that she believes have an impact and are in line with her world vision, and then to understand in what way she can collaborate and add so that they get off the ground, or get on the right track.

We were near the entrance to the vegetable garden of Fátima, a neighbourhood resident who has a little corner of her own duly fenced off in the same space. She grows some food there using traditional agriculture techniques, although today she already applies some of the methods she learnt in the agroforest. In this detail, we can see how inclusive and communitarian this project is, as when they settled in the neighbourhood, they did so in a way that respected the integrity of this space, and in a way that enhanced what already existed there.

Fátima established a relationship of trust with the project promoters, so much so that she gave them the keys to her yard, so that they could have more space to store material, and also to water their crops during her absence, as she is currently out of the country for health reasons. 

I learnt all this while talking to Isabel, inside the fence, and after my curiosity was aroused when I saw Cátia coming in to do the watering. Isabel had come in right after to pick some cabbage leaves for Dona Jacinta, and I took advantage of the ride and, at the same time, asked some questions with the desire to know more. We started talking about Fatima's backyard, and using cabbages as a metaphor, we moved on to questions about allowing ourselves, besides sowing, to harvest experiences to nourish our soul, and finally, we ended up talking about love.

Still during the morning, just before the shared lunch, which I was unable to attend for professional reasons, I was invited to give my testimony about the project to one of the cameras of the Jardins Abertos organization.

After lunch, when I returned to the agroforest, and meet Cátia at the chapel (space lent by the Bela Flor Housing Cooperative), I had agreed to accompany her in the afternoon activities with the children, and by whom I was already surrounded when I entered there. They were all gathered at a round table, with a white top whose colour was barely visible, covered with paints, and pieces of wood donated by the Junta de Freguesia [District Council] of Campolide, which were being painted to serve as identification plates for the plantations. 

I sat comfortably amongst them, observing their enthusiasm for what they were doing, and started to talk to Cátia, a task made difficult by the natural agitation of the children, whose voices overlapped as they fought for her attention. Still, I learnt more about the project from her perspective as a community facilitator, and an interesting conversation about the impact of social networks on human relationships.

Once the identification plates were finished and the activity room was tidy, this was the most awaited moment for the children, pool time. In the agroforest, where we returned to, more specifically in Fátima's backyard, there is an orange bowl and a white baby bath, which are used in the summer as swimming pools, something that is already a tradition for them. If both objects seem too small to accommodate five children, their creativity makes everything possible, sometimes taking turns, sometimes hosing them down, while they also do the usual watering. Nothing seems to stop them from playing and cooling off in the water during these days of intense heat. This is how the soil of the land is nourished, and so is the soul of these children.

In the meantime, I decided to go for a walk and get to know the corners of the house better on my own initiative. That's when I spotted Alessandro, who was reinforcing the structure, made of reeds, which ensures the healthy growth of the Tomato Plant.

Alessandro, who is to Joaquim what Isabel is to Cátia, was born in Brazil, and has lived in various parts of the world. He currently lives in Portugal with his partner, a place he chose to reconnect with himself and live a more conscious life. When he discovered agroforestry, inspired by Joaquim's wisdom, he also discovered a place where he could strengthen this reunion with his inner nature, and ended up becoming a regular volunteer in this project, where we can find him every Thursday. 

I had already crossed paths with him in my short visits, but we never crossed the line of greeting, he seemed to me someone very introspective. That afternoon, intrigued by his state of presence, and the attention he dedicated to his task, I approached him to find out more about what he was doing. The conversation lasted for about an hour, something we realised at the end of the day, only by a sign from Cátia who was beginning to tidy up the material. 

It was very easy to connect with Alessandro, so time flew by as we talked about life. I saw myself in many of his questions, in a conversation so rich that I could only have with someone endowed with such sensibility, and such presence as the one he revealed to me.

After this testimony, I have very few words left to conclude this project. If I had to define the agroforest of Campolide in one sentence, I would say that it is a place where nature is sovereign, and where human energy rises.

Bela Flor Agroforest in Campolide (Lisbon) is MedTOWN project's Demonstrative Action in Portugal conducted by our partner, Junta de Freguesia de Campolide. MedTOWN is developing six Demonstrative Actions in six locations, six cities across the Mediterranean, experimenting with social innovation, such as this one implemented in Portugal, or similar formulas.

The MedTOWN project "Co-production of social policies with social and solidarity economy (SSE) actors to fight poverty, inequality and social exclusion" is a cooperation project funded by the European Union through the ENI CBC Med 2014-2020 Programme, involving 9 partner entities, and as many associates, from 6 countries (Spain, Greece, Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia and Portugal) with a total budget of 3.4 million (86.5% programme contribution).