During our visit to the Portugal’s Algarve Region, as part of Project Wealth: Promoting Local Sustainable Economic Development, we held a discussion about issues relating to local economic development with representatives of the local municipality, community leaders and local entrepreneurs.
In Aljezur – population 6000 – they hold to the belief that “small is beautiful.” “We cultivate the small businesses that rely on local assets: the values of environment and culture, and we invest in supportive platforms,” explained Paulo Oliveira, the municipal director of local investments and development. These are platforms that bind together local businesses involved in tourism, agriculture and the processing of local agricultural goods.
For many years, Aljezur suffered from continuous neglect, which made it difficult for local tourism operators and farmers to make a living. Its distance from the main road diminished tourism and impeded the distribution of agricultural produce. This situation has recently begun to change, and now the village is experiencing a new drive towards sustainable local development.
How did this happen? Europeans from countries like Germany and Denmark, as well as people from other areas in Portugal, recognized the place’s latent potential – its unique natural assets and vistas – and began developing small 3-4 person tourism businesses. Then these entrepreneurs, both “foreign” and local, began forging connections with one another.
Nuno Guimarães, a local entrepreneur and owner of several guest-rooms in a uniquely traditional style at the center of Aljezur
, told us: “early on I understood that ‘globalization is pressing in on us,’ and that if we did not develop a clear vision to define the role and place of the small businesses in developing our local economy, the big international businesses would soon show up to take our place. We no longer had the privilege of being focused each on our own business. We had to unite and formulate a plan of action.”
Based on his realization, Guimarães founded an association dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and partnership/collaborations. The first meeting was attended by twenty-five small business owners, all of whom supported his idea and spoke for its importance. “But,” said Guimarães, “when I asked for volunteers to advance the plan, there was silence. Eventually two of the people I invited showed an interest in helping to lead the process, but the initial reaction made me understand that I would have to develop the idea with a much broader view in mind.” This led Guimarães to initiate a second project, in which he approached schools with the idea of reaching children at a young age and educating them for entrepreneurship, but no less importantly also for social involvement, contribution and community volunteer work.
Guimarães’ project, and others like it, draw their energies from an additional source. Twenty-five percent of the Aljezur’s population emigrated there from other European countries. Their arrival in the community generates positive energies and serves as a meaningful vehicle for the settlement’s economic growth. The community’s expansion has led to the development of the settlement’s municipal services. The municipality provides transportation to school, and is investing in the educational system. The settlement is slowly developing a local solidarity that it has never had before. One of the entrepreneurs told us, “when I got here there were no children’s services, like kindergartens, and now we’re developing much better conditions for living and for business.”
Not all of the participants are in full agreement about the “outsiders’” positive contribution to the settlement. In any case it is important to note that there has been no targeted allocation of resources or prioritizing of outsiders to come and “make Aljezur shine” – neither on the part of the Committee for Regional Coordination and Development in Algarve (CCDR), nor on the part of the municipal authority. On the contrary, the authorities in the area have made efforts to encourage young locals to remain by funding their studies and developing the village’s municipal services.
In some cases the “outsiders” come to stay and integrate into their new locale, but in others they come and go away again. In such cases, claims Antonio Rosa ( a local farmer), it would have been better to prioritize the locals. One example of this is farmer’s markets and festivals organized by the municipal authority. Outsiders take advantage of this platform and arrive at established towns to sell their wares, paying the same price for their stalls as the locals do. In this case, says Rosa, it would have been better had an advantage been given to the local manufacturers.
Aljezur has not drawn only foreign nationals of late, but Portuguese citizens as well. Many people in Portugal are looking to change the way they live, and are drawn to the opportunities this place has to offer. For example, its proximity to a beach with good surfing conditions generates business opportunities for equipment rental and surfing lessons. In many cases the local inhabitants are not aware of these advantages, but their awareness is growing with time, and they are learning to take advantage of them in ways similar to those employed by the “outsiders.”
Tourism is an opportunity for growth, claims Rosa, but being dependent on it can become obstacle risk. It is therefore important to keep developing the agriculture and the processing of its products, and not relying only on tourism. yet the problem is that doing so in not entirely in the locals’ hands. The decision regarding what to invest in is made on a national and not a local level. The CCDR determines where the money will go, and when the money is entirely allocated towards tourism, it is very difficult to make a change.
Guimarães explained, “we as local entrepreneurs can see other points for investment, like investing in local produce – the production of local liqueur or a particular local type of yam – but the problem is that the producer has to get a license for the production stage and the distribution stage, which is a bureaucratic process that is difficult to complete successfully without the aid and interest of the regional government.”
Today, there are organizations that are forging connections and attempting to bridge the gaps between local needs and general policy, grappling with the incompatibility of the national perceptions of development with the work that is actually being done in the field. “Ultimately”, Guimarães claims, “if we think we need to promote agriculture, we need to be more proactive in order to change the situation. We must form a strategy to connect tourism to agriculture, and to promote supportive legislation.”
When we asked Oliveira how he would handle an approach from an investor seeking to start a big business in Aljezur, he immediately answered that he would deny him this possibility. Annamaria Annicchiarico, , Director of Tecnopolis, the most important technological incubator in Puglia region(Italy) who was taking part in the discussion, suggested a different approach to the issue. She pointed out that over protectionism could lead to a deadlock and that in any case a large investor, if not welcomed in Aljezur, could nevertheless find a place in a nearby village and still influence the economy of the entire region. Another way to deal with such requests, which are likely to start coming in sooner or later, is to generate monitoring and impose conditions to encourage local procurement and local hiring, which will leverage the local economy.
The case of Aljezur raises interesting speculative comparisons to the situation in Israel. What would have happened if the heads of our local authorities had stood up to the big investors and dared to set conditions? Would Israel’s local economy have developed any differently?
Written during Project Wealth partners convention, May 2014, in the Algarve region, Portugal, hosted by CRIA, Algarve University, funded by ENPI CBCMED.