At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, André Vieira shares a collection of images from Portugal.
The Barroso, in northern Portugal, is part of the historical province of Trás os Montes — “behind the hills,” in Old Portuguese. It’s one of the nation’s most isolated areas, known for its harsh climate, rough terrain and stunning beauty. Its residents are sometimes dismissively (and wrongly) portrayed as simple and unsophisticated. The truth is that their profound attachment to their land and traditions make Trás os Montes one of the most culturally unique parts of the country.
Isolation has made the traditions here particularly rich and diverse. Ancient Catholic rites have combined with the cultural vestiges from the many other peoples who, over several centuries, have found their way to the region: Visigoths, Celts, Romans, the soldiers of Napoleon’s army.
To survive the unforgiving geography, residents of the Barroso have, over time, developed a complex farming system that relies on the collective management of the water, forests and pastures used by their animals. This method has helped keep the soil fertile, the rivers and springs clean, and the landscape unblemished.
It is a system based on self-sufficiency, where residents eat what they grow, bake their own bread (often in their village’s ancient community oven), step on grapes from their orchards to make wine, and slaughter hogs to make sausages and ham — which they smoke above their kitchen’s fireplace.
In 2018, the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization included the distinctive region on its list of “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems.” It was among the first European sites to receive such designation. The title was a morale booster for residents, who benefited from the new status by highlighting the environmentally friendly way in which their products are made and promoting the region as a prime location for ecotourism.
I come from Brazil, but my great-grandfather grew up in a village in Trás os Montes before migrating to South America. Portugal, once the seat of one of the richest empires in the world, has been beset in recent history by deep poverty, especially in the countryside. In search of a better life, millions of Portuguese emigrated to the country’s former colonies and richer countries in Europe. Many of those migrants were from Trás os Montes.
In late 2017, tired of living in post-Olympic Rio de Janeiro, I decided to move to Portugal, where photography became my way of getting to know a country which, despite my family origins, I knew only superficially. When I read about the region’s U.N. designation, I realized there was something special about my family’s roots that I wasn’t aware of, a perspective that my work as a photographer could give me the privilege of exploring in depth — which I did over many trips until the coronavirus pandemic hit.
My first stop was at the village of Vilarinho Seco, considered one of the best-preserved examples of the traditional architecture of the Barroso, with houses made of rustic stone, often with a shed for the animals on the ground floor, ornate granite granaries next to them, and public water fountains lining the streets every few hundred yards. Vilarinho is in one of the highest parts of the Barroso, at about 3,300 feet above sea level, in the middle of a windswept plateau.
A cold and wet fog covered the landscape on my first visit, limiting visibility. I roamed the streets of the village without meeting a soul, until I heard the faint and approaching sound of jingling bells. Soon, small groups of cows emerged from the mist, orderly marching in single file to their sheds to spend the night. Soon the village was full of life, with neighbors greeting each other in their muddy boots and wet clothes, taking time for a chat before heading home to sit around the fire, have dinner and end another hard day of work.
My first acquaintance in town was Elias Coelho, the patriarch of one of the oldest families in the village. He seemed to have something to discuss with everyone who walked by. It didn’t take long for him to invite me to his home, with a blazing fireplace in the kitchen and rows of sausages and smoked ham hanging from the ceiling above it.
“Here we make everything at home,” he proudly explained, pouring wine into my glass.
Clinging to his arm like a koala was Beatriz, his two-year-old granddaughter, the youngest resident of Vilarinho Seco. Her seven-year-old sister, Bruna, is the second youngest. There are no other children close to their age for them to play with, but most grown-ups seem to take the responsibility of looking after them as they freely roam around the village.
“Life here was very hard. Many people have left,” he said, lamenting the potential loss of the village and its traditions. “The young don’t want the heavy work in the fields anymore.”
Covas do Barroso, some 15 minutes south of Vilarinho by car, sits at around 2,000 feet above sea level. Its architecture is similar to that of Vilarinho Seco, but the landscape here is very different. The village lies on the edge of a valley, surrounded by forests of pine and oak. A pristine stream courses through it, and seemingly every house has an orchard full of grapevines and persimmon trees.
The coronavirus pandemic has largely spared the Barroso, which has benefited from its isolation. Montalegre, one of the region’s two municipalities, had fewer than 200 cases and one death since March. Boticas, the other municipality, managed to make it into November without a single infection. It’s now dealing with an outbreak of around 30 cases.
But the large Barroso diaspora, which returns each summer from all over the globe to the place they still call home, was also affected. Many still came, though they were largely denied the celebrations that make up a big part of the experience: the shared wine and food, the village festivals, the traditional games, songs and dances.
The region faces other threats, too. In 2019, residents of Covas were surprised by the news that a mining company was awarded a permit, given by the Portuguese government, to extract lithium in the mountains surrounding the village. Another company won the rights to mine near the village of Morgade, some 40 minutes away.
The news brought about fierce opposition from residents. Eventually, the companies were forced to delay their plans and produce a detailed environmental impact report for their projects.
“The government is always complaining that the interior of the country keeps losing population. Well, we are the ones who chose to stay and raise our families here. We are here out of choice, not because of a lack of options. And now they come to threaten our way of life,” said Nelson Gomes, one of the leaders of the resistance movement in Covas do Barroso. “They talk about the jobs that will be created, but they don’t realize that those are much less than the livelihoods that will be destroyed.”
Mr. Gomes’s close friend Paulo Pires would be among those most affected if the mining plans proceed, since its processing site would be built a little more than a quarter mile from his property.
Mr. Pires is one of the few residents of Covas who raises sheep instead of cattle. Most of the pastures where they graze are either collectively owned by the village or located on the area’s wild mountainsides, much of which, he said, might be affected — or destroyed — by the mine.
One day, we discussed the mine while returning his flock to its shed. Waiting for them inside were the baby lambs, a crowd of jumping cotton balls. Mr. Pires spread fresh dry hay on the ground. Outside the sky was turning purple, the sun setting behind the mountains on the opposite end of the valley — the mountains that contain the main vein of lithium crossing the region. After he let the mothers in, we went outside to stare at the landscape as the evening set in.
“The mining company offered a ridiculously low amount as compensation for my property. But even if it was good, what would I do with it?” he said. “Why would I want to leave a place like this?”
André Vieira is a photographer based in Portugal. You can follow his work on Instagram.