The village of Santo Estêvão is frozen in time, as it happened to a few other villages in central Portugal. This post explains why.

Santo Estêvão or Saint Stephen in English owes its name to the first martyr of Jesus Christ. He was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities and then stoned to death during his trial. The irony is that the destiny of Santo Estêvão the village seems to be the same as Stephen the saint – “Death”. The village has lost nearly all permanent inhabitants due to the rural exodus that has taken place over the last 50 years. Sérgio Costa was the last person to be born in the village.

Agricultural shift

To understand what happened to Santo Estêvão, central Portugal (and around the world in general), one must know what agriculture represents to us. Agriculture once represented a whole new level of human evolution, similar to the industrial revolution just 10 000 years earlier. The nomad lifestyle in search of fruits, roots and animals to hunt, has gradually changed to a settled lifestyle. It meant the end of the struggle for uncertain and precarious subsistence. Walled enclosures on the heights of the mountains were built. The production and storage of food, the social division of labour (professions) began. Once upon a time agriculture represented the greatest shift from us to the rest of the animals.

Canastro in Santo Estêvão
Canastro or caniço, is a structure usually made of stone and wood, with the function of drying the thick corn through the lateral fissures, and at the same time preventing the destruction of the same by rodents through the elevation of this. Because corn requires harvesting in the fall, it needs to be as airy as possible to dry in a season as bad as winter

Last Century

Particularly during the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s Santo Estêvão was a village where struggles prevailed. This was mainly due to the tough dictatorship as well as the increasing number of families (around 50 people lived in Santo Estêvão in this period) who struggled to find enough land to farm. During this period, people were not landowners were forced to offer themselves to those who were to work their land in exchange of a fourth, or even half of the resulting products. For instance, if one cow gives birth to two calves one would belong to the landlord.

Farming was centered in the production of maize since it provided food all year around for the animals and could be “easily” milled into flour to bake bread. Animals in turn are raised as livestock, to produce commodities such as milk, eggs, meat, wool and the important fertilizer for the land. Cows were the most “respected” animals in Santo Estêvão as well as in regions of medium altitude. Cows were the source of animal labour to farm the land and their calves were also usually sold for money, often the only monetary income of the year. The generation of 1950s, 60s and 70s were obliged to emigrate illegally to France, Brazil and migrate legally to Lisbon.

The bullock Cart is one of the most primitive and simplest means of transportation, is mainly used for the transportation of rural goods. Nowadays is rarely seen, even in rural areas. This one is fabricated with wood (from chestnut trees) and casted iron. Traditionally is pulled by two cows.

Current situation

This spring was once upon a time the main water supply of the village. The first reservoir on the right was for the villagers to collect drinkable water. The two iron rods serve to support the jars while they get filled with water. The second reservoir in green was drinkable water for the animals. The other two reservoirs on the left were used to wash the cloths and the animals could not reach them

Nowadays agriculture is heavily industrialized all over the planet with only a few spots remaining where one can observe traditional agricultural techniques that remain unchanged over the centuries. Around Santo Estêvão there are villages where farmers still use their cows to work the soil. This type of agriculture is not generally well perceived by an overly consumerist society and the low level of income makes it an activity not suitable for today’s needs. People are not willing to go back to a lifestyle based on subsistence agriculture and these very hilly areas are not suitable for industrialization. What else can save villages like Santo Estêvão from being completely abandoned?

Besides the physical differences between goats and sheep is the behavior that really puts them apart. Goats are more curious and independent, while sheep tend to be more distant and aloof. This can be clearly seen in this picture where all goats are guiding and attentive all the sheep are distracted. More about sheep here.

The sustainable rustic shift – ecorustics?

Despite the draconian challenges to revive the countryside, this is a very important priority that we face. Only a well-preserved countryside can be attractive for retreat holidays where one can charge batteries from the constant stress. If there are not basic services provided in the region, visitors can not enjoy they stay without worrying about essential needs. At them moment, with our lodging offer we have attracted people from all over the world as you can see in our Airbnb page. Last year we have hosted around 50 groups, some people from Canada, Germany, UK, Australia, France, Italy and also Portugal. One of our hosts, Rob, presented us with the drawing below. Visit us and find out how the real view looks like.

Do you know about villages that have been abandoned or on the contrary are a success story? Do you have suggestion to revive the countryside?

Let us know in the comments !

Sketch of the main street “Rua Principal” made by Rob, one of the visitors of the village in 2018. Thanks Rob!