Over the course of the last year I’ve been documenting the environmental and social reality associated with the super-intensive olive plantations in the Portuguese region of Alentejo.
Under threat by the growing industry of intensive and super-intensive olive-culture, the Alentejo is the new “El Dorado” serving the international demand for Italian olive oil while being left with serious environmental, public health and social issues imposed by this new agricultural practice. By the end of the harvest season the millions of tons of olive oil produced in Portugal (more than 80% of the total native production) are exported to Spain and Italy to enrich low quality oil and to be sold in foreign countries with an Italian label (i.e. US, Canada and China), in an effort to fit the demand for the “vero Olio d’Oliva Italiano” that both the land and the Italian producers can not match. Sold to intermediaries at 2.5 to 3.5 € / kg, the Portuguese golden oil arrives at the table of the foreign consumer at 50 € / kg.
With the mainstreaming of intensive and super-intensive olive production lines, several Portuguese NGOs have reported deep environmental changes caused by the destruction of the native montado (cork and olm oak forests protected by national and international law) and riparian habitats, soil degradation and contamination of aquifers caused by the dispersion of drugs for pest control. The overburden of the environmental system extends to the industrial sector, where the volume of olive pomace produced in the new oil mills reaches 600 thousand tons forcing its transformation in specialised factories, where byproducts cause the degradation of air quality and the contamination of watercourses.
While olive oil has been produced in this region following traditional techniques for over three-thousand years, these new practices drift away from its history of sustainability and threaten the life and livelihood of generations to come.