The southern Portuguese region of the Alentejo is under threat by the growing industry of intensive and super-intensive olive industry. Serving the international demand for olive oil, the Alentejo is considered to be the new “El Dorado” attracting big corporations that explore the land creating serious environmental, public health issues, while exploring a new breed of immigrants that work and live under inhumane conditions.
There are around 100,000 acres of super-intensive olive groves around the world, of which 12,000 are in Portugal. The first major difference from traditional olive farms is the number of trees per hectare. While in the traditional model there are 75 to 125 trees per hectare, some of them still standing today with over 500 years, in the intensive model there are about 300 trees with a life expectancy of 30 years. In the super-intensive plantation system, about 2000 non-native trees per hectare are obtained, requiring weekly to monthly application of drugs for pest control.
In Portugal this new agro-industry of olive culture emerged with the implementation of the Alqueva irrigation plan following the construction of the largest artificial lake of Western Europe. Since 2009 foreign corporations (mostly Spanish) started to look at the Alentejo and the Alqueva as an opportunity to expand their production line, investing over 200 million euros in the acquisition of land and in the construction of highly advanced olive mills.
Over the course of the last decade Portugal quadrupled its oil production and tripled its exports. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, Portugal witnessed an increase of over 80% of its production compared to the previous year, reaching close to 500 thousand euros in olive oil exports.
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.
Plus, the lack of manpower required for the new crops of intensive olive groves forces the hiring of workers through intermediaries, promoting the creation of human trafficking networks that feed new forms of slavery in the XXI century. Although the work is payed, the working and living conditions to which the workers are subjected are inhuman, and from their wages are discounted the price of housing and food. Most workers come from Asian countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan) and Eastern Europe (Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro) moving across the region looking for work according to the harvest season.
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.