Varela (1992) points out how agriculture and rural areas in Portugal have undergone troubles and difficulties, since the very beginning of the construction of the Portuguese nation-state (12th century). There have been several attempts to colonize abandoned lands (Colonização interna) and to redistribute the land, in such a way that land tenure is conceded exclusively to whom would effectively cultivate it. However, those attempts have hardly ever been successfully implemented (Varela, 1992).
In 1925 a major project of expropriation to put the land into more productive use and to accommodate the population, that was crowded in some places, into rural areas, was launched (Varela, 1992). Although this project led to expropriation for “public utility” of large areas of land, it did not effectively contribute to the fixation of new populations in formerly extensively used areas. This might be explained by the fact that the ecological conditions of the land made it unsuitable for more intensive cultivation and the land units (lotes, glebas) conceded to new owners being too small to guranatee a living or to allow for savings to be made to invest into the land (Varela, 1992). The small size of the land units conceded to farmers additionally resulted in its inadequately intensive use, leading to its degradation, especially through soil erosion (Varela, 1992).
At the end of the 19th century and up to the 30’s of the 20th century, agricultural policies and interventions were largely focused on the South of Portugal (Varela, 1992). In 1929 the Campanha do Trigo (Wheat campaign) started, focusing on the Alentejo region. Varela (1992) says there were two illusions at play shaping that policy: first the illusion that there were large areas of productive land not being productively used; second, that the use of those lands could guarantee wheat self-sufficiency of the country. Investing into wheat production and protecting it from international competition, put Portuguese agriculture on a track that weakened its capacity to achieve competitive advantages in agricultural production in southern Portugal, years later, when the borders where opened to international trade (Tortella, 1994). The traditional Holm and Cork oak forests with the understorey used for livestock grazing appears to be, nowadays and from an ecological perspective, to be the most appropriate land use system in that region (Varela, 1992).
Portugal was under the dictatorial leadership of Antonio Oliveira de Salazar between 1932-1968, and dictatorship finished on 25th April 1974.The dictatorial regime of Salazar is one of those that lasted longest in 20th century Europe (Lewis, 1978). The existence of countless spies (bufos) (some sources believe 1 in 400 citizens were employed as spies) assured that in Portugal politics was not discussed for almost half a century (Gallagher, 1979) and collective-action and cooperation was reduced to a state-managed minimum.
In 1937 the Junta de Colonização Interna was created, with the aim of putting unproductive land into agricultural use or forestation. The Junta de Colonização Interna started a large forestation project ongoing throughout the decade of the 1940’s, accompanied by the expropriation of the Commons (baldios) from local communities and consequent hardship and rural exodus (Black, 1990). Before, the common lands had an essential contribution for the livelihoods of rural people, allowing the peasants to increase the productivity of their land above the limits of its productive capacity (Black, 1990). Pereira et al (2005) reported the saying “the commons belong to the poor”, showing how the resources of the commons have benefited the most needy and been used as a buffer to improve livelihood security among the poorest people. The expropriation of the commons had a particular negative impact on the rural population in northern and central Portugal (Varela, 1992).
The rural exodus resulting from reduced livelihood security as a consequence of the expropriation of the commons did not free the land for the establishment of larger, industrialized farms, because the emigrants in general did not sell their landholdings, mainly because of job insecurity abroad, because only part of the family migrated or because they envisioned returning (Black, 1990). The emigration of peasants had an important impact on the availability of farm labour, affecting land management practices in a way that negatively affected fertility of the land (Black, 1990).
Cabral (1986) sets 1962 as the year when Portuguese policies underwent a major change, away from aiming at national food self-sufficiency. In 1962 small-scale economically non-viable farms ceased to be seen as valuable and it was defended that they should not be subject to special protectionism, but rather be integrated into the industrializing farming sector.
Until 1986 and the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) no separate agricultural policy was in place in Portugal, but agriculture was considered within the Planos de Fomento. Between 1953 and 1964 there were two national policy plans, considering agricultural development divided into 3 main areas: the development of large-scale irrigation systems, internal colonization and forestation. In these plans the idea that the Commons could be used for a productive agriculture had been almost superseded, however, the intent remained to make the best use of wastelands: now the use of the commons and sand plains of the litoral was prioritized. The focus to increase the productivity of these areas was forestation, rather than agriculture (Varela, 1992). Colonization remained an aim for the areas undergoing the development of hydraulic infrastructure.
Under the regime of Salazar, Portugal was kept away from industrial modernization, in the form it was occurring elsewhere in Europe, and this resulted in the preservation of many features of an agrarian society up to the 80’s. Salazar is said to have resisted for purpose to the expansion of industry in Portugal, for fear of growing opposition to his regime, which could have resulted from an increasing industrial proletariat (Gallagher, 1979). In the 1970’s rural families generally divided their labour force between small-holding agriculture and temporary wage-labour (Riegelhaupt, 1973), because of the difficulty of basing livelihoods on agriculture alone (due to restraints in ecological conditions and limited access to land). This provided cheap seasonal labour for public construction work (Obras públicas) and an industry (Varela, 1992) whose comparative advantage was based mainly on the availability of cheap labour (Riegelhaupt, 1973).
The third Plano de Fomento was never really implemented as a result of the oil crisis of the early 70’s and the change of the regime in 1974. After the revolution, in 1975, the access to the commons was restored (Black, 1990). Government changed 7 times in the two years after the revolution (1974 and 1975), mainly because the MFA (Movimento de Forças Armadas), which had led the revolution, did not have clear goals and was not well organized (Carrington and Lima, 1996).
Nowadays, I would say, the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture, amazes through its realtive honesty, at least in comparison with its European counterparts.
Regarding almost all areas of intervention under the adopted agriculture and rural development plan for the period 2000-2006, the Ministry of Agriculture considers its own achievements insufficient if not unsuccessful (MADRP, 2007).