Communal Lands (Portugal)

Communal lands were essential for the survival of communities in pre-modern societies being traditionally used for cultivation or grazing, collecting wood or stone for buildings, bushes for fuel or for fertilization, honey production, etc. In Portugal, they have survived to this day, despite the attacks that were driven mainly from the second half of the eighteenth century by an adverse state inspired by liberal thinking and by a fierce and powerful rural bourgeoisie who anxiously wanted to lay hands on these lands. The fact that communities have had to face attacks from different antagonists (feudal nobility, gentlemen farmers, landowning bourgeoisie, physiocratic, liberal and positivist thinkers, modern state administration) has strengthened ties and strengthened collective action in communities.

The recognition of community property by the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic of 1976 was an opportunity to recreate new forms of use of common goods more appropriate to contemporary realities. Some of these ways were aimed at revitalizing communities through collective action and investment in material and social capital; some other ways have sought to broaden and diversify access to the use of common goods in order to meet the demands of external users such as tourism, sports or leisure agencies. In these cases, the activities carried out could involve a high degree of commodification, unlike what happened in the first ones.

The aim of the research was to identify the changes in the use of communal land in Portugal and to analyze under which conditions it could support the revitalization of rural areas in decline. This research allows for a debate on the future of communal lands in Portugal and on the challenges that new uses of these lands bring up to local economies, but also for an assessment how one of the most ancient and basic forms of sharing resources is adjusting to new circumstances.

The research useda case study method focused on a single entity, the communal lands of the Lousã mountain, in Central Portugal, historically divided into different communities whose mode of use of the land evolved in contrasting ways as mentioned above: either towards the strengthening of communal identity or towards an investment on local tourism by offering a wide range of services.

Ethnographic observation, interviews, and documental analysis were the main research tools involved in the study. Fieldwork has been carried since 2014.

Researcher: Pedro Hespanha.