Village doomed by a dam no one needs

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The hamlet of Luz in the parched Alentejo region of eastern Portugal has lived with the prospect of extinction for 40 years, but villagers now accept that their homes really will soon be submerged beneath the waters of Europe's biggest dam.

The hamlet of Luz in the parched Alentejo region of eastern Portugal has lived with the prospect of extinction for 40 years, but villagers now accept that their homes really will soon be submerged beneath the waters of Europe's biggest dam.

"We've talked about this since we were children, a fantasy that might never happen," said Ermelinda Godinho, 56, as she fed two hungry lambs in her backyard, a bottle of milk in each hand. "We know the day is coming because roads and bridges are ready and the new village is taking shape. But we won't really feel it until we leave. That'll be a shock."

The grandiose scheme, dreamt up in the 1950s by the former Salazar dictatorship, is nearly complete. Picturesque white-walled Luz will drown next year beneath a 150-sq-mile reservoir. The 400 inhabitants will move to a new village two miles away on higher, stonier, land. Already they make glum weekend pilgrimages to inspect the building work.

"They said my house would be the same size," said Dona Joaquina Rosa, 67, stepping cautiously amid shoals of rubble to show me the concrete shell of her future home, "but they measured the inside walls, not the outside, and my old walls are 18 inches thick, so the plot is smaller. I'd rather stay put, but what can we do?"

The plan was to harness precious water from the Guadiana river to irrigate farmland and bring prosperity to one of Europe's deepest pockets of rural poverty. But Alqueva dam has been criticised as a behemoth, already obsolete, more likely to benefit the millionaire owners of golf courses proliferating throughout the Alentejo for rich foreign tourists.

The Café Regato ("Stream") in Luz was enlivened on Sunday night by a pair of accordionists playing a lilting threestep as they were plied with local wine. But roughly printed poems pinned to the walls indicate sadder feelings. "Cursed be the Dam," one began. Such gestures are the most that Luz has mustered by way of resistance. "We tried to negotiate a smaller dam, but we lack the strength," said Horacio Guerra, after handing his accordion to a neighbour. Mr Guerra, who was parish leader 10 years ago, quit when he knew his village was doomed.

Villagers have insisted, however, on taking their graveyard with them when they move - and that, says the present parish leader, Francisco Oliveira, is his biggest headache. "Moving the cemetery touches people's deepest private feelings, which we must respect. It's a specialist operation, and we've recruited anthropologists and psychologists to handle it. We'll probably take the soil because it's consecrated ground. To be honest I'm not sure how we'll do it."

A ruined Roman fortress guards the once-bustling Guadiana river trading route outside Luz. The slack waterway meanders round tussocky islets. A fisherman sat by his line and a goatherd in a long sheepskin cape watched seven goats scratching at leathery herb bushes. "My house is decrepit," the goatherd said, "but I want to stay. I spent 50 years building it, bit by bit."

All Portugal's parties supported Salazar's project, even after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, although doubts halted work in the Eighties. Socialists and Conservatives wanted to boost a region where poor farmers had seized big estates and demanded expropriation. Communists thought it would provide jobs.

But Vitaly, 25, a Ukrainian working on the new village, says he has no Portuguese workmates. "Brazilians, Ukrainians, Angolans, yes. But no Portuguese wants this work. I earn $3 an hour and send $600 a month to my parents. It's a fortune for them."

At Alqueva, 12 miles downstream, a wall of concrete rears into the luminous sky. Locals strolled by on a Sunday outing. "It's big and ugly, but I suppose we need it," one reckoned. "But it's too late, the Alentejo's dead. Everybody's gone. Farmers are fined if they exceed European tomato or wheat quotas. They're subsidised to produce nothing, so what's the point of irrigating farmland?"

Tourism rather than farming is seen as the region's salvation. The authorities talk of small-scale rural tourism, but no plans or infrastructure exist. Rather, speculators with fortunes from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao are developing eight golf courses in the Alentejo, some in protected areas. With the Algarve overdeveloped, businessmen expect Alqueva water to supply new tourist ventures that will produce cascades of riches.

"People think irrigation will create Scotland here," scoffs the influential commentator Miguel Sousa Tavares, who lives locally. "But this won't become Scotland any more than Portuguese cork trees would flourish in the Highlands." The dam reflects a "Texas syndrome", he reckons: the belief that concrete is good and biggest is best. "It's a national disease."

In Luz, which means Light, a poster taped to a bus shelter announces a forthcoming bullfighting festival. "We will do everything to make this another happy memory of this beautiful village, condemned to the waters of progress," the poster proclaims bravely.

"We're quite afraid of the future," Mr Oliveira says. "I've been handed this baby and I have to bring it up. But our hands are tied, our voice is ignored. We haven't the power to change the smallest thing. When the village is flooded we should plant a flag to mark the spot and remember the sacrifice that was made."