This is a follow-up to a previous blog post, Artisanal Portuguese salinas: remembering the past, building the future.
For many centuries, the salt extraction industry was among Portugal’s main economic activities, a catalyst for internal and external commercial growth. Although it was visibly responsible for boosting population in several coastal regions, from the mid-20th century onwards it also became clear that the salt industry faced a deep crisis in the form of territorial pressures, changes in the hydric system, the development of cold storage techniques and competition from low-price industrial salt. The resulting low rate of profitability led to an increasing desertion of artisanal salinas and their subsequent destruction, frequently with the intention of converting them into fish farms.
The abandonment of traditional salt-making has had its strongest impact on the human dimensions of the activity, especially as most of the knowledge regarding this traditional technique used to be transmitted orally. Once the activity is abandoned, all of the traditions, legends and beliefs connected to salt are slowly lost along with the tools, devices and infrastructures that are left behind. Because of the importance that artisanal salinas have had in Portuguese history, commerce and development, together with a substantial cultural tradition, they must not be extinguished. Apart from the ethical obligation to preserve our heritage for future generations, salinas present a wide variety of other values that justify their conservation.
Portuguese salinas are located in wetlands of exceptional natural interest. In recognition of their importance in the context of biodiversity maintenance and natural resource conservation, the salinas have been awarded various protection statuses, under the remit of international conventions (e.g. Ramsar, Bona, Berna, Biodiversity), European directives (e.g. Birds, Habitats – Natura Network 2000) and national protection schemes (e.g. Portugal – RNAP –National Protected Areas Network).
These artisanal salinas also represent real sanctuaries for biodiversity, allowing for the coexistence of a great variety of organisms, albeit within slightly confined areas. The varying depths of the salina ponds and geological conditions necessary for the salt production process favor a high degree of spatial heterogeneity, and the resulting microenvironments are attractive to many primary and secondary consumers. Such conditions are tolerated by aquatic communities with complex cycles and interspecific relationships, as well as species that are highly specialized for life in this environment.
These special ecosystems serve as important bird habitats, either as wintering areas, transitory sites along the migration route or even nesting spots. As well as wide availability of food, salinas provide sheltered areas in case of adverse weather conditions and enjoy the advantage of not suffering the daily influence of tides. Thus, some authors suggest that the presence of salinas may increase the carrying capacity of the wetland where they are located, increasing their environmental value and their international ornithological importance.
Artisanal salinas are living elements of a millenarian knowledge and almost-lost technology, producing a high quality product that is entirely natural. Furthermore, they also perform a critical role in nature conservation and biodiversity.
The abandonment and transformation that European saltscapes have been subjected to since the 1970s have resulted in the creation of specific projects for their safekeeping, a cause that found a voice through International Organizations (including UNESCO, INSULA, MedWet and Ramsar Convention), locally active NGOs, universities, investigation centers, museums, their managers and owners, as well as local developers and authorities. As a result, Portuguese artisanal salinas located in certain regions of the country (notably Aveiro, Figueira da Foz, Leiria, Rio Maior and Castro Marim), alongside salinas in several other European counties, were targeted for diverse interventions. These included well-managed European-funded projects (e.g. ALAS Project – 2002 to 2003; Interreg IIIB – ARC ATLANTIC Project – 2004 to 2007; Interreg IVB Ecosal Atlantis Project – 2010 to 2012) and investments of several million euros, with varying degrees of long-term success. The objectives of these projects went beyond the valorization of “traditional salt” as a product and the salt profession itself, in order to stop its disappearance in favor of integration into an economy that values quality over quantity, including sustainable tourism and parallel activities.
Tourism has developed in artisanal salinas as an alternative economic resource for local development, creating new sites of interest, reviving traditional techniques and customs, preventing the desertification of entire villages and the eradication of salt production by traditional methods. However, not all forms of tourism are appropriate for the fragile saline environment. The proposed forms are cultural, gastronomic and ecological, based on environmental studies in the area, and should protect the unique characteristics and resources of these environments.
The afore-mentioned projects have led to the restoration of abandoned salinas and typical salt warehouses. Aside from salt production, regular organized visits include demonstrations of salt culture, bringing culture and environment together with education, as visitors familiarize themselves with the salt activity of the region and discover its local history from various angles.
Saltscapes have much to offer beyond salt production, from architectural and aesthetic interest to biodiversity. Paths and trails have been organized for visitors to discover salinas in a pleasant and relaxing environment encompassing diverse elements: technical (walls, canals and ponds), architectural (lines, shapes and water planes), natural (marshes, sand dunes) and biodiverse (rare halophytic communities, extraordinary salt-tolerant species, hypersaline wetland-loving birds). Another positive outcome of salina restoration is the creation of salt museums and interpretive centers to disseminate knowledge about how they have changed over time, culturally, ecologically and economically.
Salinas may also provide products that contribute to the protection of their associated heritage. For instance, in the inland salinas of Rio Maior (in the center of Portugal) most of the old typical salt warehouses, built with wood to avoid salt corrosion, were recovered and are now working as shops. Craftwork is sold along with regional salt products, including “Fleur de sel” and salt or flower cheeses – the latter two are especially popular provisions from the Rio Maior salinas. Their designation refers to the shape of the cheese – salt from the salina, still moist, is molded and exposed to the sun for several days before it is taken to a wood-fired oven. Other recovered salt warehouses have been turned into small taverns where tourists can sample regional recipes and products whilst enjoying a wonderful view of the salinas.
Festivals are also organized in salinas and tourists can take part, learning about local foods, traditional dances and music in the process. The “Salt Feast” held at the Rio Maior salinas is an annual event known for its gastronomic gatherings and regional delicacies. Historical recreations are also performed, committed to keeping the memory of artisanal salt production alive.
The current world trend towards ecotourism favors alternative forms of tourism, considered to be gentle, green and environment-conscious. In this context of greater environmental awareness among tourists, conservation and improvement of natural resources are regarded as priority actions. Artisanal salinas, once on a path towards extinction, are now mandatory destinations for those seeking new places of great natural beauty. They offer the possibility of observing something genuinely traditional and culturally authentic, as well as an escape from the classic travelling routes and mass tourism programs that use natural resources to the point of exhaustion, with adverse effects on the environment they claim to protect.
With thanks to Nelson Afonso, Sónia Ferreira Pinto and to Tourism of Rio Maior, for giving us permission to use their photographs.
Trips to salinas were supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), through the projects PTDC/MAR/108369/2008 and PesT-C/Mar/LA0015/2011, through FCT, COMPETE, QREN and EU funds.
Carolina Rodrigues, Researcher at Ciimar (BI of the project PTDC/MAR/108369/2008).
Natividade Vieira, Researcher at Ciimar, Professor at FCUP, Aquatic Biosystems Editorial Board member.