Production Dips in Portugal, but Not for Long

The completion of a $6-billion dam in the south of the country could hold the key to sustaining Portugal's dramatic increase in olive oil production, but it does not come without its critics and controversies.

Agriculture Secretary Luís Medeiros Vieira (Photo by Ivan Markelov for Olive Oil Times)
By Daniel Dawson and Curtis Cord
Dec. 12, 2018 07:56 UTC
Agriculture Secretary Luís Medeiros Vieira (Photo by Ivan Markelov for Olive Oil Times)

Portugal expects a 15 per­cent dip in its olive oil yield this year. Yet, despite the decrease, there is a sense of opti­mism in the world’s sev­enth-largest olive oil pro­ducer nation as swaths of pre­vi­ously fal­low ter­ri­tory are becom­ing newly avail­able for olive cul­ti­va­tion.

Thanks to the remark­able work that has been done by our olive grow­ers and agri­cul­tural entre­pre­neurs, it has been pos­si­ble to move from a deficit sce­nario to a sit­u­a­tion which gen­er­ates sur­pluses.- Luís Medeiros Vieira, Secretary of State of Agriculture and Food

According to fig­ures from the International Olive Council, Portuguese pro­duc­ers are largely expe­ri­enc­ing an off-year in this cam­paign but still man­aged to pro­duce 115,00 tons of olive oil. This rep­re­sents a 65 per­cent increase from the pre­vi­ous off-year and is the sec­ond-high­est yield for Portugal in the past half-decade.

Luís Medeiros Vieira, the Secretary of State of Agriculture and Food, told Olive Oil Times that the small Iberian nation has expe­ri­enced sub­stan­tial growth in the olive oil pro­duc­tion sec­tor, mov­ing from a net importer to a net exporter in a decade.

Ten years ago, Portugal was a coun­try with a deficit of olive oil,” he said. In the last decade, thanks to the remark­able work that has been done by our olive grow­ers and agri­cul­tural entre­pre­neurs, it has been pos­si­ble to move from a deficit sce­nario to a sit­u­a­tion which gen­er­ates sur­pluses.”

A large por­tion of this growth has been due to agri­cul­tural devel­op­ments in the south­ern region of Alentejo. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish bor­der, Alentejo makes up more than one-quar­ter of the country’s land area and is home to about 85 per­cent of Portugal’s olive groves.

This is a region that has grown very strongly in recent years, because it has made a very sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment in irri­ga­tion, in dams to make water reten­tion and irri­gate new olive groves,” Medeiros Vieira said.

One notable project allow­ing olive groves to pros­per in a region fac­ing increas­ingly hot and dry con­di­tions is the Alqueva Dam. The dam has cre­ated Europe’s largest human-made lake on the River Guadiana in the north­west­ern cor­ner of Alentejo.

This new reser­voir now irri­gates slightly more than 240,000 acres of land and is set to increase its total irri­ga­tion capac­ity by an addi­tional 180,000 acres by 2020.

According to the EDIA, a pub­lic com­pany respon­si­ble for the dam’s con­struc­tion, the Alqueva reser­voir can pro­vide farm­ers with suf­fi­cient water for four years with­out rain.

Luís Medeiros Vieira (Photo by Ivan Markelov for Olive Oil Times)

We have enough water to the point when I’m five years into a drought and not wor­ried about water,” José Dariush Leal de Costa, a local farmer, told Reuters.

However, not every­one in this region that is steeped in long-held tra­di­tions is in favor of the expan­sion. Environmental activists warn that the newly flooded areas will destroy wildlife habi­tats and that more pro­duc­tive land will encour­age the increased use of inten­sive and pol­lut­ing agri­cul­tural prac­tices.

In a place where cork is still har­vested using locally hand­made axes and agri­cul­tural invest­ment has been low, life­long farm­ers are skep­ti­cal of new invest­ment from big busi­nesses.

Some, such as José Núncio, the pres­i­dent of Portugal’s National Federation of Irrigators, worry that cen­tral con­trol of water dis­tri­b­u­tion by EDIA will hurt farm­ers and called for the man­age­ment of the dam by a coop­er­a­tive.

Photo: Curtis Cord

Farmers should be given the pos­si­bil­ity to choose whether the sec­ondary net­work of the irri­ga­tion block in which they are inte­grated, is man­aged cen­trally or by an asso­ci­a­tion of irri­ga­tors,” he told a local radio sta­tion.

José Salema, EDIA’s chief exec­u­tive, quickly dis­pels these types of crit­i­cism. He called the project a green bar­rier to deser­ti­fi­ca­tion” and said the most effi­cient way to man­age the reser­voir water usage is cen­trally.

Salema also asserted that the Alqueva Dam increases envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness. He pointed to new invest­ments in drip irri­ga­tion as proof that farm­ers are tak­ing water con­ser­va­tion just as seri­ously despite the life­line cre­ated by the dam.


Some local olive oil pro­duc­ers are wor­ried about the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the high-den­sity farms set up by multi­na­tional firms in the new irri­gated tracts of land. Alentejo has devel­oped an inter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for its prized PDO oils with indige­nous vari­eties like Galega, Bical and Cordovil. There are con­cerns that the mass pro­duc­tion of inten­sively-farmed Arbequina and Hojiblanca for bulk export will water down” the hard-earned rep­u­ta­tion of the region.

Meanwhile, it is hard to argue against the eco­nomic results of the dam. Unemployment in Alentejo fell to 8.4 per­cent last year, well below the national aver­age, and the dam has got­ten a lot of the credit.

There are more jobs, new crops, which is always great for the region,” Helder Martins, a local farmer, told Reuters.

While the dam and reser­voir bring much-needed reprieve to an area that suf­fered from a severe wild­fire ear­lier in the year, Secretary Vieira said that olive grow­ers and farm­ers must con­tinue to inno­vate as prob­lems caused by cli­mate change will con­tinue.

Climate change will pose chal­lenges to agri­cul­ture in gen­eral terms,” he said. We have to find ways to mit­i­gate the effects since we can­not fully resolve these sit­u­a­tions.”

On the one hand, water reten­tion, invest­ing in infra­struc­tures such as dams; and, on the other hand, find­ing vari­eties that are more adjusted and resis­tant to drought,” he added. Deep down, that’s what we’re doing.”

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