Alfredo Sendim, the prophet of the Montado
Most of the time, the reason we travel it is to discover new landscapes, new cities, new cultures. But more importantly, more subtly, it is to become fuller, more complete human beings - and that would be impossible if it weren’t for the people, those that bring these places to life.
Indeed, there is no better way to get to know a place than by meeting its residents. Often we find that it is the people we have met on our journeys and the moments we have shared with them that linger longest in our memories. This was exactly the case with Alfredo Sendim, who I met in the open forests of Southern Portugal.
Also known as dehesa forest in Spain, montado is one of the most unique and valuable ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula. Based on a structure of agroforestry, cork trees, shrubs and pasture in a mixed and revolving system, this agro-ecology concept dates back to the Middle Ages.
It is a great example of sustainable exploitation of the land to produce great quality food, at the same time allowing for a great biodiversity. Today, the montado forest system yields an amazing variety of products: cork, vegetables, fruits, olive oil, as well as some of the best hams in the world!
Not least, it produces one of the most beautiful landscapes we know of: an open savanna where century-old oaks forming inspiring natural statues, flowers covering the ground with multiple colours in Spring and an impressive array of wildlife finding shelter just a few meters from men. It is known that the endangered Iberian Lynx and the rare Imperial Eagle have survived to this day, thanks to this incredible ecosystem.
A lucky coincidence
The first time I heard of the Herdade do Freixo do Meio farm was actually at home, in Spain’s Picos de Europa. On a rare occasion when I caught a TV documentary, it presented the conservation challenges of the montado forest and mentioned the efforts of this farm, just outside the Portuguese town of Evora.
Luckily enough, this happened just before me going on a trip in Southern Portugal to develop our Alentejo tours. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and within a few days I was driving into the farm to meet Alfredo Sendim. I immediately fell enchanted by his calming voice and the strength and honesty of his vision.
Alfredo was born in a family of land owners which had managed one of the big estates of the Alentejo region for six generations. Such properties originated at the time of the Christian Reconquest, when the land was given to the military orders who were put in charge of pushing back the border with the Muslims to the South.
The Carnation Revolution of 1974 sent Alfredo´s family to exile in Spain for a few years and the land was handed to a local co-operative. Alfredo studied Agricultural science in Spain and Greece and then returned to his native Portugal when the properties were finally given back to its pre-revolutionary owners. So he saw himself inheriting part of his family land and started working the 440 hectares of land with many of the co-operative workers that had worked the land in previous years.
Reconnecting with nature
He soon found out that the concepts of intensive farming and maximization of productivity were destroying the land and failing to produce economical, ecological and social benefits to the land. This was the moment when Alfredo found his mission in life and focused his energy in returning to the ancient sustainable logic of the montado forest. In doing so, he was pursuing three main objectives: recovering the land, producing good quality food and generating work for the local community.
To do this, Alfredo developed an holistic approach to the farm, mixing ancient knowledge with the latest technologies. He sought economic viability, with a social share of the benefits. He promoted respect for local cultures and the short-distance human experiences through marketing, teaching and public relations, connecting with the outside world to spread the word. He transformed his property - Herdade do Freixo do Meio - into an agro-ecological project.
Today, Herdade do Freixo produces great quality organic Mediterranean food. It is processed in the farm and distributed mainly in the market through a co-operative of consumers, and also through a shop in Mercado de la Ribeira in Lisbon. You can take a look at the variety of products available to the co-operative here.
Why it is special to us
The montado is a marvellous Portuguese story, which possibly only exists because many different cultures passed this way, from the Corinthians and Arabs to Romans and Christians. And the fact that Alfredo’s farm is bringing back an ancient philosophy and adding agro-ecology concept to the mix, with new techniques and technology in order to fight against climate change, is awe-inspiring.
I love the fact that Alfredo believes in our capacity to understand nature in order to create complex ecosystems that we can transform in a true Eden. What’s more, its co-operative doesn’t only create a beautiful landscapes and supply delightful food, it also provides work for over 30 people in an area where properties of similar size are normally managed by two or three workers.
Why it is personal
Over the years, Alfredo developed tourist and educational services, to promote information and awareness. Today, the farm regularly receives day visits and organises voluntary working stays and summer camps for city kids from low income neighbourhoods. And recently it even developed a small lodging facility for visitors who want to stay a bit longer.
A few years ago, we didn’t hesitate to recommended Herdade do Freixo do Meio when one of our main American partners asked us what meaningful project could they support in Portugal.
To get a true sense of the place, you have to walk with Alfredo below the giant cork oaks and through the vegetable gardens and sit down with him at the communal dining to listen to calming voice. You really do get a sense of the strength of his motivations when he explains the investigations carried out to maximize the uses of the acorns. You’ll get carried away by the words and works of Alfredo and you will become the next worshipper of his church - the montado forest and all the living creatures that live in it.
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