Carmen and Sergio Maraschin studied at Schumacher College and were both active in Transition Town Totnes during the two years they lived there. They now have a permaculture smallholding in Sao Luis in the south of Portugal and are part of a vibrant and successful transition group they helped establish here over two years ago. So what does transition look like here in the Alantejo and what can Totnes learn from their experience?
The main street in Sao Luis, a village of around 2,000 people, is far busier than a village of similar size in the UK. There are several cafes and bars, a market selling local produce, regular film screenings in a disused winery, many shops and a centre for old people where activities are very well integrated with the local community. But there are also around a dozen empty shops testifying to the fact that the local economy is in decline.
So, using the good permaculture principle of turning a problem into a solution, Transicao Sao Luis decided to use empty shops to showcase work by local artists. But the best events take on a momentum of their own and as news of their plans spread many of the shops still trading asked to be included, local musicians, a poet, a choir and actors became involved, an empty hotel was included, films were screened on a large white wall and the main street was closed to traffic. A local winemaker donated bottles of his new biodynamic wine to get people in the right mood and a store selling local craft products provided a venue for Carmen to launch the event and explain transition. Even the organisers for the local saints day fiesta wanted to be involved in the Montras.
It was a marvellous day. Almost a hundred people followed the local male choir along the street as shop windows were unveiled to reveal the art within. Coloured footprints painted in the road led to all the venues. The hairdressers showcased hand printed textiles while the hardware store featured an installation composed with motorcycle parts. A former grocers window showcased sculptures reflecting the produce previously sold there and other empty shops housed ceramics, paintings large and small, and photography. One local character sporting a luxuriant moustache and a cap typical of the area took great pleasure in peering through a window at his portrait while the rest of us admired him as if art had come to life and walked the streets.
From the derelict hotel came sounds that would once have been commonplace there. Dishes being washed and dogs barking, people talking and doors banging and, to the amusement of many and possibly the shock of a few, a constipated man on the toilet and a woman enjoying an orgasm. The old winery housed numerous works from a local art collective while a mechanics workshop featured a performance poet with accompanying guitarist. As the day cooled cafes took over the main street, a local band played and still more people arrived to enjoy the atmosphere the art and the conversations. While a few people travelled to Sao Luis from other transition towns to share the fun this was really an event for local people by local people, even some well known artists from outside the town had wanted to display their work and been turned away. Nonetheless, the work was exceptionally good, an example of how much talent is available when we start to look. To my eye, admittedly untrained, the work here would not have seemed out of place in the Tate or some fancy London gallery.
However, what was really on show here was a rich example of a community celebrating its cohesion and power to change things. The inaugural event may have died down sometime after midnight and the artworks will only be displayed until the end of August but the spirit and vision that inspired them will continue to bear fruit in Sao Luis and other towns that can learn from their example. Perhaps the empty shops of Totnes could be used for something similar?
You can find more information on this event here.
Chris Bird and Karen Sheehan are currently visiting permaculture and transition projects in Portugal and would like to thank all the people who made them so welcome on their travels.