On the banks of Portugal’s Côa River, a thriving connection between people, nature and business offers new hope for the future.
A new chapter
From high up on granite cliffs, the metallic blue ribbon of the Côa River snakes its way through an immense landscape. Overhead, groups of vultures navigate thermals on outstretched wings, while the sounds of restless Sorraia horses carry faintly on the warm breeze. While this sweeping panorama may be reminiscent of Arizona or Utah, this is, in fact, northeast Portugal – a place where the recovery of wild nature is now working to revitalise culture, communities and local commerce.
Stretching for around 140 kilometres from south to north, the Greater Côa Valley is not only a uniquely captivating place but also home to such iconic species as the griffon vulture and Iberian wolf, with long-term population support provided by the Rewilding Portugal team. Yet the Côa River is as much about man as it is about fauna and flora. Rocks beside the river are decorated with engravings dating back thousands of years, highlighting the importance of this waterway and its wildlife to people and livelihoods of old.
“For thousands of years, the Côa River and its environs have been a place where nature and people coexisted”
Team Leader Rewilding Portugal
The network effect
In more recent times the land has been widely abandoned in the Greater Côa Valley, allowing some wildlife species to make a comeback and opening up exciting possibilities for rewilding. Yet, as in other rewilding landscapes, it is critical that people living in the area benefit from the recovery of wild nature. Established in 2020 by the Rewilding Portugal team, the Wild Côa Network is an association of nearly 40 like-minded, Côa Valley-based enterprises who share a vision for a wilder and more sustainable future. “The network has strengthened the appeal of the Greater Côa Valley as a destination, boosted sales, and broadened everyone’s commitment to wild nature,” says Bárbara Cardoso, owner of a country house situated in a small village Vilar Maior.
The Rewilding Portugal’s rewilding centre opened in late 2021 in Vale de Madeira. The centre acts as a multi-functional space designed for exhibitions, meetings but also for sleeping and dining, allowing the Rewilding Portugal team to monetise the space and promote nature positive tourism in the region. “Ultimately, the real value of the centre has been to give new impetus to a small Portuguese village where only 20 people live. We have shown that it is possible to create new, nature-based business and give the area an economic shot in the arm, while simultaneously allowing the population to be proud of their natural heritage once again,” explains Rewilding Portugal’s enterprise officer Joaquim Canotilho.
The art of nature
With their history of rural depopulation, the communities around the Côa River have long suffered from a loss of cultural heritage and tradition. Designed as a celebration of the Greater Côa Valley’s fertile crossover between culture and nature, and to build new pride in it, the Rewilding Portugal team organised the “CÔA – Corridor of Arts” Festival, which took place across several municipalities in July. The event saw a range of local and international artists connect with communities in the valley to co-create works of art, using natural materials, respecting natural decay, and referencing the valley’s time-honoured artistic history. “The Greater Côa Valley is not only an important wildlife corridor but also a corridor through time,” says Pedro Prata. “Generation after generation have contributed to and shared in artistic expression here. The CÔA Festival celebrates this, reinforcing the special connection between local communities, art and wild nature, and offering new hope for the future.”
Today, the Rewilding Portugal team are working hard to rewild the Greater Côa Valley, with the aim of creating a healthy, fully functioning and resilient natural landscape that supports an array of wildlife species. This, in turn, is enabling the development of a thriving nature-based economy and helping to restore and reinforce cultural values. Portugal’s first ever rewilding symposium, which gathered a range of thought leaders and rewilding experts in 2022, has clearly shown that the new narrative for this unique part of Portugal is already becoming an inspirational example of what could happen at a larger scale across the country.
“Awareness of rewilding is now on the increase in Portugal,” says Rewilding Europe’s Head of Rewilding Raquel Filgueiras. “One of the biggest questions that came out of the symposium was: ‘why isn’t rewilding in Portugal carried out more widely?’. The rewilding experience in the Greater Côa Valley, where restored nature, communities and businesses are working so well together, is definitely one that could and should be replicated elsewhere.”
Rewilding Portugal is working towards the launch of a new documentary about rewilding in the Greater Côa Valley in 2024.
Want to know more?
This blog is taken from a longer story entitled “A river runs through it”, which featured in the Rewilding Europe Annual Review 2022.