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Herbs and hotels: The small businesses helping revive rural Portugal

Herbs and hotels: The small businesses helping revive rural Portugal

After Bruno Vargas and his wife had their first baby, they wanted a quieter life. So, they left their home in Angola and returned to his native region in Portugal’s rural interior to set up an organic herbs company.

The remote Santarem district of central Portugal is known for its agricultural plains and salt flats. The Vargas’ nearest town, Rio Maior, is about 30km (20 miles) away.

Vargas launched Herbas Organic Herbs in 2015 using seed money from the European Union and the Portuguese government through a fund aimed at enticing businesses to set up in rural areas.

Now he grows an array of aromatic plants including lemon thyme, lemon balm, peppermint and common mint, mainly for export. “We decided to come back (here) to improve our quality of life,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Herbas is one of a growing number of small businesses cropping up in Portugal’s sparsely populated rural interior, drawn by the availability of land, rising tourist interest and business funding opportunities, say rural development experts.

Portugal’s rural areas have been losing population for several decades, said Luis Chaves, the national coordinator of Minha Terra, the Portuguese Federation of Local Development Associations.

“Difficult living conditions … meant that, in the 1960s in particular, hundreds of thousands of Portuguese opted for emigration, especially to Central Europe,” he explained.

Currently 35% of the country’s population of more than 10 million lives in rural areas, according to World Bank data. Since 2014, the rural population has been dropping by about 1% every year.

But there are signs that the trend is reversing. Amandine Desille, a geography fellow at the University of Lisbon, said she sees an emerging city-to-village movement in areas like the southern Alentejo region and northeastern Portugal.

“Although we are not speaking in great numbers, it does change the face of some villages to have new people and new businesses,” she said.

In northeastern Portugal, for instance, some city-dwellers are moving back to the countryside to set up tourist lodgings, motivated by EU rural development funds that give financial support for renovating old houses, she explained.

“There is quite a lot of European money available to boost the countryside,” Desille stressed.

Agustin Cocola-Gant, principal investigator of Smartour, a company that looks at the impact of companies like Airbnb on real estate, said another reason people are moving to the country is the rising property prices that are pushing them out of cities.

“Lisbon is getting really expensive and people are moving out, for sure. Even the city council and the real estate sector recognize that there is a housing crisis,” he noted.