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"Irrigation and Society: ""levadas da Madeira"""

Final Report Summary - LEVADAS (Irrigation and Society: 'levadas da Madeira')

Project aims and objectives

The network of irrigation channels: the levadas is with no doubt a very impressive achievement of humankind with a total length of 1400 kilometres on an island that is just 756 square kilometres. Indeed, in Madeira (Portugal), the story of the levadas is inseparable from that of man.

The first levadas were built at the dawn of settlement, and since that period, these levadas have extended as more and more have been added in an endless process. The first large levadas were built during the Sugar Golden Age close to the end of the fifteenth century and during the first half of the sixteenth century. The irrigation network was privately owned or was the common property of consort associations (heréus), even rulers during three centuries at least the public character of water. If the water resources are abundant, they were difficult to mobilise and they have required human effort and large private capital without any commitment from the central state. Free access to water was reserved to the heréus. New settlers have to construct new levadas or buy water from neighbouring levadas. Some levadas became imperfect water markets, which contribute to their technological evolution. Social relations around water were very complex as one landowner may sell, rent, buy water or use the water of the levada built up by his ancestors. This situation was achieved when the density of the levadas was relatively high. Water as a private good in this context and water markets were not able to efficiently regulate distribution and give access to water to the larger social groups. That is why the state will early exert control on irrigation water distribution, water transactions and priority allocations of water to sugar cane growers through local political and administrative bodies and their members were often healthy families of large landlords.

After the first collapse of sugar cane production, we have no evidence of the same collapse of the irrigation network; even during this period, state claims around the lack of maintenance of the levadas are numerous. There is evidence in the eighteenth and nineteenth century of the rehabilitation of different networks. Other levadas were built, in particular in the Northern part of the island.

After the end of the 18th century, there was a demographic boom in which food security became an important public good.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, the irrigation of agricultural lands in South Madeira was made with water from the levadas that didn’t cross the central mountain chains, mostly because of technological limits on expansion. Meanwhile, the demographic boom generated a high water demand and forced exploration of new resources to satisfy increasing needs. In the North, water was abundant, but to transport it to the Southern part of the island was an extremely risky feat, demanding huge financial investments.

Up to this point, state action had been limited, reduced to merely granting rights to explore waterways and to passing laws governing the administration of private irrigation channels.

The state reaffirmed the public character of water. A new civil code was launched. Thus, the construction of irrigation channels with public investment started during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Levada Velha do Rabaçal was the first to benefit from public funds. Work on its construction began in 1835, but was not completed until 1860. The Levada da Serra do Faial was the second state realisation.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there already existed some 200 levadas, forming a total network of around 1000 kilometres.

State intervention became much more intense in the 20th century until 1947; at that time, the Madeira Administrative Commission on Hydraulic Resources launched an ambitious plan for the construction of new irrigation channels and the use of water to produce electricity.

Selling water at a dumping price, the modern state system partially ruined the ancient sustainable systems and private irrigation collapsed or was integrated into the public system by strong incitation (public investment for rehabilitation, lining with concrete).

Rare are the systems which could maintain their autonomy.

Today, state disengagement seems to be the trend and no one knows what type of organisation the irrigation sector of Madeira might achieve.

The aim of the project conducted at the University of Madeira, Portugal, was to approach and try to explain the changing governance of water policies all over the five centuries for irrigation management on the island, and to evaluate their impact on rural communities at key periods and also today.

Two field locations, Ponta do Sol and Porto da Cruz, have been studied and we made the ethnography of irrigation in these two parishes. One has maintained the ancient common property system with important management autonomy. The second one has been integrated to the state management system since 1957.

Original historical background of the levadas, its social history were difficult to mobilise as sources are scattered on public and private funds, or outside of Madeira or, curiously, do not exist. It was time-consuming and has slightly disorganised the initial planning of the research. Too much time has been devoted to the settlement period and the social construction of the first levada system.

As a consequence, the third objective to start a geographical information system to treat the all the information available - historical data for construction, physical and technical characteristics of the irrigation system, hydrologic environment, integration of cadastres - was not achieved during the two years. But 35 levadas have been pre-inventoried. This type of work is envisaged for the prolongation of the research with regional funds.

At this stage, the impact of the project is a dynamic which can be created at the level of the Madeira scientific community who is conscious of the necessity to safeguard an essential part of their historical patrimony.

Water professionals, having to face a new deal with populations on water management, often ignore social practices inherited from the past or the very past and require such knowledge to innovate in terms of water management socially acceptable.