The Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Serra de Estrela, Between UNESCO Geopark and Lithium Mining

The Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Serra de Estrela, Between UNESCO Geopark and Lithium Mining

Giorgio Pirina (University of Bologna, Italy) and Luca Onesti (Lisbon University, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3636-0.ch015


With a review of the academic and journalistic literature, this chapter aims to further explore the shift toward a sustainable tourism in the context of UNESCO Natural Parks and Geoparks. Furthermore, the authors point out the persistence of a contradiction, that is, the presence of mining activities in the surrounding of above-mentioned UNESCO areas. After briefly reconstructing the socio-economic history of the mountain area of Serra da Estrela, located in the region of Beira Interior, in Central Portugal, the authors focus on the tension between two aspects: 1) the Post-Fordist model, concerning the transition to tourism development related to creation of UNESCO Natural Park and Geopark and 2) the reinforcement of lithium mining production and discovery of new deposits as an energetic and economic strategy for Portugal. In particular, the latter issue has given rise to various groups and movements of protest on a local basis. The claims of these groups suggest a radical paradigm shift in the development plans and in the conception of heritage in an ecological sense.
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Portugal has known, from ‘seventies onward, a transition from fordist and agro-pastoral production models to tertiary sector and wool production on industrial scale has been dismantled in the region. Deindustrialisation was followed by a period of transition marked by emigration and depopulation. In this context, in addition to the importance of establishment of the University of Beira Interior – which allowed the re-use of some abandoned industrial plants’ building - tourism economy was pivotal. Tourism in Portugal is growing rapidly in cities such as Lisbon and Oporto, as well as in the inland regions. In addition, in the last few years UNESCO has expressed interest in specific natural areas, such as the Serra de Estrela area, which in September 2019 has been recognized as a site to create a Mundial Geopark. Unlike a “traditional” National Park, in the Geopark the local community have a pivotal role, by conceiving the human action in relation with the natural environment by emphasizing an ecosystem-based approach. Furthermore, unlike the Cultural Heritage site, which aim to the conservation of an area, artefact etc., the Geopark promotes an active sustainable development. As it appears on the UNESCO website:

are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. Their bottom-up approach of combining conservation with sustainable development while involving local communities is becoming increasingly popular.1

Representatives of local organizations, such as Associação Geopark Estrela, stated that Geopark could represent a way to increase the touristic potential of the area, with positive impacts on the communities involved. In this point emerge what we identify as a controversy: the relationship between the Geopark and the tourism development.

On the other hand, there is another issue that is becoming strategic for the Portuguese economic and energetic development: the discovery of new lithium’s deposits and the reinforcement of mining. Despite the variety of mineral resources present in Portugal, we decided to focus on lithium because of the increasing importance due to expansions of the batteries demands for the electric automotive sector and electronic industry. Portugal is the sixth world largest country concerning the reserves of lithium and the fifth largest producer: for this reason, the national government decided to start exploration activities in strategic sites. The predominant use in Portugal is in the ceramic industry; nevertheless, at present the interest for the electric automotive and electronic sectors is increasing. For example, the implantation in Aveiro of a Renault-Nissan’s factory of lithium-ion batteries has fueled the debate about this development model. However, this plant is not working to-date. There is another issue related to the lithium extraction, such as the circular economy. According to some experts, lithium might be for the Portugal the new oil, because the Country have the conditions to cover the whole batteries’ lifecycle.

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