© Manuela Sousa
THE SERPA MOUNTAIN RANGE
WAS ONCE THE LARGEST COMMUNAL TERRITORY IN THE COUNTRY
a frontier land southeast of the municipality, crossed by the rivers Guadiana and Chança. A gigantic wasteland of about 40,000 hectares that remained unchanged for centuries, until it was geometrically parcelled, creating a curious superimposed grid that has no natural relation to the terrain; a perfectly visible patchwork of various lines and colours that results from the different agricultural, forestry and pastoral practices of their owners.
THE SERPA MOUNTAIN RANGE
A little over a century ago, existed in the Serpa mountain range a communal land (the baldio (wasteland) de Serpa) delimited to the north by Aldeia Nova de São Bento, to the south by the municipality of Mértola, to the east by the Chança River and Vila Verde de Ficalho and to the west by the Guadiana River. This mountainous territory, composed of rolling terrain and low-quality schist soils, was once covered with natural undergrowth that gradually disappeared under the pressure of intensive farming.
The rugged Serpa Mountain Range was an extensive thicket of holm oaks, cork oaks and bushy vegetation, especially gum rockrose, lavender, rosemary, heather, mastic, woolly rock-rose and strawberry tree, among others. For six centuries, the communal use of firewood and pastures coexisted with a peculiar private concession for the use of this wasteland, a practice that dated back to the Middle Ages.
© Google Earth, The Serpa Mountain Range
In the foral (type of charter) that created the town of Serpa is stated that, since the residents convinced King Dinis that the establishment of Wax Factories would be a great advantage to the municipality, the King had granted for that purpose a Supplementary Foral titled "Os Maninhos da Serra" (The Mountain Wastelands). It was a licence to install hives that stipulated the boundaries for each apiary, including the “pasture” for the “cattle of the air” (the bees) and the wildflowers that grew abundantly in the region. The agreement entailed the construction of a hedge for the protection of the hives - apiary-wall - and of a house for the beekeeper. The area of the walls determined the number of hives they could contain. Many apiary-walls, made from rammed earth and stone and used to protect the hives from predators, were built on or near schist outcrops, which reduced the effort/costs of moving the stone used in their construction.
In 1406, under the rule of King Manuel, it became necessary to regulate the use of these lands and the law titled "Aranzel das malhadas" was issued, establishing a maximum of 400 hives per apiary.
The clash between private rights and common uses in the wasteland became more pronounced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Beekeeping had established a good relationship with herding and farming, in a symbiotic process that was destroyed by the incendiary practice of ground clearing to conquer lands, accentuated from 1690 onwards with the institution of the Celeiro Comum de Serpa (Serpa Common Barn), which productive and economic growth would come to take place at the expense of communal lands.
In the late nineteenth century, in 1897, a proposal was published to create an Agricultural and Disciplinary Military Colony on these isolated and, at the time, somewhat unproductive lands. But the pressure exerted on the Municipality to divide the wasteland into patches was increasing, both due to the scarcity of grain in the country and local population increase and due to the loss of revenue by the repeated non-payment by the old tenants. Once the process begun so did the arguments between neighbours and parishes and the arrogant opposition of the great landowners.
In 1906, the disentailment of the biggest wasteland in the country finally began. The disentailment quickly proved to be disastrous for small farmers and profitable for the large landowning families, whose wealth allowed them to buy out the smaller patches that quickly became ruined.
After the enthusiasm of the first cereal seasons, the low-quality, exhausted soils were simply not profitable in patches of that size - which, against any sound and natural logic, were defined according to a geometric grid by a Serpa public works contractor - and thus, from this mercantilized and colonizing illusion, resulted the
destruction of the communal pastures and a significant decay of the centuries-old wealth of bees (the so-called "cattle of the air") and their hives, which only recently recovered to the number and economic worth of olden days.