The commitment of Antonio Mónteiro and his wife in Faira Brava to save Bonelli’s eagles. But protecting the birds has grown into something bigger that has the potential to bring even more people and jobs to a poor region badly in need of both.  

Aquile BonelliFiguera De Castelo Rodrigo, Portugal - On a rainy winter morning, Antonio Mónteiro and two colleagues were pushing and pulling an ailing, reluctant bull along a stony track in the Faia Brava nature reserve in northeast Portugal. Suddenly, Mr. Mónteiro pointed up. “Look! Africa!” he said.

A dozen or so griffon vultures, huge birds with white heads and tawny wings, were wheeling like hang gliders in the gray sky above the boulder-strewn scrubland.

It was to protect these magnificent birds and other rare and threatened raptors like the golden and Bonelli’s eagles that Mr. Mónteiro and his wife, Ana Berliner, both wildlife biologists, began about 15 years ago to piece together Faia Brava, or “wild cliff” in Portuguese.

They started in 1999 by buying for 10,000 euros a 20-hectare, or 49-acre, parcel of rocky crags where the birds nest above the Côa River. With very little money, they have amassed about 800 hectares in a five-kilometer, or three-mile, stretch along the river. Today, an organization of seven people, in addition to Mr. Mónteiro and Ms. Berliner, aid the effort, and a variety of visitors come to observe the creatures.

Protecting the birds remains a top goal, but their conservation effort has grown into something bigger that has the potential to bring even more people and jobs to a poor region badly in need of both. The farm villages in the area, with their stone houses and narrow streets, are picturesque but dying as their inhabitants age and their children look for work in Portugal’s big cities or abroad.

Few people want to try to eke out an existence from cereal crops and olive trees planted in tiny patches of soil. The economic crisis, which continues to hit Portugal hard, is making life even tougher.“We are in the middle of a generational crisis that is more than an economic crisis,” Mr. Mónteiro said.

Whatever it is, a small group of what may be called environmental entrepreneurs, like Mr. Mónteiro and Ms. Berliner, are taking advantage of it to bring a new vision and energy to the Côa Valley. Many are university-educated young people from Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, or Porto, the second-largest city, who are attracted to the countryside or want to get away from the urban rat race.

While the hilly, near-desert terrain may be hell for small farmers, it is an unspoiled heaven for those who appreciate it. Along with the spectacular birds, there is a wealth of prehistoric rock carvings and medieval castles. And the Côa River runs into the Douro River, whose valley is a wine-lover’s destination.(...)

Mr. Mónteiro and Ms. Berliner serve as president and treasurer but are not employees of the organization. Mr. Mónteiro works as a wildlife monitor for the nearby International Douro Natural Park, and Ms. Berliner manages a hotel, Casa da Cisterna, which they have built on the walls of an ancient fortress.(...)

Visitors to Faia Brava and other attractions also help sustain a network of small hotels like the one run by Sada Noro, an architect, in the nearby village of Quinta de Pêro Martins. Ms. Noro and her staff also churn out Faia Brava-branded products like a spread made of local olives and honey.

The Faia Brava staff are working on bigger ideas, including a permanent lodge and a 200-kilometer hiking trail through the valley with strategically located bed-and-breakfast establishments.Driving visitors up and down the reserve’s almost impassable tracks in a battered Land Rover, Alice Gama, Faia Brava’s manager, outlined a rosy vision of what the future might look like.

An expanded reserve grazed by wild horses and cattle would serve as an anchor, she said. In a wider area outside, there might be organic farms and other enterprises dedicated to serving visitors to the region.

The staff arranges workshops for “nature entrepreneurs,” to attract people to the region, she said.“The hardest job,” she said, “is changing the minds of local people” who believe that to remain in the area is to condemn themselves to a life of poverty. But whatever the difficulties, the experiment has to be rated a success so far: The birds are still present, and the reserve is growing. “We are happy with our ambition,” Mr. Mónteiro said. “This allows you to create jobs in this poor countryside.”




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