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Library : Magazine Articles Last Updated: Jun 28, 2008 - 12:29:23 AM

Madeira Toasts the Future
By John McCarry
Sep 15, 2000 - 11:20:40 AM

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No stone goes unturned in Seixal, where residents utilize every square foot of arable or buildable land. In the 1800s farmers cultivated terraced tracts that were accessible only by rope.
Others fret that the good life might not be so good if the EU stops sending money. Madeirans like Francisco Costa, chairman of the local development company and the force behind Madeira’s international business schemes, are attempting to ensure that prosperity continues with or without hefty subsidies from Europe. Costa told me, “Everybody in Madeira  or at least everybody who matters  recognizes that traditional activities are facing severe difficulties. Of course, we have tourism. But to base our economy on one industry is a risk we can’t afford.” Compared with the offshore banking and financial services, the free-trade zone - an initiative to attract foreign industries by exempting them from taxes on profits until the year 2011 -  has gotten off to a slow start. According to Costa, this is because they had to build an entire infrastructure from nothing. With 80 acres of an industrial park already set up, another 19 under construction, an additional 197 acres in the planning stages, and with deep-sea port facilities at last completed, Costa believes that the zone is poised to take off.

The free-trade zone has been set up at Caniçal, a fishing village on the eastern end of the island. To get there, one must pass through a roughhewn tunnel that first connected the settlement to the rest of the island in the 195 0s. Historically isolated, Caniçal had only fishing and a little farming to support itself before the arrival of the zone. Today the village looks like a boomtown about to happen. Ribbons of blacktop lead to freshly constructed industrial plots; suburban-style bungalows stand ready for occupancy among ramshackle fishermen’s huts.
Having spoken to “everybody who matters” about the zone’s prospects, I set out to find out what the local residents thought.
What I discovered was probably best summed up by Mario Correia, a local bar owner, who told me, “People here aren’t stupid. We’re just waiting for the zone to fail so that we can keep the nice new streets and the new harbor for ourselves.”

Up the road from Caniçal, at Ponta de Săo Lourenço you can just make out the profile of Porto Santo if the weather is clear. And there, in the dry, disused interior, Carlos Manuel Afonso is making the desert bloom. A city kid from Funchal with matinee idol looks, Afonso got the idea of making his garden about four years ago. Having found a plot of land, he consulted with some engineers, but they told him that the land was too dry and the winds too violent. Afonso planted anyway.

Spirits are high in the Madeiras, where, in years past, young people grew up, then emigrated to find jobs. In that exodus there was an echo: “Little islands are all large prisons,”wrote one visitor to Madeira in the mid-1800s. “One cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of the swallow.” Yet today many young adults are migrating back for more than jobs. Alicia Camacho, a 32 year-old native, returned to her roots after getting a taste of the Continent. “I had to come back home,” says Alicia. “I missed the sound and smell of the sea.”
On Porto Santo you feel close to North Africa. The landscape is a composition of sunbaked tans; the winds that sweep from over the ocean are stiff with salt. An overwhelming sense of emptiness hangs in the air: Farms lie abandoned by owners who have gone to Funchal or beyond to make an easier living; fields lie parched and forgotten. Amid this moody landscape, Afonso’s aesthetic arrangement of vines and fruits and vegetables rises like a mirage.
Afonso tells me that he had heard at first that the EU was giving out agricultural subsidies, but so far he has received no money. Shrugging his shoulders, he tells me that he doesn’t care now. He is able to keep the farm going himself, although so far he has made nothing even close to a profit.
I ask him how he does it.
He answers that several times a week he brings water in a truck from the other side of the island, but now he has plans to construct a tank so that he won’t have to make the trip so often.
Okay. Then why does he do it?
Afonso surveys his garden, admiring its fertile symmetry. His handsome tanned face slowly opens into a smile. It is the smile of a poet.
“I dream.”
So often during my stay I had heard that the stubbornness of the Madeiran farmer was the islands’ biggest obstacle to success. Yet wandering through Afonso’s farm, it occurred to me that that undeniable quality may just be the Madeiran people’s greatest strength. Guided only by the gloomy poetry of his soul, Afonso, like his ancestors, is making an impossible dream come true. And like them, he is making it happen without anyone’s help  not Brussels’, not Lisbon’s, not even Funchal’s.

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