Monday, 22 February 2010

Storms hit Madeira, and what fate for the levadas?

In Madeira the worst storm for 17 years has brought floods and mudslides which have killed more than 30 people and injured many more. The island popular with tourists, is accustomed to a lot of rain. Were it not for the canals, or levadas, which cover most of the small volcanic island, the rain would plummet straight into the ocean. The levadas slow water run off and regulate water flow, irrigating terraced plots growing all kinds of food from avocadoes, squash, tomatoes and aubergines, fruit trees, all kinds of green leafy vegetables and herbs. The levadas also serve as wonderful paths for walking around the island, although some stretches are narrow with a long sheer drop, so you just have to hope no-one is coming the other way.

Just maintaining the levadas in stable weather conditions is a never ending task undertaken by all the farmers on the small plots. Storms outside the parameters of the normal frequent heavy rainfall are likely to be more frequent and more severe with climate change, and will damage food production and necessitate major repairs. This will be especially difficult as a growing number of smallholders in Madeira have day jobs to supplement their incomes.

Terraced agriculture is a way of working sensitively with nature to make land more fertile and increase food production. Terraces and small canals minimise soil erosion and are also used to make dry land fertile. In Peru stone wall terraces enabled farmers to irrigate steep slopes with canals with minimal rainfall. The Cinque Terra in Italy has protected national park status. Five towns nestle into the steep cliffs and are surrounded by intricate terraces. You can walk along many paths and see the ingredients of many traditional local dishes growing, like olives, basil and fennel, and look out over the Mediterranean.

My own back garden in Yorkshire slopes steeply towards the North West. Were it not for a previous owner putting in three levels, little sunlight would reach the soil. With the terracing, the amount of sunlight between the spring and autumn equinoxes is remarkable and there are microhabitats for many kinds of plants.

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