A “Generation In Trouble” And A Massive Debt Bailout Drive Portugal’s National Election

Following the Spanish “Indignados,” a Portuguese protest movement wants civil society to be at the center of politics. But the country’s financial solvency may have last say in Sunday’s vote.

March 12 demonstration in Lisbon (Pedro Simoes)
March 12 demonstration in Lisbon (Pedro Simoes)
Jean-Gabriel Fredet

LISBON - Sometimes all you need is a song. "Geração à rasca" ("Generation In Trouble"), the hit by Lisbon-based band Deolinda, was the trigger for Portugal's fledgling youth revolution that has rallied this spring against the precarious economic and social state of an entire generation.

Last February, humanitarian aid worker Paula Gil, unemployed worker João Labrincha PhD student Alexandro de Sousa Carvalho, and part-time worker and student Antonio Frazao decided to make this song both the slogan and the name of their protest movement. "Geração à rasca" became a stunning, overnight success in a country crushed by an intractable recession.

On March 12, after the movement appealed to the Portuguese people to demonstrate the national malaise, 300,000 took to the streets of Lisbon to march from Liberty Avenue towards Largo de Camões to protest against the lack of job security.

There was a simultaneous massive rising elsewhere in the country. In Porto, Faro, Coimbra, tens of thousand people demonstrated against the state of the economy, which is taking its toll on both the country's poorest and the middle class.

And now, the youth movement is at the center of Sunday's national elections, alongside questions about painful austerity measures that Portugal must face in return for a 78 billion euro international bailout amid mounting debts.

History lesson from Facebook generation

Paula, João, Alexandro and Antonio are between 24 and 28 years old. In Coimbra, the city where they all studied International Relations, these lively members of the Facebook generation tasted the country's economic woes.

"I'm 27 years old and I'm doing an internship with an NGO. My mother is unemployed, my grandmother struggles with a small pension and my little brother is looking for a job," says Paula Gil. "The lack of job security is passed down from generation to generation. We are fighting for fair wages and contracts, as well as for the rights for employment and education."

Gil, a small and energetic woman with dark hair, smiles as she recounts her country's history. "The Portuguese democracy, born after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, is still a young democracy," she explains. "It was born out of a new idea. We need to move forward by combining it with civil society."

During the first demonstrations, M12M activists – the March 12 Movement is the new name given to this protest movement – handed out questionnaires to the protesters to ask them to suggest "an idea that would change things." The list of proposals and grievances were reread, edited and shaped into a document that was brought to the famously independent President of the National Assembly Jaime Gama, and are now slated to be used as the basis of a piece of legislation to address Portugal's lack of steady employment.

In the run-up to the June 5 legislative elections, all the political parties are paying court to the M12M. And the group's members insist that they will press the future elected members to draft a law which is in accordance with what they have called "the project of people's initiative."

Are the political parties on board?

Like any postmodern entities, it is difficult to describe the M12M with traditional political science tools. Paula and her friends' political views are close to the Left Bloc (BE), but they don't trust the political parties that "represent less and less the people who voted for them," or have permanently forgotten about their woes.

Nonetheless, they are pragmatic, so they refuse to challenge the political parties or trade unions they see as "partners' of their own strategy. They consider themselves a "cross-party movement," with some members from the right and a general support of candidates "who take care of their nation."

In addition to breaking the vicious circle of precarious employment, the M12M leaders have two other key priorities. First, is to push for a debt audit of their country, wary of the sway over Portugal's future held by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission following the bailout. They say Portugal needs to clearly assess the effects of the public deficits and speculation fueled by rating agencies in a so-called "debtocracy."

The movement's other priority is create a more participative democracy with greater use of the popular ballot initiative and the possibility for civic movements to run for legislative elections.

"Geração à rasca is a movement that comes from a post-partisan revolt," says political scientist Manuel Cabral. "Its members are not so much fighting against the party system, as they are looking for an approach that goes beyond it."

Cabral says the large political parties have been able to do little in the face of the recession. In effect, the Socialist Party, the Social Democrats (center-right) and the Democratic and Social Center (the far-right) have already settled on the winning party in Sunday's legislative elections when they all agreed to place Portugal's economy under international supervision with requirements of austerity measures as well as an extensive privatization plan and the dismantling of the employment rights authority. Whoever the citizens vote for on Sunday, says Cabral, the real winner will be the "coalition party" of the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

photo - Pedro Simoes

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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