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In Portugal, a Dam Threatens Prehistoric Rock Engravings

Community uproar over government project expands into nationwide protest to save drawings

By Reese ErlichSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 1995



VILA NOVA DE FOZ CA, PORTUGAL

The verdant mountains jut sharply down into the sparkling, languid water of the Coa River in northeastern Portugal. Local fishermen spend the day relaxed on its banks while shepherds herd their goats along steep mountain paths above. This idyllic river valley has recently become the focus of a major controversy that has surprised both local residents and the national government.

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Just upriver looms a huge, partially completed hydroelectric dam. In about four years the lake created by the dam will flood a site containing the world's oldest outdoor rock engravings. The pictures of prehistoric bison, goats, and other animals carved into the rocks date back an estimated 20,000 years to the Paleolithic era.

So far the government-owned electricity company, Electricidade de Portugal (EDP), has continued construction, arguing the dam is needed to provide 20 percent of the country's future electricity needs. A growing movement inside Portugal demands a halt to the project and creation of an archaeological park instead.

On March 24 Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva proposed formation of a joint Portuguese-UNESCO committee to recommend a course of action to the government. But opponents note that UNESCO has already issued a report calling for suspension of construction. They fear EDP will commit so much money toward the $300 million project that it will be impossible to stop.

''The public opposes the dam and wants to preserve the engravings,'' says archaeologist Mila Simoes de Abreu. ''This is a world-significant site that must be thoroughly studied. Why does the government insist on building a dam?''

The EDP refuses all direct comment to the media, but has issued a series of newspaper ads noting that the dam is vital to preserve water and supply electricity. Once operational, the dam will produce a steady 10 percent profit for the government, according to one ad.

''We made an option for nonnuclear plants,'' says Carlos Encarnacao, head minister of the Home Affairs Ministry. ''We must make [energy] the cleanest and cheapest way.''

EDP maintains it didn't know the archaeological significance of the engravings and was simply following recommendations of an environmental impact report. EDP paid for the government's Institute for Portuguese Patrimony, Architecture, and Archaeology (IPPAR) to study the site. And that's where the controversy began.

The first Paleolithic engravings were found in 1990, but no one knew the extent or significance of the find, according to an IPPAR spokesman who demanded anonymity. IPPAR archaeologists studied the site for five years, detailing 33 Paleolithic engravings spread over some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles). Hundreds more probably exist, according to experts.

In November 1994 IPPAR archaeologist Nelson Rebanda invited Ms. Abreu, one of the country's leading rock-art specialists, to see some of the engravings.

''I argued that these engravings must be preserved and their existence made public,'' Abreu says. ''Nelson was furious, and said that would violate an agreement between IPPAR and EDP. He was so angry, he threw his hat on the ground.'' On Nov. 11, Abreu issued a fax making the findings public for the first time. Local media charged EDP and IPPAR with a coverup.

AS word spread, angry archaeologists circulated a petition calling for the criminal prosecution of IPPAR President Nuno Santos Pinheiro.