Kickstarting a Center for Rural Future

Mariana Dias Coutinho

May 25, 2021

In August 2019 we officially open CLARA’s venue to the public and it was with great pleasure to have Holis as our inaugural residency program. Located in the interior of Odemira (Alentejo, southern Portugal), CLARA - Center for Rural Future is based on an abandoned brick factory.

CLARA - Center for Rural Future

Coming from different European countries, but as well from Mexico and Japan, the newcomers arrived by train and were transported to CLARA’s campsite. We can’t help recalling the image of their arrival. It was late afternoon and the day had been scorchingly hot. They arrived dragging their trolleys, tired of a long trip, sweaty and flushed by the heat, but everyone (everyone!) was carrying an open smile, excited by what this project could bring.


It was a challenging experience to prepare CLARA’s infrastructure to accommodate the 28 participants and facilitators in such a short period of time. We had to build the kitchen and WC’s pavilions, install 20 tents with wooden floors, as well as prepare the factory building to host the workstations and the lounge area. It was only possible by gathering motivated people, who rolled up their sleeves and were not afraid to get their hands dirty. The participants were extremely supportive of this igniting project, genuinely engaging in various works and showing all the understanding facing the fragilities that an infrastructure under development presents, maintaining and feeding a vibrant and enthusiastic spirit, both individual and collective.

Absolutely green toilets with stunning view - a challenge turned opportunity

It is one of CLARA’s stronger objectives to foster collaborative models seeking for regenerative actions. We were aligned with HOLIS’s vision and mission and becoming hosts for its 2019 program made perfect sense. It was also decisive that the focus of HOLIS program was to address the phenomena of depopulation and desertification, issues of greater relevance for CLARA’s mission and its territory.

The 28 participants were divided into 4 groups, with their respective facilitator. They got together to work in CLARA’s factory building, where access to internet and printer was guaranteed and where the debate and presentation of ideas was facilitated by the preparation of the workplaces with tables and boards. Several field trips were made to neighbouring villages, where each group of participants went to research specific places or people looking for a connection that allowed a better understanding of the region’s reality.
Each group maintained its autonomy and work coordination, but also attentive and eager for moments of communion with the other participants, facilitators and CLARA’s team.
At the end of the day, returning to the tents was a desired moment, where they could enjoy the starry nights and company of the soundscape of the Alentejo.

Team work

During the 12 days of dedicated and stimulating collective work we had several unforgettable moments:
The delicious vegan meals, prepared by the Amazing Trio (Eszter, Liza and Phillipp), were always ready to nourish the participants, providing the basis for future fruitful performances.

Eszter, Liza and Philipp

The evenings around the campfire, were also moments of gathering and sharing, embraced by Rui Queimado’s repertoire of Portuguese traditional music.
Santa Clara-a-Velha’s dam is very close to CLARA and its beauty welcomes the wonder in different activities: sailing trips and bathing afternoons were organised, providing moments of joy and relaxation much appreciated by everyone.

The lake behind the Santa Clara dam

A very important event was the encounter at CLARA with people from the local community that were selected as representatives of the diversity that the territory holds: social, economic and political.  Their testimonies were an important input for the development of the four different projects.
The final presentation gathered around 100 people in CLARA’s factory building, bridging together different agents of the community and the municipality. This event was of extreme importance for aggregating the inhabitants and to communicate the 4 different ideas for local development. It was an opportunity to create links with the community, organisations and power-decision agencies, showing what a collaborative vision and commitment can offer in the awareness and revelation of the potential this beautiful region bears.

Presenting the projects to local community

From CLARA’s point of view the collaboration with Holis team and facilitators was very productive. The communication skills were fundamental to create a productive space of reciprocal learning and trust necessary to manage both psychological and organisational aspects of the experience/program.

The quality of the ideas developed in the 4 different projects, were so relevant that they continue to be integrated in some of the projects that we are developing at CLARA.

We can affirm that as an inaugural program, CLARA couldn’t be better accompanied. Strong friendships bonds were created and the desire to host the program again remained even stronger.