A poetry path

Words: Cláudia Pinto
Photos: Ricardo Santos

le · va · dei · ro
(levada + -eiro)
masculine noun
[Portugal: Madeira]
Person who distributes water through or maintains irrigation channels (levadas).

le · va · da
(latin levata [aqua], water channel)
feminine noun
1. Act of carrying.
2. Channelled stream of water for irrigation or to power a mill.
3. Channel for carrying water.
4. Waterfall.
5. Structure designed to retain water. = WEIR, DAM, RESERVOIR

A poem, a song, a painting, a work of art, a deep breath. We can define the island of Madeira in a number of ways as we get to know its nooks and crannies. But it is in the deepest depths of Madeira that we discover several legacies that were born of our need to adapt to the island’s natural characteristics. One of these legacies is very special: the levadeiros.

Men with a compass in one hand and a horn in the other, which is blown momentarily, and with keys hanging from their belts. An echo that perpetuates. An endless horizon and time to tell, inhabitants to warn: the water is on its way. This is just one image we can see in our minds, but it is part of an untold story. Let’s start at the beginning. The levadas are Madeira’s irrigation channels or aqueducts. They cover more than 3,000 kilometres as they travel around the island’s mountains; the equivalent of the distance between Madeira and Italy, as the crow flies. The creation of these structures was the work of the men of the island’s small mountain communities, and they drastically changed the lives of the island’s inhabitants by distributing the island’s largely abundant water supply to drier parts of the island. The first rudimentary structures were built during the 15th and 16th centuries. Construction techniques changed, and in the 19th century, their construction was funded by the state.

The levadeiros were responsible for the supply of water and upkeep of the levadas. During the irrigation season, these men were responsible for ensuring the water flowed unhindered through the levadas and that it reached the farmers’ sluice gates on time. Their work started very early, to ensure the farmers could start watering their fields at 8 am. So they needed to open the reservoirs and gates in good time. Some of the reservoirs and gates are in remote areas, difficult to access, so the levadeiros had to consider the time it would take to reach them and how long it would take the water to flow through the channels to reach the first farmer.

After releasing the water, the levadeiro would visit all the sites scheduled for that day, diverting and sharing the flows and clearing the channels to ensure the flow was unhindered. On average, each levadeiro was responsible for supplying water to 244 sluice gates in each rotation, which is the time between two consecutive irrigations.

Outside this irrigation season, the levadeiros’ work consisted of cleaning and maintaining the levadas. They also assisted in drawing up irrigation schedules for the following irrigation season, distributed invoices and irrigation schedules to their customers, and collaborated with the officials assigned to collections at the various locations around the island.

There was also a special category of levadeiro: the Channel Guards, who patrolled the main levadas 24 hours a day, ensuring that the water supply to the drinking water treatment plants remained continuous and uniform, with no shortages in the domestic water supply.

This profession is practically extinct nowadays, but it has left a deep mark on the island and its traditions. Today, the levadas are one of the island’s major tourist attractions and receive thousands of tourists, hikers and curious visitors every year… In 2017, the levadas were incorporated into the Portuguese Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The first version of the Candidacy of the Levadas of Madeira for World Cultural Heritage status was submitted in February 2022.

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