We have been avidly following Ruminantes magazine, a publication dedicated to all aspects of livestock management in Portugal, and the most comprehensive in the sector. We’re especially thrilled since it started focusing more on Regenerative Agriculture.

We’re delighted to share the recent interview with Nuno Mamede Santos, featured in the latest edition, number 047.

A big shout-out to the Ruminantes team, Nuno Marques, Francisca Gusmão, and André Antunes!

[This translation was done trying not to alter the original meaning or intention of its author]

Agricultura regenerativa – from Revista Ruminantes 47by RUMINANTES


Buckminster Fuller, a visionary, thinker, inventor, philosopher, and architect recognized by many as the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century, once said that the best way to predict the future is to design it. Nuno Mamede Santos, founder and director of Terracrua Design, a passionate landscape planning and design professional, shares this idea. We had the pleasure of interviewing him for Ruminantes on a hot morning in late August.

We met with Nuno Mamede Santos at the café in Aldeia do Monte da Estrada, a small village in the Odemira municipality. Our conversation with the founder and director of the landscape/territory planning and design team at Terracrua Design started around a table under an umbrella while an older lady next to us peeled potatoes that would later accompany the delicious meats we had for lunch.

It was in this region of the country that Nuno decided to “settle down,” as he puts it, three years ago. Born in Lisbon and raised in the Algarve, he spent almost 20 years in other places, always in search of learning: “Different reasons led me to different places. I traveled to many communities in Spain and France, always in search of alternative ecological, agricultural, construction, social, and economic systems. During this time, I had the opportunity to experiment with my own hands everything I wanted to do, from wine to brandy, meat and vegetables, natural construction. I had and still have a great passion for traditional and local ecological construction – hence the name Terracrua Design.”

Terracrua Design is a consulting and planning team that specializes in advising, planning, implementing, and managing regenerative agriculture farms and estates.

It was a passion for construction that led you to enjoy drawing landscapes?

Yes. I realized that we were often building houses in the wrong places. There are criteria in architecture in this regard, but they are limited to a property and not to the landscape as a whole.

How did you come up with the method used in Terracrua Design?

Our approach is based on an agro-regenerative background and is inspired by the principles of permaculture design (Bill Mollison and David Holmgren), Key-line Design (P.A. Yeomans), Natural Farming (Masanobu Fukuoka), Holistic Grazing (Allan Savory, Kirk Gadzia, and Joel Salatin), and Biodynamic Agriculture (Rudolph Steiner).

It can be applied in productive spaces and landscapes, in areas and zones with purely ecological functions, or in leisure spaces. For this, the territory is always approached holistically: as a whole. And as part of a larger system, within which balanced integration is aimed for: between economy and return requirements, productivity, regenerative ecology, and social well-being.

What is the typology of your clients’ projects?

We have smaller projects, below 50 ha, and more intensive, with more detail. They are more focused on self-sufficiency and regeneration. Then we have larger farms and estates, of 200, 300 ha, with a strong agro-livestock component. In Angola, we are working on large projects. One of them is a fruit and vegetable farm, with 10,000 ha in production, and another, smaller one, with 100 ha, is a community management project that involves 400 families.

How do you interpret Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence?

First, it is a matter of understanding where the landscape can store water: in bodies of water, in soils, with terraces, swales, ponds, and dams. Then, define the access: how we can and should move through the landscape and how roads and paths can be used to capture and conduct water, without promoting erosion. Next comes the permanent or habitat forest (zone 5) that we, as users, should restore, not only for the ecological services but also to honor our ancestors and provide a beacon to future generations. By exclusion of parts, we reach zone 4 (the management forest, for harvesting), zone 3 (the commercial crop zone), and zones 2 and 1 (around the houses). Once we have designed the zoning, we move on to the infrastructure. In the end, a matrix remains.

What advantages does a medium or large livestock producer enjoy with the method you have developed?

Access, infrastructure, and even the choice of productive areas on a farm, have often been defined or located in response to an unforeseen event, or in haste in decision-making, for one reason or another. This has to do with people’s investment capacity. One of our projects is delivered in three “fronts”: georeferenced maps, cost estimate/measurement maps, and implementation schedules; all schematized according to the sequence based on the scale of permanence.

In Portugal, there is no habit of investing in a farm at the beginning, so we expose to the owner what is possible to do, and why, in a timeline, and then adapt the project to financial possibilities. It is necessary to have a long-term vision, and we try to give it, over several investment phases.

The livestock producer is one of those who can benefit most from this approach, starting with the water issue. I think it is commonly known that there is less and less capacity for water infiltration in Portuguese soils. That is why we go from floods to droughts and fires and vice versa.

The fact that the fences are in contour, or in keyline, also influences the accumulation of debris and the creation of soil due to the animals’ trampling effect. In relation to holistic grazing, we schematize the grazing zones and create the conditions to effectively rotate the plots in keyline. We do not conceive the scheduling and the entire spectrum of holistic management.

What is the process from when someone hires you until the contract is signed?

There is a form on the Terracrua Design website that filters contacts very well. From the beginning, we ask for a map of the location, coordinates, and an idea of what is intended. If the original idea is too focused on just one segment or activity and limited, we try to show broader paths while still respecting the client’s ideas. We try to bring the economic perspective to those who only think about ecological restoration and vice versa. We are even starting to be seen in the Permaculture community as “the guys who think too much about money (laughs).”

In a technical visit made later, in which we meet the client, we understand the flexibility to shape the terrain and manage the budget, as projects usually last for 20 years. The project has 3 phases: – phase 1: the standard design, in which the terrain indicates the path to follow and asks for things – where water, access, and permanent vegetation are defined. We work with cloud data and GPS tablet with georeferencing and a maximum error of 1 to 2 cm, or on a mobile phone with 2 or 3 m of error. This allows the client to walk through the land and visualize the future design with GIS and enables the obtaining of volumes, perimeters, heights, etc.; – phase 2: after approval and client familiarization with the design, we enter the water flow – how to make the water circulate as slowly as possible, in order to infiltrate better. Here we go into more detail and update in real-time, in the cloud; – phase 3: already with the client given access to everything that has been mentioned, and the infrastructures, we move on to estimating the budget for works and the schedule, never less than 3 years and ideally 5. At the end of the project, depending on the client’s wishes, we can coordinate implementations or not.

At the end of each phase, a visit is made. The initial mapping is subcontracted.

How do you view large-scale planning, using the concept of Baldios or Commons (using the British term)?

I think it’s important to have a comprehensive vision for the territory. If there is such a great urgency, for example, to reforest, we need to know where and how we want to do it. Especially when there are large organizations, institutions, and foundations investing heavily without long-term impact plans for future generations. This would avoid purely reactive actions, such as weekend plantings or those inspired by mass civil fires. Pedrógão is a good example: instead of making a regional plan and organizing the plantations for cellulose once and for all, even to break their continuity, we invested in billboards and disorganized plantations, including more eucalyptus. Often there is a failure in planning, other times in implementation.

This makes me think of the concept of commons, which we have almost completely lost, having been maintained tenuously in the baldios in the north. Nevertheless, we have a history of more or less accelerated destruction of the forest since the times of the Reconquista. It has always been taking layers off the forest for various reasons, until we have what we have now, which is little. Planned reforestation will help to fix biodiversity and improve the water cycle in the soil. Miracles are not necessary. It is a miracle that there is still water running in the springs in Alentejo—it is fascinating, especially when there is no forest in the high points. I chose this area to live in because it has a lot of fog—we actually have a fog-catching project in the works. Actual precipitation can go up to three times more than what is usually considered. If, for example, we stand under a cork oak—which nowadays is a tree that is very weakened by bad agricultural techniques—in many August mornings, we can see that it is full of water, dripping until noon due to the condensation of the night fog.

If we have a structured forest along a ridgeline, there is water capture at altitude and recharge of aquifers. It may seem impossible, but that only happens because, for a long time, we have not known the maximum potential of the ecosystem. The montado we have today, in which two species of trees predominate with very wide spacing, has not existed for that long, only for a few hundred years. When combined with intensive cereal cultivation and poorly managed livestock, it becomes very hydrologically unresilient. I wonder if the most common montado is a kind of result of the purge that was done to the forest. It needs to be considered as a multispecies silvopastoral system with attention to the renewal happening below. Fortunately, we have some cases of landowners who are already aware of this fact. Due to unregulated deforestation for agricultural or urban purposes, there was a line of almost no return that was crossed. It is necessary to put a brake on it and reverse it. The country should be almost entirely redesigned.

Does this also refer to urban areas?

Yes, in the past, cities were never built in deltas, there were only fortifications there. Lisbon would be in Santarém and Portimão in Silves. We messed up the riparian systems in their downstream areas, and now it’s complicated to go back. However, none of this is irreversible. Maybe only if we destroy the atmosphere. Nature has a remarkable ability to adapt, and humans do too. The important thing is to question what seems irrefutable: water, access, and zoning.

Tell us about the project you are developing for the Mira and Sado Basins.

It is a project that we do out of passion, which has a planning and territorial vision aspect. We chose these two basins because they touch each other, but also because we want to work on ideas with significant scope. It is a project based on the GIS system with the use of algorithm associations, automating geographic information systems and using the question of the commons, forests, and livestock framework. We start from the strategy.

At the moment, we are subdividing the large Mira and Sado basins. When we have work for clients within a sub-basin, we work on its entire framework before doing the project: the location of accesses, bodies of water, etc., and the interaction of this estate with the rest of the territory. It is a more holistic territorial planning with a long-term vision. For example, the estate in question will have a forest that will be part of a forest corridor that involves the entire sub-basin, which, in turn, involves the basin, and so on.

We also want to bring to the table the planning of villages and settlements, bringing together all the already focused areas and also that of food sovereignty. These projects, for now, are intended to serve as a pilot to be able to scale and create models for other areas of the Iberian Peninsula, working with colleagues from the same area. This would save people years of trial and error. Through the automation of the GIS, we can define zoning, water, access, structures, etc. In many countries, land management entities already use GIS for some automations, but their variables are not as valuable for resilient hydrological and forestry planning in the long term. For example, there is no real recognition of the hydrographic basins and the impact they should have on territorial, political, financial, and economic organization. With GIS, we can also create potential business volumes for certain areas. We have already designed villages together with the population, for example Ferraria de São João, in Penela. What is missing is then framing them within the region.

We try to predict, in this area, where the money can come from to invest in the forest, for example. It can come from carbon.

What do you think of the carbon certificate market?

It has everything it takes to become another ploy in the service of global corporate interests. But I refuse to be against it only. We do not change the world just by not doing what seems bad or worse; we change the world by doing what we believe is better. We are working with a company that has a different perspective than usual, considering a farm as a heterogeneous project, with different degrees of carbon sequestration potential, instead of the more common one, which focuses on tree monocultures to make the CO2 sequestration proof easier. Customers who invest in this credit will then be able to visit the projects in person or online and see the results much more satisfactorily. With GIS, we can then quickly calculate if a customer has an area available for afforestation and if it is in an ecological interest area, such as a ridge. We can install a directed grazing program with forest recovery/installation, finding a way to finance everything. I agree with Allan Savory when he says that animal impact is essential in these drier environments to avoid chemical decomposition – oxidation – of plant material, incorporating it into the soil, fertilizing with manure, and breaking the surface crust.

Planting trees on a large scale in degraded soils, in our climate, and with the socio-economic context of our country, whether or not with advanced agroforestry techniques, will not be the model to follow…

No one has invented anything. There is a tendency to register patents, create models and practices, and then the desire to seek fame follows, with or without concrete results. It takes humility to say, “This is experimental, let’s study the results and adapt the model to follow from there.” It’s the strategies that matter, not the techniques, otherwise we risk following a reductionist and dogmatic model like the one that got us here. We should start with ethics, then move on to principles followed by strategies and only then techniques. There is confusion, throughout the world, with these concepts. No one should be penalized for using a word incorrectly once, but several times is not acceptable.

The success of a plantation in public space (such as those often made in response to fires) has a very positive effect on the morale of the people who participated, but also on those who pass by and see it grow year after year.

Failure has the opposite impact: it disempowers and discourages, and only reinforces the old Portuguese saying of “This doesn’t work here.”

It seems more important to plant quality instead of quantity.

We need to look closely at Portugal and understand the bioregions (delimitation based on the geography of the watersheds), and how each one should have its natural structure of forests and natural parks, its managed forest areas, its water and seed reserves. In this vision, there is plenty of space for us to plant forests, and this could bring serious economic growth to our country.

+351 910 748 670 | info@terracruadesign.pt | Terracrua Design – Portugal