The creation of an ecological liaison in a natural context, more specifically a green belt between the city of Braga and the Carvalho Mountains, was the embryo of the Encosta do Sol Ecocircuit, which the 2018 AGIR Prize helped develop.
Three years have passed and there is no room for doubt: the Ecocircuito has grown perfectly and is currently a success in Gualtar, a parish in Braga.In 2018, the Encosta do Sol Project was awarded second place by the AGIR Prize jury and, since then, the (pre)Ecocircuit completed in 2020 the first full year of its existence, recording a 470% increase in the use of its immediately surrounding paths and footpaths. From 2019 to 2020, according to figures from the Organisation, the Ecocircuit's usage has tripled, and, by March 2021, it has increased sixfold from 2019. It is estimated to have been walked by over 30 thousand visitors in 2020.
According to Nuno Alpoim, from the Bonus Itineris cooperative, responsible for the project, 'the participation recorded in the Encosta do Sol Ecocircuit can currently be estimated quite accurately, using georeferenced global data from mobile walking applications. From these sources, we have obtained a few estimates that show that the initial expectations [of approximately 10 thousand users per year, Ed.] were surpassed'. However, according to Nuno Alpoim, these numbers also underestimate reality, since only users who walked or ran through the Ecocircuito are monitored, and 'bicycle users, which in this specific case are significant' are not included, he said.
The evaluation is therefore completely positive. As the manager of Bonus Itineris said, 'the implementation of the Encosta do Sol Ecocircuit not only boosted the discovery of this sensitive area, but also the resulting awareness for its preservation and for its ecological restoration'.
200 native trees planted
The second place in the AGIR Prize meant 15 thousand euros went into the project. Bonus Itineris used them all in the implementation of the project in the field, in actions of dissemination, ecological restoration, and revitalisation. Nuno Alpoim explained that 'the environmental component of Encosta do Sol was studied, which led to the creation of informative and interpretative content that is now on the ground; the Ecocircuit was set up with informative signposting; the waterhole was cleaned, and 200 native trees were planted along the Ecocircuit; interpretative guided tours were promoted; the project and the Ecocircuit were publicised among local entities that promote visits'.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the start of the project, planned for the beginning of 2020, which in the medium term, according to Nuno Alpoim, ended up boosting the use of the Ecocircuit, given people's increasing need to be outdoors. 'The first days of the pandemic, between around March and April 2020, were reflected in a low participation by the citizens, as most of the country was in lockdown. However, from April onwards, participation exploded.'
After the implementation and the first year of ecological restoration, revitalisation, and dissemination actions, the Encosta do Sol Ecocircuit has recorded a constant organic growth of visitors and of expected impacts, as explained by the manager of Bonus Itineris. It was also encouraged by the constant revitalisation actions that it is the target of, namely by Casa da Ciência (House of Science) de Braga, which has in the Ecocircuit its field laboratory for the activities of citizen science and environmental education in a natural context.
For the cooperative that Nuno Alpoim leads, AGIR's Prize to Encosta do Sol project 'empowered Bonus Itineris to enhance the impact of the actions it develops within the scope of its social responsibility', which continues committed to develop and implement solutions of ecological restoration of the territory in a context of environmental sustainability.
Initiative has already 'borne fruit'
'Today, in 2021, one can already recognise that the Encosta do Sol Project has certainly fulfilled its aim of functioning as a proof of concept and the seeds it has sown have already germinated', added Nuno Alpoim, providing two specific examples. In the neighbouring parish of Este (São Pedro), the Rio Mau Ecocircuit is currently being implemented by Bonus Itineris and, in the parish of Carvoeiro (municipality of Viana do Castelo), the Corga da Padela Ecocircuit is already in operation. 'These are two examples of light footpaths whose main purpose is providing their ecological restoration', while providing singular contexts for environmental awareness and enjoyment by the population. The same principles that governed the Encosta do Sol project.
The project that ranked second in the 2018 AGIR Prize was 'innovative', according to Nuno Alpoim, 'thanks to the partnerships involved in its launch, and above all to the fact that it is a pilot project and proof of concept for intervention in the territory', aiming simultaneously to safeguard biodiversity, raise awareness of environmental education, and direct citizens towards the possibility of living and enjoying nature on a daily basis, in a cross-cutting rationale of sustainability. By assuming itself as 'a Project that promotes Sustainability in several components, it consequently reveals itself as an initiative that promotes socio-economic development under the terms of the United Nations Development Goals, even though it is local in nature', concluded Nuno Alpoim. Mission accomplished, by the way!