Sacrifice discourse in historical hydropower controversies on Portuguese television

Sophia Küpers, Center for Research and Social Intervention (CIS), & Susana Batel, Instituto Universitario de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL)

Pictures 1-3. 1. Ruins of the village of Vilarinho da Furna, 2. A guided tour to the engravings of Canada do Inferno with remnants of the abandoned dam project in the Côa River 3. A street in the relocated village of Luz. Küpers, 2022-2023

“Everyone in Portugal had an opinion about the Côa. […] from three-year-old toddlers to one hundred-year-old people, everyone had an opinion about the Côa. Whether they were true or false – whether they were old or young – everyone, everyone stated their opinions” (Participant FC1)

This is how one of our interviewees remembers the highly mediatized hydroelectric power dam controversy that took place in the Côa River Valley three decades ago. In 1993, the Portuguese government made the decision to build the Foz Côa dam, a project promoted by the then public limited electricity company EDP (Energías de Portugal) but envisioned by Portuguese hydraulic politics since the 1940s (Ferreiro et al. 2014). Unexpectedly, an unprecedented array of Paleolithic rock art was discovered in an archeological survey that followed the environmental impact assessment (EIA) undertaken in 1989 and evaluated in 1992 (Bernardo & Sacramento 2022; Gonçalves 2001). The discovery of the sites that would become the “world’s largest open-air collection of Paleolithic art” (Côa Parque 2023) and also lead to the construction of an archeology museum led to the unique decision to abandon the almost completed mega-energy infrastructure project in 1996. Between 1994 and 1995, the scientific community, the local high school and university students across the country were at the forefront of protests. The archeological community examined the sites and discussed their findings and their meaning for the discipline, the country, and humanity. High level politicians made finding a solution for the debate around the engravings and the dam one of the priorities during the ongoing parliamentary elections campaign. National television, radio and newspapers updated audiences on the evolving Foz Côa case and contributed to shaping the sense-making around the hydropower dam project as well as how the public related to the newly discovered heritage. Much of the controversy revolved around the costs and benefits of the options at hand, with rather clear monetary investments and benefits related to the dam and a yet to be defined value the nation would come to attach to its archeological heritage.

Like Foz Côa, the dam projects of Vilarinho das Furnas (Homem River) and Alqueva (Guadiana River) had been on the political agenda for decades. But in contrast to the case of Foz Côa, these dams were indeed built. Villages were submerged, populations displaced, and two ethnographic museums were built to commemorate what was lost. If you mention place names like Foz Côa, Vilarinho da Furna, or Alqueva in everyday conversation today, many people remember the dramatic events that took place around the related hydropower projects. One of the reasons for the lasting memory of these controversies is how they were picked up in everyday news media. Not only did television shape and reflect public opinion at the time but the public availability of historical news on the internet continues to contribute to co-constructing collective memories of these hydropower controversies and people’s relations to large-scale energy projects. This is visible in specific discourse permeating news coverage of hydropower projects in the past and persists today in meaning making of current controversies in the context of the ongoing energy transition.

Portuguese large-scale hydropower dam projects have played a vital role in the country’s energy system since early to mid-20th century. To explore how they have been depicted over time, we examined Portuguese television content. We conducted a pragmatic discourse analysis (Batel and Castro 2018) in a sample of 30 videos from the Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP) online archive (accessible through Our analysis shows how sacrifice language permeates televised depictions of controversial hydropower projects on public television between the 1950s and the 2010s. While these depictions do not reflect the variety of opinions that surely existed at the time, they are nonetheless powerful in their dominant medialization.

Sacrifice language ties into the historical progress narratives around energy infrastructure development in Portugal. Specifically, the Estado Novo, the authoritarian regime that ruled over the country from 1933 until the military-led carnation revolution in 1974 (Parlamento 2023) propagated hydropower dams as symbols for progress and energy independence (Saraiva 2009; Diário da Republica 1944). At the same time, the Estado Novo worked hand in hand with the Catholic church, using the population’s faith and religious concepts and practices to justify its repressive authoritarian politics (Dix 2010). In the videos we examined, different voices refer to higher powers that demand sacrifices for hydropower projects to be made. Political figures, local communities, and journalists make both direct and indirect references to sacrifice.

In an early example from a hydropower-themed documentary from 1957 we hear a voiceover justifying the submersion of a village for the Salamonde dam (finished in 1953). The construction of a new and improved village is presented not only as an adequate compensation for the inhabitants but as act of salvation:

[Voiceover:] “These ruins, instead of desolation, mean progress. […]. The population was displaced, but the [electricity company] Hidroelectrica do Cávado replaced their homes, mostly poorly built, with a brand-new village […]. In the new village of solid and clean houses, the people are satisfied. In their heart there will be nostalgia for the old homes, but the tradition is also renewed.” (A Luz que Nasce Na Serra, 1957-12-19).

Justifying hydropower infrastructure development and the associated negative impacts within the logic of sacrifice for progress, typical of both Portuguese dictatorship and of later eco-modernization discourses, obscures the political and economic interests at play in large-scale energy project planning, construction, and deployment. It also reveals how communities’ affective relations with the places where they live are seen as fully commodified, amenable to easy and direct material compensation and that local ecosystems and related livelihoods are dismissed. A similar depiction can be seen in a 2007 snippet from a documentary that mentions the Vilarinho das Furnas hydroelectric power dam (deployed by the state company Companhia Portuguesa de Eletricidade in 1972 (Antunes et al. 2004)):

[José Hermano Saraiva:] “This dam became famous because […] they had to completely submerge a village […]. This impressed people a lot, but all residents were compensated. Many of them bought new properties or new houses or moved to Braga. […] [M]any of them took advantage of the compensation to send their children to study. And today there are people with higher education […], very competent people who received education with the compensation for this dam” (Terras de Bouro, País de Maravilhas, 2007-01-14).

In a documentary on the especially lengthy and dramatic case of the Alqueva dam (deployed by the state company EDIA, Empresa de Desenvolvimento e Infraestruturas do Alqueva, S.A. in 2002 (Rede Elétrica Nacional (2002)), for which the village of Luz was demolished, submerged, and ‘rebuilt’ at a short distance of its original location, an elderly woman is interviewed. She expresses her helplessness in the face of the relocation process and refers to a higher power:

[Girl:] “What do you think you are going to feel when you move from here to the [new village]?”

[Woman:] “A very big heartache. But it must be. What is there to do? We do not rule over what is ours.”

(Aldeia da Luz, 1999-05-13)

The French anthropologist Fabienne Wateau (1999) explains that the submersion and relocation of the village of Luz, in combination with the public attention paid to the case, awarded its inhabitants with a special new identity derived from the dam impacts and the political narrative of unavoidable progress, based on features of both responsibility and victimhood. People in Luz experienced a new reality as “those through whom the realization of a national grand oeuvre is possible” (Wateau 1999: 10, translation from French by the authors). They became the “people whose history of displacement and resettlement [is] unique in Portugal” (ibid.). In the above excerpt, the dam is depicted as the will of an unchallengeable higher power, that, once internalized, makes people comply. Wateau’s description of the ascription of victimhood might align with the above quoted media statement of sacrifice, yet it stands in contrast with the results of Wateau’s extensive fieldwork in Luz. Wateau revealed that while most people in Luz did not protest against the dam openly they instead resorted to everyday acts of resistance: “it is suffering in silence, carrying one’s pain and not contesting (or else so in a passive or discrete way, by refusing to go to choose the flooring of their new house, for instance or by dragging signatures” (ibid.). This juxtaposition of a lack of public contestation practices in the private realm clearly shows that the depictions of hydropower controversies within logics of sacrifice and subordination, even including local voices, do not necessarily reflect the nuances of everyday life taking place in the shadow of a looming hydropower project.

Based on the news segments and documentaries, we argue that sacrifice language is used to both depict how those who decide over hydropower deployment and those who experience hydropower injustice relate to the controversies. This gives insight into how power becomes internalized by those exposed to it (Gaventa 1980). Stories told about hydropower controversies on public television show that sacrifice logics and its imposition by a ‘higher power’ – whose imprecision and non-concreteness makes it harder to address and contest – have been an important device to guide sense-making of hydropower project-related decision-making processes and impacts. National television builds on a sacrifice logic that is inherently present in the historically grown Portuguese understanding of infrastructure development processes. Such depictions have reproduced sacrifice thinking that has become one but significant element in how these projects are remembered collectively.

Furthermore, sacrifice references extend to non-human species. The image of sacrificing plants and animals is not employed to justify hydropower politics but to depict the impacts of hydropower dams on nature. In a 2001 excerpt from a documentary on the Alqueva process, sacrifice is explicitly used by the voiceover to contest the impacts of the dam:

[Voiceover:] “Six hundred thousand trees, one thousand hectares of protected ecosystems and twelve thousand hectares of land. They are not just numbers. They represent the fauna and flora threatened by the large prison of Alqueva. However, they cannot influence a result that is already defined. They will be the last to know that their lives will be sacrificed for a future that is not theirs.” (Construção da Barragem do Alqueva, 2001-07-15)

Sacrifice language continues to resonate in contemporary contestations of large-scale energy and extractive projects, as the following extract from a statement of the anti-lithium collective Barroso Sem Minas shows:

“The government approved the […] Environmental Impact Assessment, despite recognizing significant negative impacts on populations, the biodiversity of the mountains and the quality of the waters. It did so by imposing a narrative about the inevitability of lithium extraction. This narrative […] is a fallacious narrative. In fact, what the European Union and the governments want to do — first in Barroso, and then in many other territories — is to ensure a decarbonisation that does not jeopardise the interests of the car industry and […] endless economic growth. The promise of profit for some, and of less carbonized cities, conceals the sacrifice of entire territories and the continuation of the violence associated with a mobility policy based on individual transport.” (Barroso Sem Minas homepage, 2023)

In this example, anti-mining activists explain how sacrifice logic is used to describe impacts on rural territories, justified by international extractivist interests and politics. Like the trees in the Alqueva case, sacrifice language is now used by the activists in the present to make sense of and contest a specific project in the Barroso region. That they chose to use this frame of reference shows how sacrifice discourse continues to be widely understood. Hydroelectric power infrastructures – often considered a renewable energy source (see IEA 2023) – and historically one of the dominant types of energy sources in Portugal will continue to play a key role in the national energy mix. More recent technologies, such as wind and solar (Apren 2023), will continue to be deployed in large-scale energy projects under the current plans for the ongoing low-carbon energy transition (Commissão Europea 2019). It remains to be seen if and how sacrifice discourse continues to be employed to justify, contest, and make sense of future renewable energy technologies.


Antunes, M. D. A., Duarte, L. C., & Reino, J. P. (2006). Barragens de Portugal: de Vilarinho da Furna à Aldeia da Luz, com passagem pelo Douro Internacional. Comunicação ao IV Congresso Ibérico sobre a Gestão e Planificação da Água – 8 a 12 de Dezembro de 2004, Tortosa – Espanha.

Apren, Associação Portuguesa de Energias Renováveis (2023). Produção.  (Accessed on 12th August 2023).

Assembleia da Republica (2023). O Estado Novo (1933-1974).  (Accessed on 12th August 2023).

Barroso Sem Minas (2023). Soam as enxadas da resistência. O Barroso está de pé, em luta! (Accessed on 12th August 2023).

Batel, S., & Castro, P. (2018). Reopening the dialogue between the theory of social representations and discursive psychology for examining the construction and transformation of meaning in discourse and communication. British Journal of Social Psychology, 57(4), 732-753.

Bernardo, E., & Sacramento, O. (2022). Contending heritage: paleolithic engravings, tourism, and the ghosts of the Côa Valley dam (Portugal). Revista Turismo & Desenvolvimento, 38, 69-83.

Côa Parque (2023). A história. Patrimonio da Humanidade. (Accessed on 12th August 2023).

Commissão Europea (2019). Pacto Ecológico Europeo. (Accessed on 12th August 2023)

Diário da Republica (1944). Lei n.º 2002, da Electrificação do País, Diário do Governo (DG), I Série, 26 de Dezembro de 1944.  (Accessed on 12th August 2023).

Dix, S. (2010). As esferas seculares e religiosas na sociedade portuguesa. Análise Social, 5-27.

Gaventa, J. (1982). Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. University of Illinois Press.

IEA, International Energy Agency (2023). Hydroelectricity., (Accessed on 12th August 2023).

Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (2023). Arquivos.  (Accessed on 12th August 2023)

Rede Elétrica Nacional (2002). Hidroeletricidade em Portugal – memória e desafio. REN – Rede  Elétrica Nacional, S.A

Wateau, F. (1999). Barrages, Identités et Frontières. Des barrages sur rivières frontalières (Sela et Alqueva).

List of archival videos analysed

  1. A Luz Que Nasce Na Serra. RTP 1, 1957-12-19
  2. Construção da Barragem do Alqueva. Planeta Azul I. RTP 1, 2001-07-15,  
  3. Aldeia da Luz.
    Portugalmente IV. RTP 2, 1999-05-13,
  4. Terras de Bouro, País de Maravilhas. A Alma e a Gente IV. RTP 2, 2007-01-14.
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