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Levadas of Madeira Island

Date of Submission: 31/01/2017
Criteria: (i)(iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Portugal to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Madeira Autonomous Region
Coordinates: N32 22 20 W16 16 30
Ref.: 6230

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The Property “Levadas of Madeira Island are an hydraulic engineering work known internationally as ‘Levadas da Madeira’. The Property and its limits were defined according to the design and the permanent characteristics of this water transportation system of about 800 km of public and private waterways or aqueducts.

The Levadas (from the Portuguese verb “levar” – to carry) are a system of channels or aqueducts of many kilometres in length, mostly bordering mountains but also going through them, with several stretches over rugged rocks, to bring water from different sources to its intermediate or final uses.

Today, the ‘Levadas da Madeira’ constitute an exceptional multi-functional enterprise, transporting water for human consumption, agricultural purposes and the production of electrical energy. They are also paths for discovery and contact with nature and the agricultural landscape, becoming an “ex libris” of the region.

The Levadas are channels where the water runs year-round along an unobstructed surface, in a gentle flow, carried by gravity along channels with a slight incline:

  • As a rule, those installed at 1000m altitude, or higher, collect and transport water to the power houses of the hydroelectric plants. The primary function of these waterways is for water collection.
  • Those that receive water from the turbines at the hydroelectric plants or that collect water from springs, creeks or streams, in the higher zones of farming areas, are primarily waterways for distribution purposes. These levadas (public or co-owned) have gates that distribute the water through irrigation systems, periodically taking the water to tanks or directly to farm lands.

Irrigation channels are secondary waterways without permanent water flows. Starting from derivation points perpendicular to the primary levadas (which are laid out close to the contour lines of the terrain), its course is more steeply inclined, following the natural slope of the mountainous terrain, at times forming small abrupt “waterfalls” as they accompany the terrace walls.

The origin of the levadas dates back to the first settlements of Madeira Island, in the first quarter of the 15th century, when water became necessary to water farm lands, particularly sugar cane fields – the first crop of high economic value in Madeira – and for the functioning of the first mills and sugar factories. It is worth noting that in the second half of the 15th century, water carried by levadas was essential to Madeira Island’s becoming one of the largest producers and exporters of sugar in Europe, the “World” of those days.

According to the chronicles of the time, the first levadas were rudimentary waterways, short and dug out in the volcanic tufts. When the rock was so hard that the levada frame could not be dug, segments built out of wood from endemic species such as Madeira laurel (Ocotea foetens) or Canary laurel (Appollonias barbujana) would be used in the shape of a gutter.

With the ongoing expansion of farming operations, first with the cultivation of sugar cane, then later with winegrowing, and nowadays with the cultivation of bananas, the levadas network kept growing all over the island and its construction demanded more advanced techniques.

The early levadas gave place to waterways built in basalt rock masonry, some of them being basalt cobblestone aqueducts. The most common cross sections were under one metre in width and the depth varied between fifty and seventy centimetres.

The more recent levadas handle larger flows and their cross section may reach one metre twenty centimetres in depth and a metre in width. They can be dozens of kilometres long, most commonly built using cyclopean concrete. However, levadas continue to be narrow irrigation systems, in order to avoid losing a significant amount of water by evaporation.

In the first four centuries following the island’s initial colonization, the arduous construction of the levadas was left to private initiative, carried out by owners of springs or the lands to be irrigated – either individually, or grouped into associations of heréus, co-owner farmers who own a share of the levada water and pay for the preservation of the waterway, electing an administrative committee from among their number.

Starting in the 19th century, in light of the economic difficulties, specifically in agriculture due to the crisis in wine production, these canals began to be built by the State or with State aid, leading to the emergence of the so-called “State levadas”. Until then, the action of the State was limited to granting the exploration of the water flows and to making laws on the administration of private levadas.

Levada Velha do Rabaçal was the first to benefit from public financing. Work on opening this levada began in 1835 and was only completed in 1860, evidence of the technical and financial difficulties encountered in completing such an undertaking.

The State’s intervention become much more intense when, in 1947, the Administrative Commission for the Exploitation of Water Resources in Madeira (CAAHM), as part of the National Restructuring Plan for Agricultural Water, embarked on a bold plan to improve the water resource systems on Madeira Island.

The plan, the major strategist for which was engineer Manuel Rafael Amaro da Costa, consisted in carrying, towards the dry lands of the south, the lost or poorly used waters in the north of the island, without hindering the expansion of the irrigation in that area and taking advantage of the ability to perfectly combine the production of energy (after finding that the majority of flows suitable for catchment were located higher than 1000m and the crop areas started at 600m) which, safeguarding the imperative need to irrigate the land, would allow the waters to go through turbines with a drop of about 400m, before sending them on for irrigation (CAAHM, 1969).

Thanks to the skill, technical worth and strategic value of that plan, two decades later – by 1967 – 400km of levadas and four hydroelectric plants had been built. In a short amount of time, almost all of the island’s arable land was irrigated (20 thousand hectares of farm land) and a hydroelectric generating system with a production capacity greater than 17 thousand KVA (15% of the electricity used in Madeira) was installed.

The work of the CAAHM, with the needed expansions and improvements, remains up to date and essential to the Region’s economic life today, serving as the central nucleus of all the exploitation of water resources on Madeira Island.

If we include the irrigation systems, the network of levadas today has an impressive length of 3100km of waterways (primary public, secondary public and primary private), of which dozens of kilometres (@ 80km) pass through tunnels, crossing and traversing the entire island like an authentic circulatory system. However, the property being here considered corresponds specifically to the primary public and private waterways, which total approximately 800km in length.

This is a remarkable historical and cultural landmark on an island with only 742 km2 of surface area (maximum of 55 km E-W and 23 km N-S) and an extraordinary example of water resource use, both nationally and internationally.

An interesting fact is that many levadas built for the purpose of irrigating farm lands would also be used for water-mills and to power sawmills. In fact, various such devices were set up along many levadas.

Similarly, due to the fact that up until the beginning of the 20th century there was no distribution of running water to homes, people living in rural areas were forced to wash clothes in the creeks and levadas or even resort to some cisterns that stored water.

The identified buffer zone of the property extends around the entire periphery of the Madeira Nature Park (MNP), created by the Regional Regulatory Decree no. 13/93M, of 25 May, a protected area that encompasses a total of 56,700 hectares, which makes up about 2/3 of the total area of Madeira Island and where the largest part of the levadas network is located.

Given its vast natural, scientific and cultural heritage, the area in question includes different protection statutes, within the scope of the European Ecological Network – Natura 2000 Network, from full and partial natural reserves, protected landscapes and recreational areas, meaning that all human activities in this territory are duly regulated by Zoning and Management Plans and by Programmes of Management and Preservation Measures.

We also have as a buffer zone, the limit defined by the irrigation channels, since their existence and functioning will always imply the preservation and protection of the main waterway.

The exceptionality of the Property, the continuity of an undeniable functional authenticity guaranteeing the distribution of water in quantity and quality to the entire population of Madeira Island, justify its inclusion on the Tentative List.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

In order to acknowledge the Outstanding Universal Value of the Madeira Levadas, it is important to know the history of the island’s colonisation and its geomorphological characteristics.

When the first settlers arrived on Madeira Island around 1425, they promptly recognised its excellent temperate climate and lush fertile soil. These extremely favourable natural conditions and the enchanting landscape awoke the most hopeful expectations of a prosperous and future colonisation, based on an agricultural economy. However, they immediately found two obstacles: the luxurious and gigantic vegetation and the inconceivable ruggedness of the terrain, embracing high mountains and deep valleys.

Whether to tame these conditions or give in to them was the intricate concern of those settlers, to which the problem of water was quickly added: although abundant, it was irregularly distributed. Thus they embarked on conquering the land, whilst conquering the water at the same time.

They began by thinning the brush with tireless effort and, faced with unfavourable orography, the undaunted men built thousands of poios—small terraces with arable soil and supported by basalt rock walls—across the steep slopes of the island, thus creating unique farming surfaces, which over time spread throughout the island, starting from the southern shore.

However, in order for these parcels of land to be put to intensive, constant, and advantageous use, it became necessary to establish an irrigation method that could compensate for the natural rainfall pattern, with its great variations by season and locality.

The solution included ingenuity and the construction of an original system of irrigation channels - levadas - that would carry water from its sources at springs and flowing creeks to its destination, thus making the cultivation of the land and the daily life of its people possible.

Due to the adversity of the terrain’s mountainous characteristics and the distances from springs or sources of water supply to the soil to be irrigated, the construction of the levadas many times raised technical problems that were difficult to solve in those days, in addition to which, for centuries, they were built using human effort exclusively.

Frequently, the construction had to resort to “rocheiros”, the name given to the men who worked hanging from ropes tied to trees or rock outcroppings. Placed in baskets, and faced with various dangers, ranging from rocks breaking loose to falling into the abyss, these heroic workers would drill into rock, opening platforms on which to route the levada and accomplishing this work by using only simple and rudimentary tools, such as pick axes, rods, mattocks, rock hammers and hoes.

Their mission to rip through the basalt rock escarpments, placing their life in danger over the abyss and on precipices located at considerable heights or perforating mountains in tunnels, hundreds of metres long, in order to open paths for the water to pass, demonstrates the epic effort that was involved in building this admirable and unrivalled monumental work on Madeira Island.

Unfortunately, many lost their lives on this glorious mission of tearing into the rocky escarpments to open waterways.

The expertise and extraordinary courage of these builders gained fame at the beginning of the 16th century, even crossing the ocean, as was evidenced in one of the Letters of Affonso de Albuquerque, Governor of India between 1509 and 1515, sent to Duarte Galvão, ambassador of King Manuel I in Abyssinia, giving an account of his plan to establish Portuguese control in the Indian Ocean by diverting the tributaries of the Nile and later invading Egypt “If our lord, the King gives official orders to those who cut the waters through the mountains of Madeira Island, to deviate the growth of the Nile by another path, so that it does not water the lands of Cairo, in two years Cairo will fall and the entire land lost, and if you permit passage to Prester John in the land of Mecca, there will not be anything to be done, because the Abexis are valiant men : I see the things set up for everything good, if the King helps me and does not disappoint me” (Cartas de Affonso de Albuquerque,1884). King Manuel I never satisfied his request and the Nile continued to fertilise the land in Cairo. However, this curious situation clearly shows the ability these men had to execute daring projects.

Along with the impressive testimony that reveals the cumulative capacity of the constructive contribution of various generations of Madeirans to ensure their survival by taking advantage of nature, the Madeira Levadas show off an extraordinary landscape heritage, since they are accompanied by paths and therefore offer unique pedestrian pathways.

The proposed Property represents, undoubtedly, a small Atlantic island, a notable and unusual piece of history and the relationship that, under certain circumstances, humans and their ingenuity can establish with water, respecting it as a common good and essential to life and productive activity, characteristics that give levadas a universal dimension and an outstanding value.

The sustainability of water resources on Madeira Island is a commitment to defining an appropriate planning policy, the corresponding Regional Water Plan assuming foremost importance in valuing, protecting and managing those resources, as well as harmonizing them with the various economic activities, through the rationalization of their uses.

Madeira’s Regional Water Plan, in harmony with the various land management plans, specifically: the Hydrographic Region Management Plan, the Land Use Plan for the Autonomous Region of Madeira, the Tourism Use Plan, the Regional Forest Use Plan for the Autonomous Region of Madeira, and the various Municipal Director Plans, is based on a joint and interconnected approach of technical, economic, environmental and institutional aspects. It involves the various water users, with the objective of establishing, in a structured and programmatic manner, an integrated management strategy that promotes the rational use of water, in conjunction with land use planning and the preservation and protection of the environment, essential foundations for conserving the attributes of the Madeira Levadas.

The management of the Madeira Levadas network is almost entirely defined by the Madeira Regional Government, bringing together exclusively public entities from the Public Business Sector that manage the vast majority of the levada flow, which is integrated in the public domain.

The few private levadas that still exist are managed by Committees, with specific statutes, representing the respective co-owners, ensuring the water supply to their members. Interestingly, the principle of participatory functioning of the co-owners in making decisions for the common interest, provided for in their statutes, lasted throughout history. However, given the frequent financial imbalance of the budgets for private levadas, the historical trend has been to transfer them to public management.

Additionally, guaranteeing the levadas’ surroundings, requires the intervention of various other departments under the Regional Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources of the Madeira Regional Government.

The Madeira Levadas are unquestionably a cultural heritage so exceptional that it transcends national borders and is of estimable value for current and future generations. Thus, the permanent protection of this heritage is of the utmost importance to all humanity.

Criterion (i): Faced with the geomorphological characteristics of Madeira Island, the building of thousands of kilometres of irrigation ways was only possible through the colossal effort and tenacity of the men who displayed great intelligence and an almost perfect adaptability for their time.

Building the levadas demanded, over almost six centuries, arduous work, in which the great persistence of the Madeiran people in mastering nature stands out. Extracting the flows of water from the least accessible locations and guiding them along extensive and winding stretches, for kilometres, and inserting them seamlessly into the landscape, as if they had always been a part of the scenery.

The special environmental and particular regional conditions required the construction of a majestic masterpiece, making it one of the most important Portuguese cultural assets of indisputable creative genius.

Criterion (iii): The construction of levadas began with the settlement of Madeira Island, in the mid-15th century, and since then they have played a significant role in the socio-economic development of the region.

Levadas are inextricably linked to the way a space has been used for almost six centuries, reflecting a harmonious association between natural biophysical and human elements.

They are living monuments to the persistent struggle of the Madeiran population to ensure their survival in this Atlantic space and that internationally celebrate Madeira Island, constituting in the local imagination a history of life and death. Of life, because it is essential to the irrigation of land and the survival of the people. Of death, because many times, its construction was accompanied by the loss of life. There is the story of a parish priest who, returning from a funeral ceremony where he had to go to a practically inaccessible location where the remains of a worker were buried, exclaimed something like “my soul may go back there, but my body, no!” There were also some incidents resulting in death due to conflicts over the use and ownership of waters.

Criterion (iv): The Madeira Levadas network underwent inevitable changes over the centuries in light of the techniques and materials unique to the different time periods.

The first phase of levada construction began in the middle of the 15th century and probably extended into the mid-16th century. During this period, levadas were short waterways, dug into the rock and built in coastal areas, not going past the boundary of the richest agricultural zone (at 300 m altitude).

From the 16th century to the end of the 18th century, construction reached higher elevations, between 300 and 600 m, but never passing beyond the central mountain range of the island.

In the second half of the 19th century, and especially in the fifties and sixties of the 20th century, the central mountain range was perforated, for which extensive tunnels were built, enabling the passage of water from the northern slope to the southern slope. Levadas were waterways, more extensive than the tunnels, made out of basalt rock, later replaced by cyclopean concrete. The main levadas during this period ran at relatively constant elevations (the majority at altitudes of 600 and 1000 m), later giving way to secondary distribution networks.

Some very old levadas are still in use, which due to the vested interest of their co-owners and their location, are kept operational.

The longitudinal profiles of levadas are also an exceptional example of a type of construction that has remained over time. Feeding off their interception with fast creek currents in abrupt valleys, levadas convert that water into a gentle flow, carrying the water from the north of the island to the south, almost always at a minimal incline (1/1000 m/m).

Criterion (v): Madeira Levadas are a notable example of the development of an unprecedented work in collecting water and distributing it for agriculture, for human consumption and for the production of electrical energy, thus allowing the survival and well-being of the entire Madeiran population.

Throughout history, levadas assumed an essential role in the life of the inhabitants. It was around that journey of the water through mountains and farm areas that the island based its day-to-day life.

Levadas are waterways, but they are also the means of access to agricultural and forest areas and as a result, they are privileged pathways for the enjoyment of natural and cultural heritage, in particular through sustainable tourism, contributing to visitor’s awareness-raising about heritage and nature conservation.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The unique character of the Madeira Levadas is based on three distinctive factors that vest this property with authenticity: The unique character of the relationship between Man and Nature in a situation of scarcity and adversity of natural elements – water, soil and mountainous terrain; The wise character of this relationship as a result of a thorough knowledge of the natural elements; The unique multifunctional character over various periods in history.

The functional continuity over space and time, as well as the unique aspects that characterise their operation, specifically: the rules for water distribution; the principles that guide their management; the way that this has been ensured, according to its associative or public nature; the economic and social interests in confrontation over the almost six centuries and the battles fought by local inhabitants in defence of their right to have water confer on Madeira Levadas indisputable guarantees of undeniable authenticity.

The extensive intangible heritage, particularly linguistic, built up around the Property, with expressions only understood by the Madeiran people, are also attributes that express its authenticity. Some examples are:

The “Levadeiro” – Has an important role as he is the one who controls the irrigation water during the rotation of water distribution and who is also responsibl

O “Anel” (Ring) – Measurement of flow corresponding to eight penas.

A “Telha” (Tile) – Measurement of flow corr

e for its distribution through the irrigation channel in his irrigation zone. In the past, this person distributed water, armed with an hourglass, a watch or a shell and also performed the role of mediator of conflicts, tensions and disagreements. Since he went to all the irrigation sites in the course of his duties, he was many times the carrier of messages between distant neighbours.

The “Comissão da Levada” – Management body of the levada, elected democratically by the co-owners.

The “Madre da Levada” or “Cabo da Levada” – The name given the levada source.

The “Esplanada” – This is the narrow path that usually accompanies alongside and parallel to the levada practically throughout its entire stretch. It is usually used as an easement and path for both residents of neighbourhoods and by walkers in Nature discovery trails.

The “Rocheiro” – A worker who demolished or removed rocks, creating the platforms necessary for building the levada, a task that often required hanging from cliffs.

The “Giro” – Period between the irrigation of a piece of land and its scheduled subsequent irrigation.

The “Época de Giro” – The period of the year when irrigation is done with “head water” (water controlled by the levadeiro), also designated as a period of summer irrigation.

The “Heréus” – Farmers who built levadas and consequently held ownership rights, assuming the responsibilities of management and maintenance.

The “Cana” (Cane) – Unit of measurement of land equivalent to an area of 30 m2.

The “Pena” (Feather) – Flow of 1 l/min.

esponding to anéis, or 64 l/min.

The “Lanço” (A haul on fishing boats) – Location where an irrigation channel passes.

The “Regadeira” – The term may be used in two distinct situations, but that are directly interconnected. On the one hand it indicates the secondary levadas that are used to distribute water in the lanços to farm lands and, as a measurement of flow, it corresponds to 900 penas, or 15 l/s.

The “Tornadoiro” – Place where “tornos” of water are carried out, i.e., where water is released or blocked off to a certain irrigator with the right to a certain usage time of irrigation water. Generally, they are numbered according to the actual order of irrigation in the field.

Associated with the heroic effort to build the levadas, there are also various legends of the levadas that are confused with historical reality and which are popular on Madeira Island. They all have as a protagonist a very elderly lady, “uma Velha” (an Old Woman), as the people say. However, Madeira history does not say who she was, perhaps and according to research in Madeiran folklore, that anonymous Old Woman may have been an old majorat who in former times had ordered a levada to be built and got involved in its construction.

Popular tradition gives us several versions of the infamous Old Woman, with a few points of similarity, but also with its variants, such as the Legend of the Moinho (Mill) Levada, the Legend of the Abandoned Levada, the Legend of the Old Miserly Woman Levada or the Legend of the Blessed Little Old Woman Levada.

In fact, the Madeira Levadas—a timeless work, built in harmony with the purposes of environmental protection of the values of the forest, nature and the landscape—have become an important symbol of spirit and expression for the regional community, a primary element of pride, culture, and rejoicing of the entire Madeiran population.

Due to its multifunctional characteristics that are essential to an entire population’s survival, the “Levadas da Madeira” property has all the necessary elements to express its Outstanding Universal Value and is in a good state of preservation. The processes that could create adverse effects are controlled, thus reflecting the property’s conditions of integrity.

Comparison with other similar properties

From a technical point of view, this irrigation system is not exclusive to Madeira Island; however, the Madeira Levadas distinguish themselves from other comparable hydraulic systems due to its particularities, specifically as it relates to adverse conditions of accessibility and construction due to the island’s terrain and the great length of the channels or aqueducts (3100 km) built on such a small island (742 km2)

Compared to other properties included on the World Heritage List, the Madeira Levadas have in common with the “Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman”, the main purpose of carrying and distributing water, using gravitational force alone, for agricultural irrigation and water supply for domestic use. However, that system, built over ground with a gentle typography, or with little difference in elevations, is unlike the mountainous characteristics where the Madeira Levadas network was built.

Within the context of the Biogeographical Region of Macaronesia, we also are aware of similar irrigation systems in the Canary Islands. These waterways, called “acequias”, arose from the need to explore aquifers, given the absolute lack of surface water (springs and creeks). Nonetheless, in light of the special status of private property, known as “heredamientos” or “heredades”, in which ownership of the water was passed on from parents to children or heirs, and continued in this way to the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the over-exploitation and depletion of aquifers, there was no concerted strategy for the creation of a network of irrigation canals and their expansion throughout the entire island.

Therefore, from a historical and dimensional perspective, the Madeira Levadas are unique. From the early beginnings of their construction in the 15th century, levadas have been stoically built over the course of various periods, with an ideal of expansionism and the establishment of the use of water as a common good, with its multiple functions: irrigating farms, supplying the people’s needs, producing hydroelectric energy and serving as a resource for raising awareness to sustainable tourism.  

This strategy enabled the establishment of an authentic artificial hydrographic system that is truly outstanding, due to its design, execution and vital importance to the survival of the entire population and the economic development of the Region.

The holistic vision of our ancestors in harmonising two hostile elements, rocks and water, in which we see the great persistence of the Madeiran people in mastering nature, led to a radical change in the landscape, making it richer in vegetation and much more productive, which consequently created a diversified mosaic of farms and forest.