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Rising about 17,000 feet from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, a chain of mountain peaks form the Madeira Islands. Two island groups  the Desertas and the Selvagens  lack freshwater and are uninhabited. Porto Santo has water and about 5,000year-round residents, but its chalky soil limits farming. Madeira itself is a loamy, lush parfait of five micro climates  from subtropical coastline to snow-flecked mountaintops.

SOON AFTER THE BLOODLESS COUP in Lisbon in 1974, a separatist movement called FLAMA emerged on the Madeiras.FLAMA, led by political conservatives fearful that the national communist government wanted to expropriate their lands, vociferously opposed Lisbon’s “colonial” grip on local affairs. The archipelago gained autonomy in 1976, and in the same year Alberto João Jardim became president. Perceived by many Madeirans as a man with the backbone to stand up to both the national government in Lisbon and EU headquarters in Brussels (and the acumen to extract ever increasing subsidies from them), Jardim enjoys extraordinary support from the public. There are no strong opposition parties on the islands, and most Madeirans agree that Jardim, who has been in power for the past 18 years, will no doubt be in power for the next 18.

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NOWHERE is prosperity Jardim-style more apparent than at Caniço de Baixo, an area southeast of Funchal that has been transformed from a sleepy farming community into an outpost of Teutonic suburbia. Attracted by its stunning coastline, developers from Germany constructed a holiday refuge there for their wealthy compatriots about ten years ago. Today neat rows of identical stucco houses line the town’s impeccably maintained streets; glossy BMWs glide past faux Bavarian beer halls.

Not everyone in Caniço de Baixo lives an affluent life, however. Walking along the waterfront, I noticed a modest house standing alone in a rubble of construction, an albino dog tethered to its front gate. Several small children with grubby faces played in the shadow of the enormous luxury hotel that was under construction just across the rough dirt road. A young woman emerged from the simple dwelling to hang laundry on a line. A housewife whose husband works in construction, she told me that this was the house where she grew up. I asked her what will happen to her home when the hotel is finished.
“They'll tear it down, of course,” she said flatly.
Didn’t that make her sad? She shrugged. “Why should it? The land was there. Why not build something on it?”
And build they have. Between 1990 and 1993 the EU invested 370 million dollars in the islands. Much of this money has gone into modernizing roads, bridges, clinics, and schools. But a good deal of it has also gone into the construction of big luxury hotels and apartment complexes.

Nestled in the heart of Madeira, Curral das Freiras was once so remote that in the 16th century nuns would flee here to hide from pirates who periodically pillaged the island. Today the village is a 30-minute drive from FunchaL New roads and bridges seem to be sprouting everywhere, especially on the eastern coast, where a grand plan takes shape to turn that part of Madeira into a different type of refuge: a free-trade zone that shelters businesses from the tax man.

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Not all the money from Europe has fed the construction frenzy, however. Over the past three years 70 million dollars has been invested in an organization called the Centro Regional de Formação Profissional, a job-training facility located outside Funchal that has prepared 28,000 young Madeirans for the burgeoning marketplace. The center, which has programs in everything from computers to industrial design to hairdressing, has provided direction for a whole new generation, especially for women.

Young women like Suzie Mary de Freitas, whom I met at a village called Cruzinhas in the northeastern part of Madeira Island, have their own notions of progress. I first glimpsed Suzie as she sturdily trudged up a steep hill, an unwieldy bundle of green willows on her back. She carried her cargo to some old men, who were soaking the stalks in water so they could peel and dry them and then weave them into furniture and baskets.

Astonished to see a 20-year-old woman engaged in a supposedly dying business, I asked her about the industry’s future.
Suzie responded in impeccable East London English, “Oh, I couldn’t really tell you about all of that. I’m just helping out a friend of the family for the day.”
She said her parents are Madeiran, but she grew up in London.
I asked if, having tried wickerwork, she would return to London.
“No way,” she retorted. “I want to stay here, where it’s healthy. I’m going to take a course at the center and learn to be a chef. You can make good money, working at one of the fancy hotels in Funchal.”

Before autonomy, most Madeirans in search of a better life had no choice but to emigrate. About a million still live overseas  most of them in South Africa and Venezuela. Today, however, emigration has decreased dramatically, and young Madeirans like Suzie have begun to return to the Madeiras to find work.

But while the tourism industry and the service sector are booming as a result of this influx, traditional industries are suffering.

Worst hit, many say, are the farmers. Once Europe’s largest producer of sugar, Madeira gradually converted its land to viticulture to supply grapes for a growing wine industry. About a decade ago, the agricultural balance changed again when many farmers, realizing bananas could fetch a higher price per acre than grapes, replanted some of their vineyards with banana trees. Now the island’s biggest agricultural export, about 25,000 tons of Madeiran bananas are sent to Portugal each year.

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