As the bulldozers start revving up for the real challenge in Polis Litoral’s €17 million ‘cleansing’ operation of “illegal homes” on Ria Formosa islands, the Resident goes to ground zero and discovers the truth behind a scheme that is using barefaced lies to bulldoze 200 years of history.
Islanders invited us on to their beloved island last weekend, and this is what we learnt:
The 800-odd homes left in danger of demolition are not ‘illegal’ at all. They were built with full knowledge of the authorities, which accepted IMI rates payments, organised mains drainage and even set-up parish council offshoots.
The houses also are not ‘damaging the islands’ or leading to coastal erosion. In fact, they are doing just the opposite – as demolitions recently effected on nearby Ilhote das Ratas prove.
Within six weeks of the few island homes that used to stand there being levelled, the sea has advanced to such an extent that at high tide the island has completely disappeared.
In other words, the official line that “barrier islands must be returned to their natural state to protect mainland areas” is completely bogus, say islanders.
“None of what is being said to justify the demolitions makes any sense at all”, islander Armando Rosário told us as we shared a ferry trip from the island community of Farol.
Farol is at the eastern end of the landmass frequently described as three islands: Culatra, Hangares and Farol. The three communities are in fact all joined, and full of people whose forebears came to live on the island to work for the government.
“This is another tragedy behind this story. The families of people on Farol came here to build the lighthouse and access paths”, explains 30-year-old Vanessa Morgado whose parents received one of the latest batch of letters sent out by Polis informing them they have to be out of their island home by April 24. On April 25, Portugal’s celebrated “Dia da Liberdade” (Liberty Day), Polis’ machines are due to start razing the illegal homes on the island. Not only are residents astounded that the authorities could pick such a symbolic date, they are also at a loss over how the “illegal homes” were ‘chosen’. For example, homes on the westernmost tip of the island, nearest to the oncoming sea, are for now spared destruction by the bulldozers. Homes a little to the east, a tad further from the shore, are not.
Taking us on a walk through the pretty ‘streets’ where we talked to residents who described sleepless nights since they received their eviction notices, Vanessa’s father asked us to try and imagine which part of the area was legal, and which wasn’t. It was impossible. We were outside a small blue and white house, bearing the number 184A – the ‘farol’ (lighthouse) directly behind it.
“The cut off point runs right through this house”, Fernando Morgado explained. “If the bulldozers get their way on April 25th, they will tear down half the house and they will have to leave the other half standing…”
But as we mentioned earlier, demolitions planned for Farol, Hangares and Culatra will be the real test of Polis’ programme of destruction.
This is where islanders are completely united – not only by landmass, but by history and a burning sense of heritage. They have all chipped in to a legal fund, hiring a lawyer they say has “excellent experience” in fighting the government over these kind of ‘environmentally-led’ community extinctions.
As Sylvia Padinha, Culatra’s president of the residents’ association, pointed out: “We, the people, are part of the environment. We have been here for two centuries, working and living on these islands. We have the highest percentage of young people registered as making their livelihoods from fishing than anywhere else in the country”.
Polis’ millions should have been spent first on ‘fixing’ dangerous underwater sandbanks that have caused endless accidents over the years, she explained, and sorting out pollution problems – caused by raw sewage that still runs into the estuary from the mainland (see photo).
Meantime, the hope is that resident-led court actions will be successful before Polis’ D-Day for destruction.
“Hope is the very last thing to die”, Vanessa, a young working mother looks exhausted by the fight. “We are going to continue fighting this to the very last moment”.
A petition set up to support the islanders’ cause has been somehow tampered with online so that anyone accessing it gets a virus-threat notice.
Vanessa explains: “People can ignore the notice. We don’t know how it got there, but it is harmless. The petition can be accessed safely by pressing ‘continue’”.
Equally odd, however, has been the way the islanders’ fight has been publicised by national news media.
“When we set off in buses to protest outside parliament earlier this month, every paper said there was only 200 demonstrators”, Vanessa told us. “I was there. We were closer to 650 – and yet TV stations passed right by us. It is as if there is a conspiracy on all levels”.
The Resident has reported on two occasions that the likelihood of a hidden agenda in these environmental ‘actions’ is now almost universally accepted.
“We have been told that there are plans in the drawer to bring in “high quality” so-called sustainable tourism once the island has been cleared of its communities”; Vanessa told us.
“Anyone who doubts this should look at Fuseta where the minute the sea destroyed homes by the waterline, the land was sold to developers who actually built a resort on protected marshland.
“The government’s hurry to demolish our homes is so transparent, it makes me ashamed of being Portuguese”, she added.
Behind her, Portuguese flags can be seen flying from a number of islanders’ homes – including the little house of her parents.
“I am still proud to be Portuguese”, Vanessa’s father looks over the Ria. “I am just not proud in any way of the politicians of our country”.
As has been widely publicised, politicians have been bouncing this issue around for years, with the PSD/CDS coalition describing itself through Algarve MP Elsa Cordeiro as “the only government brave enough to go ahead with the “requalification” of the islands and their naturalisation (return to the wild)”.
“Great care” was promised by environment minister Jorge Moreira da Silva to ensure “no islander would be left homeless”. Islanders say this was all hot air to satisfy the media.
“People have been given alternative housing, paid for for three months, and then find themselves out on the streets because they cannot afford the rents”, we heard.
In Culatra, a German resident did not mince his words. He has “complained to his embassy, as well as to Angela Merkel” and will be waiting for Polis with his shotgun.
“That’s where this will go, in the end”, fisherman José Lezinho shrugged. “We’ve already had three people in hospital since this all started. They can’t take it. The older one’s have nothing to fear. This island is all they know. People will try everything”.
Lezinho added that the islanders’ next struggle will be to hold on to shellfishing areas (viveiros) which have been in families for generations but which Polis now rules must be offered up in July to auction.
Thus the battle continues. As we write, islanders are finalising plans for a demonstration outside Faro council on Tuesday morning, a “marcha lenta” (slow march) on Saturday, and a fishing boat protest on Saturday April 4.
Anyone keen to follow the news or sign the petition should access: ……….. Meantime, we will be following the islanders’ stories in this Daniel versus Goliath struggle that raises many more questions than it answers.