An extraordinary municipal assembly in Olhão last (Friday) night voted unanimously and overwhelmingly for the immediate suspension of government plans to start demolishing homes on Culatra island, in Ria Formosa.
Despite being ‘late in the day’ (homes are due to be ‘seized’ in five days time) it was yet another indication that battling islanders have succeeded in getting their message over to all local political parties.
Stirring speeches in support of the ‘only order of the day’ were heard throughout the three-hour meeting.
Perhaps one of the most rabble-rousing came from PSD member and first secretary of the assembly, Bruno Alexandre who recounted moments in history where the Portuguese had “united, fought and won” in a rising crescendo that concluded with the battle at hand.
The no-nonsense motion is now being sent to everyone from the President of the Republic, to the prime minister, ministers for the environment and sea, sundry government agencies – including Polis Litoral which has been the bane of islanders’ fight for recognition – MPs and local and regional press.
As the evening heard early on, during a dramatic moment when islanders rallied to a silent demonstration through streets deluged by rain, “there is really very little difference between a legal house and an illegal one”. The only distinguishing detail is “someone’s say so”.
This is the nub of this fight. The municipalities of both Faro and Olhão are dead against destroying these island communities. The singular reason they are at risk is because the government says so.
As the motion passed last night explains, in “obeying the orientation of successive governments, Sociedade Polis Litoral has never taken onboard the historic occupation of the islands and their role in defending the environment.
Polis has “never entered into dialogue with the populations affected” by its “barely credible or faithful” technical reports, which should have been able to “preserve the recognised heritage of Ria Formosa at the same time as acknowledging the interest of resident populations which, in the main, live from the Ria’s resources”.
The tough-talking document ‘takes no prisoners’.
Instead of investing in the tackling of pollution, the silting up of areas within the Ria or supporting the economic activities of shellfishermen, fishermen and their “thousands of family members”, this government has chosen to “continue the options of previous administrations” and is “preparing to spend millions of euros” in a “stubborn” and “completely separate programme of household demolitions, riding roughshod over the aspiration of populations and diverse deliberations formulated by local and regional entities”.
The government’s actions show “clear disregard for the role of local authorities”, while Minister of Environment Matos Fernandes is criticised for saying one thing and in fact doing another.
“The current minister has affirmed that the demolitions are being analysed and will be adjusted to safeguard primary residences” and occupations dependent on the Ria, says the motion.
But he is not “accepting census data” and instead is “forcing islanders to show proof of how they depend economically on an activity related to the Ria”.
In the case of retired fishermen, this is proving complex, say SOS Ria Formosa campaigners who are even today busy reuniting documentation and making phone calls to try and save their elderly neighbours’ homes.
Concluding the two-page motion, Olhão’s municipal assembly also calls on the government to force Polis Litoral to “replace sand it has removed from the island’s chain of dunes”, and “alter its intervention strategy to prevent risk” and not simply to demolish.
The final point centres on the future and how it would work, given the chance.
The assembly “urges” that the plan of action delivered to Matos Fernandes by islanders earlier this month – describing them as “the only people who truly understand the reality on the ground” – is properly taken into account.
It is a heroic document – perhaps not delivered at the perfect time.
Islanders worn down by this fight have reached the point where they doubt last night’s motion can make any difference.
What they don’t doubt, however, is their unison in conviction that the “struggle continues” (a luta continua).
For updates on developments ‘on the island’ watch our ‘countdown diary’, on this website.
We hope to interview some of the people who face eviction from the only home they know, with no idea of what will become of them.
As we have explained in previous stories, the government announcement that it will be ploughing €500,000 into building new homes for fishing communities does not refer to residents from the nuclei of Farol and Hangares – and these are the places on Culatra island that face the looming wrecking ball.
PHOTO: Last night’s silent protest through the streets of Olhão in advance of the extraorindary municipal assembly