Finnish “farming family” in Loulé hinterland accused of €200,000 olive swindle

A family from Finland, described as ‘living in the Algarve’, is in the spotlight this week, accused of having defrauded the Portuguese State of more than €200,000.

The alleged swindle involves the planting-out of 92 hectares for intensive olive production.

Matti Valo, his daughters Christel and Janni, and Moroccan ‘partner’ Fátima Zahara Bendita, are accused of “falsification and fraud in the obtaining of (State) subsidies”, as well as money laundering.

The story – released today in Público – gives no indication of whether either Valo, his daughters or partner remain in Portugal.

What is clear however is that no olive trees were ever planted.

The Public Ministry investigation also appears to be connected to a bitter property wrangle highlighted in Público four years ago.

As the paper explained in August 2013, as many as 80 landowners and farmers were accusing what was then described as “a Finnish investment group” of effectively stealing land (between Querença and Salir) for the olive planting project.

Some of the landowners lodged actions in court, requesting “recognition of their right to the property”, while the Finnish group was described as contesting claims.

Said Público: “The Finns said they had bought 274 hectares, while neighbouring landowners say the land purchased did not exceed 68 hectares”.

The wrangle was exacerbated by “the inexistence of a land register in Loulé”, said the paper, adding that the olive planting project developed from the inability of the Finns to win permission for a tourist resort, with a hotel and adjoining golf course.

Back in 2013, Christel and Janni Valo were described as “young farmers”, who along with Fátima Bendita (at that time described as Fátima El Hand Bendida) were working on the first phase of their planting project, in possession of PRODER (agricultural subsidy) funds then totalling €90,000.

“For the three young farmers to take their project for a biological olive grove forwards, the Algarve’s regional hydrographic board (ARH) authorised the research and catchment of underground water in three locations”, said Público, adding that the land was on top of the Silves-Querença aquifer, in an area of “maximum infiltration”, and representing “elevated hydrogeological vulnerability to pollution”.

The olive grove plan nonetheless “dispensed with the need for an environmental impact study”, which further incensed disputing landowners.

71-year-old Florival Guerreiro told Público: “Any one of us, if we touch a protected plant, will be visited by environmental authorities, fined – even sent to jail.

“I don’t understand how the authorities allowed all this to go through”.

Today, Guerreiro’s mystification may well be moving towards some kind of karma.

It appears from Público’s latest update that the “three young farmers” as well as Matti Valo himself are all in the hotseat – though the money they are alleged to have defrauded could be long gone.

Says Público it “circulated through various bank accounts” “fleeing the control of public institutions” on its way to “an offshore” in the United States.

“According to the accusation, the assets placed in the offshore should be declared lost in favour of the State”.

Today’s story refers to the olive grove plan as being put forwards after the CCDR (commission for coordination and regional development) vetoed “two proposals for projects of national interest (PINs) in the property sector”.

“When the proposal passed to agricultural investment”, the CCDR analysed various projects “one by one without considering the cumulative impacts of the exploration in its totality”, the paper continues.

In all, investment was approved to the tune of “one million and 106,000 euros”. Public expenditure was “around 614,500 euros”, says Público.

Thus it is unclear why the accusation againt the four “arguidos” only refers to €200,000.

Público concludes its report today saying that the Public Ministry believes the four “concocted a plan to hide the origin of the money and impede its recovery by the State” as soon as they started receiving the subsidies.

The alleged laundering scheme involved three companies – Light Line, Unipessoal Lda., Wildsumer, Unipessoal Lda., and Zenithrainbow, Unipessoal, Lda, assets of which last year were still in the name of Matti Valo, his daughter Christel and Fátima Benbida (sic) through offshore company Commonwelth (sic) Venture Capital Group, LLC, based in Delaware, U.S.

Moves are now afoot to try and recover the money, says Público, while Pedro Ribeiro, the president of the directive council IFAP (the institute that finances agriculture and fisheries) is reported to have already communicated to judicial entities that he will be an assistant in the case to draw up a request for civil indemnity.

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