October 27 – the day many feared government authorities would start taking possession of islanders’ homes within the Ria Formosa communities of Farol and Hangares – instead turned into a day of victory, on two crucially important counts. The first was that the government has conceded that both communities have a cultural heritage that deserves recognition and preservation. The second is that the man under whose authority hundreds of homes have been threatened with demolition for years has finally resigned, leaving the way at last open to dialogue.
For now, the demolitions’ programme is temporarily suspended pending case-by-case review – with the likelihood that of the original universe of 81 homes, only 31 will eventually be levelled, 15 of which are considered either “ruins or in a state of abandon”.
“It is an enormous victory,” a jubilant SOS Ria Formosa proclaimed on their Facebook page after the historic day in parliament which saw various parties propose ‘projects for resolution’ over an issue that has haunted islanders for years.
“We now exist on the map of Portugal. From now on, we are all equal.”
Equality has always been at the root of this fight to recognise the legitimacy of island dwellers’ homes. Whereas the community of Culatra, on the same island, has long been ‘recognised’, neighbouring nuclei of Farol and Hangares have up until now laboured under the stigma of ‘illegality’, their homes constantly referred to as “barracas” (a disparaging term, meaning shack, when almost all look like typical Portuguese village homes).
Said campaigners: “There will still be battles ahead, but this has been an extraordinary day.”
It began early on Thursday morning (last week) as three busloads of campaign stalwarts set off for Lisbon to hear the debates on their future.
The day before had brought hope, with the government delaying the compulsory seizure originally earmarked for October 27. In a letter to locally-reviled ‘environment agency’ Polis Litoral – synonymous with the spectre of demolitions – environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes removed 19 houses from the demolition hit-list, on the basis that these were indeed the primary residences of fishermen and shellfishermen that island campaigners declared them to be.
It was a slap in the face for Polis’ “demolition man” Sebastião Teixeira – reported to have vowed that he would demolish Ria Formosa homes if it was the last thing he did.
Polis’ mandate has actually been artificially extended twice, and is now due to come to a close on December 31 this year. But Teixeira will no longer be at the helm.
On the 27th, as islanders travelled up the motorway towards parliament, they received news that Teixeira had handed in his resignation, in opposition to the government’s apparent u-turn.
In yet another indication of how much this fight appears to have become personal, Polis’ outgoing president took to national media to vent his wrath.
Leaking the contents of his resignation letter to environment minister Matos Fernandes, Sebastião Teixeira suggested the ‘victory for the islanders’ could cost the government dearly.
“It signifies the paralysis of, or even invalidates, the naturalisation process legally committed to this society on public maritime domain,” said the text, revealed to both Expresso and Público.
Joined in his resignation by fellow director João Alves, Teixeira said: “We cannot stress the serious losses to public accounts caused by this decision.”
Expresso claimed both men “accused environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes of violating Polis’ autonomy, and de-authorising work that has been developed since 2008”.
Público added that the financial consequences “could be future indemnities to public contractors, the loss or return of community funding and the waste of millions of euros already invested”.
This was a curious threat as it lent weight to islanders’ belief that the demolition of their homes “in the final months of Polis’ mandate” was very possibly connected to the fact that this was the cheapest way of justifying money “that has already been spent”.
Sources explain that the company that dredged sand from the island’s shore for 30 years is the same business who would have been contracted to carry out demolitions.
As it was, Matos Fernandes made short shrift of Teixeira’s criticism, telling Expresso there was no chance of “losing any funds because there are still many interventions to be done in Ria Formosa, and the money can be allocated to other projects”.
Candidacies can be reprogrammed, he added, while the payment of indemnities to building contractors cannot by law exceed 10%, and that amount “can be allocated to other interventions that need doing”.
A sense of ‘game, set and match’ pervaded as the local ports captain revoked the ‘edital’ he had posted days earlier informing islanders that a 200-ton Naval vessel would be docking alongside Farol during the compulsory home-seizures.
The immediate future sees decisions being delayed until November 8, after which time the new demolitions’ programme will not so much be presented, as discussed.
And while islanders await the next round in this Herculean struggle to save a way of life that landlubbers will never truly understand, their thanks has gone to all the political figures who contributed to this ‘turning of the tables at almost the last minute’.
“The names we have to thank are endless,” SOS Ria Formosa posted last week. The group has since attempted to make a start, thanking MPs from PCP (Paulo Sá), Bloco de Esquerda (João Vasconcelos), Os Verdes (Heloísa Apolónia) and PS (Luís Graça), giving special mention to Olhão mayor António Pina, who they say has “moved mountains”, and continues to work tirelessly behind the scenes.
“Most people have no idea of the enormity of his contribution,” said the SOS team. “We owe so much to so many, but we will never forget what you have done, Pina.”
And so we move to ‘the next chapter’: the outcome of promised dialogue with islanders, their associations and borough councils in an episode in local history that proves the inspirational quotation attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it’s the only thing that ever has.”
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]