The shout went up over social media early on Saturday evening. An earthmover was ploughing up indigenous trees near the tiny hamlet of Catalão, Barão de S. João – an area already on tenterhooks over the massive avocado plantation that has transformed the landscape over the last two years.
GNR were quickly called, but by the time a police vehicle arrived, the earthmover had gone.
“Someone must have informed them that the GNR were on the way”, said a resident who has already locked virtual horns with CITAGO, the firm behind the avocado monoculture that so far spreads over 70 hectares.
But the incident has served to mobilise a new ‘movement’: a group of residents who have now appealed to environmental NGO Almargem to step in and help.
The issue, like all those involving intensive farming, is the ‘negative effects’ of monocultures on the immediate community.
A number of local homeowners are biological producers who fear contamination of groundwater.
Antipathy to the project has not been helped by a recent article that described the enterprise as one that is as environmentally conscious as possible.
Locals challenge this assertion, particularly the comment made by CITAGO’s Paulo Gonçalves, that the project is in an “isolated area and for this reason will not pose any phytosanitary problems”.
The truth is the plantation borders a number of properties, all of which have to survive on boreholes. Mains water supplies are simply not available.
Last month, one of these properties saw its long-standing borehole ‘run dry’.
Thus neighbours fear any kind of project expansion – as CITAGO has suggested is on the way – could compromise their water.
Another ‘problem’ is the ‘background’ to this story.
CITAGO has already been involved in legal action against unhappy neighbours, ending up receiving a fine for cutting down protected tree species.
In an article by Jornal Barlavento, CITAGO’s representative Gonçalves said the company had cleared “only dead trees” when the project got underway.
He reiterated this again on Monday, saying that although the project had received a number of complaints, people “cannot say the place is theirs as this is an agricultural zone”.
Gonçalves stressed that everything is being done in this pioneering initiative that has become Europe’s largest plantation even before it has produced its first harvest to “minimise” environmental damages”.
The firm is complying with “very tight rules”, he told us, which people should be glad exist to protect them.
Gonçalves could not tell us when the company would be expanding to its second phase of 45 hectares. Nor could he confirm whether CITAGO was behind last Saturday’s earthmoving in Catalão.
He said that “someone” may have been clearing the land without the company’s knowledge.
But the tragedy of this latest upset is that an initiative designed to revitalise abandoned agricultural land has not managed to get the local population onboard.
Said one of the growing number of concerned residents, insects in the immediate area have “all but disappeared, especially butterflies” and the knock-on effect on bird life has been “profound”.
“Swallows that used to make their nest under our roof here could not find enough food for their chicks this year, and they all died.
“We do not hear other the birds like we used to.
“We need to show CITAGO that we are aware of all this, and we will not tolerate any more attacks or threats to the environment.
“We are appealing to other people and organisations who can help us inform the public, so in the end we will be able to control future developments.
“We cannot ‘save the world’ but we can react to what is happening, openly and freely”.
ENVIRONMENTAL POSITIVES BEHIND CITAGO’S PLANTATION
Even though, in the words of Almargem, “it is rare to find massive projects that are environmentally responsible”, CITAGO’s is clearly doing its best.
Fernando Severino, the Algarve’s regional director for agriculture and fisheries, told Jornal Barlavento earlier this year how the project has developed a system that allows optimum use of both water and fertilizers.
He went so far as to say it “should be considered a production model for the region”.
“This will be the future”, he said. “We haven’t reached it yet because neither our farmers nor their equipment are prepared for this, but they will eventually have to be”.