AS PRESIDENT of the Portuguese Nature Protection League (Liga para a Protecção da Natureza – LPN) and a founder of the governing PS party back in the 1970s, Professor Eugénio Sequeira has seen much of the idealism of youth shattered by painful realities – a succession of short term policies and no long term global vision for sustainable environmental development.
That is not to say that everything in recent years has been bad. Compared to the Salazar times, environmental consciousness among politicians and the general public has “moved forward in leaps and bounds” in a country with limited EU funds.
In Portugal, the powerful construction lobby, which directly and indirectly
employs over 25 per cent of the population, cannot be ignored by a government which today lays emphasis not so much on environmental considerations but more on balancing the state budget and competitiveness.
Take the Tejo Estuary for example: one of the riches wetlands in Europe with a wide variety of migratory bird species – including geese and flamingos – and fish they feed on, which are under increasing pressure from a wide
variety of redevelopment projects along the riverfront, including the now proposed international airport for Alcochete.
“In terms of ecology, the site will be a disaster,” says Professor Sequeira. “It’s not just a problem of the birds running across flight paths and getting sucked up in the engines of oncoming planes. The worst is the overall impact of inevitable property sprawl across the south side of the Tejo river.”
The Tejo Estuary provides wintering for some of Europe’s endangered migratory water birds including the white duck, the osprey, pied avocet, great cormorant, grey heron, Eurasian teal, ruddy turnstone sandpiper, slender-billed gull, black-headed gull and the long-billed dowitcher, not to mention an entire colony of flamingos around the Vasco da Gama bridge.
“If the birds go, that’s it, we’ve lost our bio-diversity in Greater Lisbon and that has knock-on effects in the food chain; and because they are migratory, inevitably other countries will be affected too,” he warns.
The area around the Tejo River is also known as the Garden of Portugal with its rich soils producing much of the country’s green produce.
“If the new airport causes a property explosion, the area will be swallowed up and
we will lose our capability to produce our own food. It’s madness to site the airport at Alcochete,” Professor Sequeira insists.
“I see people jumping up and down and pointing the finger each time there are floods around Lisbon and Cascais. Of course there are because the land is tarmaced and paved over, and the water can no longer percolate naturally into the ground,” he explains.
LPN was originally founded in 1948 after a group of 200 scientists – biologists, agronomists and forestry specialists – became outraged that oak and arbutus woodland, known as the Mata do Solitário at Serra da Arrábida, was being cleared to provide energy and wheat land under a Salazar sponsored agricultural campaign. This resulted in the loss of 50 centimetres of top soil which will take 7,000 years to recover naturally.
With successive agricultural policies, thoughtless construction, climate change and forest fires, the same thing is happening all over again on a wider scale.
Today, LPN has 7,000 members working closely alongside other environmental groups such as Quercus to pressure both the government and private entities to take their environmental responsibilities more seriously.
“It’s not all bad, we’ve had a lot of victories, such as the current project to create a visitor centre and observation platform where birds in the Tejo estuary can be viewed by the general public with the minimum of disturbance,” he admits.
The LPN has another successful EU and flora-fauna internationally funded project to protect the natural habitat of the lynx cat along the Spanish-Portuguese frontier with the cooperation of scores of farmers.
Other successes include saving the Great Bustard (260 pairs to 1,400 pairs), the Lesser Kestrel (150 pairs to 490 pairs) and Little Bustard from extinction.
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