View of depleted Barragem that feeds Odemira's hectares of plastic greenhouses , courtesy of rural tourist retreat Paradise in Portugal

Odemira’s problems go far beyond high incidences of Covid and immigrant slave labour: the borough is running out of water

This is the overriding message coming out of a manic week of press exposure of human trafficking and exploration that has been the life-blood of ‘greenhouses’ producing berry fruits and salad greens in the municipality of Odemira.

A few cases (albeit relatively high) of SARS-CoV-2 and appalling living conditions of agricultural workers affected are in fact the least of Odemira’s problems.

The principal issue is water. As such Juntos Pela Sudoeste – a movement that has been decrying the desecration of this area within what ‘on paper’ at least is a natural park for years – is now going ‘all out’ for action and solutions.

The madness of this last week in which the government attempted to requisition private homes on an eco-resort – and at one point actually blocked access to the site that has various families living on it perfectly legally – saw President Marcelo riding in to wrestle back some sanity.

No sooner had he made it clear that he wants full reports of everything going on in Odemira that every politician in Lisbon wanted to tackle the immigrant problem. The ministers of interior administration and agriculture turned up to say ‘yes it was a very serious matter and must be dealt with – but the pandemic is so much more important right now’ (this last message was from the minister of interior administration, showing perhaps how little grasp he really has on the reality within Odemira).

The ‘pandemic’ is not the problem: yes, case numbers are high among immigrants clustered together in abysmal conditions of housing, but no-one is ill. Hospitals generally are showing numbers unseen since last summer.

The problem is policy: the government has caused Odemira’s nemesis by passing a resolution in the Council of Ministers in 2019 that actually allows for further proliferation of the 1,200 hectares of plastic greenhouses along the already-saturated Costa Vicentina.

The same Council of Ministers paved the way for the construction of “mobile units of temporary accommodation, in agglomerations of up to 150 people”.

Says Juntos Pelo Sudoeste: “Bearing estimates in mind of around 15,000 workers, this suggests 100 ‘metal ghettoes’ will be installed within this protected area with no studies done whatsoever on how waste water or refuse generated within them will be managed”.

“The Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano and Costa Vicentina (PNSACV) has a territorial management plan to be complied with but this is not happening”, says the movement’s Nuno Carvalho.

Much worse is the fact the agricultural explorations are bleeding the Barragem de Santa Clara that feeds them dry. Even after a winter with a lot of rain, capacity in the dam is at what activists call ‘dead level’. Nuno Carvalho has told Expresso: “Barragem de Santa Clara has been below dead level for the last two years”.

He translated ‘dead level’ at “below the level that should make it impossible to operate for agricultural activity”.

Yet Odemira’s ‘greenhouses’ and sundry traditional farmers in the area “continue to take 85% of the water”, while the Mira irrigation system (as this paper has stressed in the past) is “so antiquated that it sees incredible loss of water” (click here).

With Odemira’s beleaguered mayor José Guerreiro already saying this week that there is “a strong possibility the area will run out of water” this summer, Juntos Pelo Sudoeste’s entreaty is simple: any increase in new agricultural explorations should be suspended until there are proper living conditions for the workers they employ.

The movement has already sent a blistering complaint of the situation to the European Commission (click here). This has nothing to do with the ‘crisis’ created by a few immigrants testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, but everything to do with the “degradation of the landscape, natural resources and social fabric of so many communities” that has been allowed to go ahead in the name of ‘money’ – money for the producers who are selling their greens and berries in vast quantities, and money for the government in the form of tax revenue.

In Juntos Pelo Sudoeste’s mindset what should happen now is that the companies exploiting immigrant slave labour should construct decent housing for them. “If their activity is serious and has a future, urbanisation projects should be done on the urban perimeters” of Odemira’s towns and villages.

These greenhouses poised to stretch much further into the landscape “have large economic return” and are clearly here in permanence. “There must be investors available to advance with projects for immediate social housing, even if it’s not AHSA (the association of growers of Odemira and Aljezur)”, says the group.

Juntos Pelo Sudoeste has been trying to ‘preserve’ the ravaged natural park for years. With luck the pandemic has handed them a trump card in the form of President Marcelo and his desire to find out everything that is wrong and see it fixed.

The president has sent his advisors out to gather information, and according to media reports, as soon as he has their analysis, he will be calling a meeting with prime minister António Costa.

In the meantime the head of State has timetabled an Open Presidency in the Lower Alentejo for June, suggesting he wants to hear from local people exactly how they feel about their area having been ‘invaded by intensive agriculture’ that has brought with it deep-seated problems from the Third World.

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