Islanders battling to save their homes from government-backed bulldozers have just survived an extraordinary week. In the space of a few days, they have seen embargos filed at the 11th hour upheld by Loulé administrative court; the largest “people’s protest” that the Algarve has ever seen rally to their cause and the reviled government agency intent on destroying their lives sent packing. The Resident looks at the drama playing out on Culatra island and discovers that behind the true grit that has been the island’s ‘saviour’, there lurks a shy and vulnerable chameleon. It would be trite to say the chameleon has been the island’s hero. The heroes are the men and women fighting relentlessly to save their communities. But the chameleon has certainly helped.
The chameleon was cited by Olhão mayor António Pina in a bid to save his constituents’ homes from the threat of demolition. As Público reported on Monday, judges upheld Pina’s bid for an embargo on the basis that the chameleon lived in the “trees and bushes” in islanders’ back yards. Trees and bushes that were planted by people that Polis Litoral claims are damaging the environment.
The rest, to an extent, is the latest history shaping unique Culatra island. Part of a wetland dubbed one of the seven natural wonders of Portugal, its residents have belonged to the landscape for generations. Almost all of them connected to fish or shellfishing, they are people shaped by the elements. There is a strength of purpose and community among them that government ministers and politicians are only now accepting they may have misunderstood.
As this year’s looming threat of demolition came ever closer to their lives, the islanders have managed to harness their fear and turn it into a campaign that would impress any world-class creative agency. But they are under no illusions.
This week’s court ruling has only bought them time. They remain “ready for war” to save their lives and their livelihoods, and their success can already be seen in the way the nation’s press is reporting their plight. No more do papers describe their houses as “illegal”.
The terminology now is “considered illegal” – and moves are afoot to get the agency that considers them illegal disbanded once and for all.
Polis Litoral “on borrowed time”
Intriguing – because it has hardly been covered by the national press – is the fact that Polis Litoral should have been disbanded at the end of 2014.
In other words, there should be no demolitions ongoing this year at all.
Polis’ life-cycle was determined under the so-called POOC (Plano de Ordenamento da Orla Costeira) for Vilamoura – Vila Real de Santo António, to run from 2005-2014.
The POOC was “prolonged” for a year by a government that claims it is the only one “brave enough” to bite the bullet and bulldoze over 800 homes.
Campaigning Mayor Pina has gone on record to suggest Polis is “illegal, and any act practised since January 1, 2015 lacks legitimacy”.
It is an argument that Loulé’s judges will no doubt be keeping in mind as they give Polis 10 days to file counter arguments against the decision made on Thursday to save 137 homes from government-hired bulldozers.
They may also look into Polis’ “intervention plan” which does not at any point mention the physical demolition of islanders’ properties.
The lack of transparency is compounded by the fact that Polis appears not to have published any accounts for the last three fiscal years.
Islanders “slept in their clothes”
Meantime, islanders are staying alert. We heard on Monday how they all “slept in their clothes” on Sunday night, “absolutely terrified” of what the next day would bring.
“We had heard Polis was on the way despite the judge’s decision”, leading campaigner Vanessa Morgado told us. “We heard they wanted to take possession of our homes despite the fact they were told that they couldn’t. We knew we had to fight, but we really didn’t know how things would go. We slept in our clothes, we were so worried. It truly brought home to us what people who have already lost their homes went through. I can’t describe the feeling”.
Vanessa was caught on camera weeping in her father’s arms as Polis Litoral left the island on the advice of police.
They were tears of relief and exhaustion. She is one of a group of five that is going all out to save islanders’ way of life.
It was Vanessa who helped organise the kilometre-long human chain that took to Farol quayside on April 25 in the most impressive show of people power that the Algarve has ever seen.
Chanting “Islanders united will never be defeated”, the chain was bolstered by well-wishers from all over Portugal.
And the idea to order 800 carnations to give out to everyone who took part was perfection – even though there were many more people than blooms available.
“We’re no longer ‘clandestine’!” Vanessa smiled. “People know who we are!”
TV show talks of human tragedy
One of the islanders’ coups was a morning slot on RTP’s Agora Nós programme, where psychologist Mauro Paulino outlined the stress of losing one’s home. “We are not just talking about the demolition of houses, we are talking about the demolition of lives, of people who are real, not simply numbers in processes”.
“Policies should not be blind”, Paulino argued: “What is more frightening than losing a past, and the present, is not having any perspectives for a future”.
It is an argument backed by Pina who has already warned of the inability of the Câmara to offer compensation to people thrown out of their only shelter.
Thus the fight continues.
Islanders have a packed schedule ahead of them, including another TV appearance scheduled for next week, processions on Hangares nucleus – the middle of the island also under threat of multiple demolitions – and a mass-concentration on Hangares on May 13, a sacred day in the Portuguese calendar marking the apparition of Our Lady at Fátima, but also the date chosen by Polis to take possession of the next round of homes.As the clock ticks, thoughts, hopes and prayers centre on the judges at Loulé’s central administrative court.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]