Portugal in doghouse for failure to protect Alentejan birdlife

Portugal is in the doghouse (again) for failure to comply with European legislation – this time regarding responsibilities in at least 14 areas of the Alentejo with  ‘ZPE’ status: meaning birdlife within them should be ‘especially protected’.

NGOs have come together to file a complaint under the auspices of SPEA, the country’s society for the study of birds.

Explains executive director Domingos Leitão, “decisions and omissions by the ministries of environment and agriculture” have allowed farmers to push forwards with illegal options involving “intensive agriculture that has drastically altered the landscape”.

As habitats are destroyed, bird numbers decrease. In the case of the Little Bustard, for example, populations have dropped by half.

Highlighting areas like the Costa Sudoeste (now notoriously pitted by plastic-covered greenhouses, producing berry fruits and salad greens), Torre da Bolsa near Elvas, where there is an intensive olive tree plantation and Campo Maior (Portalegre), the NGOs explain that the government has ploughed 368 million euros into “new dams, irrigation and drainage channels” instead of using the money for “specific measures” that would preserve the agricultural landscape – made up of “mosaics of dryland orchards and pasture”.

“The only solution is to suspend all the new ‘irrigation projects’ for the Alentejo and recover conditions for the affected ZPEs”, stresses Leitão.

The likelihood of the government doing this – even if it is found to have flouted EU legislation – is the ‘big issue’ here.

Struggles similar to this one are taking place in other areas of the country – and even when local people highlight illegalities ongoing in plain sight, very little seems to be done about them, certainly not ‘in time’ (click here) : as a result, habitats are being lost at a galloping pace.

In the last 10 years, says Domingos Leitão, it’s not only the Little Bustard that has seen numbers decimated. The Great Bustard, too, is in “accentuated decline”, along with the Lesser Kestrel and European Roller.

Portugal’s lack of care, when it comes to these species, is particularly frustrating when they are considered priorities “at European level” with various funds ploughing money into their conservation, he adds.

Another aspect of birding’ ‘decline’ is that it reduces the lure of the Alentejo for birdwatchers who delight in the extraordinary landscape that has traditionally been a haven to so many wild creatures.

This is not the first time Portugal has been cited for ‘failure to comply with European directives’ and if the result of its performance over situations like illegalities of charging for motorways constructed with community funds is anything to go by, the NGOs’ battle – supported by GEOTA, FAPAS, LPN, Quercus and the World Wildlife Fund – may be an inconclusive one.

Seven years ago, for example, the EU Commission ‘alerted’ Portugal to the fact that motorway tolls on ‘former SCUT highways’ – of which the Algarve’s A22 is one – are illegal (click here) . Action was threatened through the European courts – but the illegal tolls have persisted, and their charges are even frequently raised.

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