Standing room only as population takes on avocado monocultures

There was standing room only at the “information session” held in Barão de S, João mid-week – and in the middle of the afternoon – in a bid to calm local concern over the stripping of hectares of countryside to make way for yet another massive monoculture.

Speaker Rui Fernandes was representing the latest tropical fruit and vegetable company to ‘come west’, acting as a middle man also for distributors TROPS.

What he said both alarmed and calmed, and to a certain extent he deserved something of a medal for the heckling that he received.

Had he ever encountered such opposition to a monoculture in the Algarve before, we asked? “No”, came the answer. “You people are special…”

But the bottom line remains that this little corner, sitting on an historically rich underground supply of water is being invaded by 200 hectares of thirsty-planting.

With an 18-hole golf course already well-established in the area – and no mains drainage for any of the rural homes –  the audience heard how “when they need watering, mature avocado trees require 80 litres of water per day”.

Multiply that figure by the 46,000-plus trees either already existing or due to be planted, and around 3,600,000 litres of water will be being pumped up every day from the ground ‘when trees require irrigation’.

This was the ‘bombshell’ for people whose boreholes reach only 70-80 metres down. Their fear being that any drop in the level of underground aquifers will leave them high and dry.

But there was more. Fernandes explained that TROPS had actually tried to dissuade the planting of avocados because, in their opinion, it was “too risky. “It may not work. The conditions may just not be right”, he explained. “The monoculture that is already up and running has suffered a number of ‘dead trees’, burnt by the frost. Then there are areas with too much wind. This is not the ideal location for avocados”, he said.

If TROPS’ fears prove well-founded, then the monocultures will “switch to citrus fruit” – and that, said Fernandes, “would be much much worse for the environment because of the number of chemicals that have to be used”.

Thus, the session was something of a rollercoaster, with exhortations from many for growers to employ “the ethics of sustainability”.

Fernandes was loaded up with online references to ‘social projects’ that have transformed monocultures from ‘environmental menaces that poison the earth’ to sustainable sources of food for the community – and he assured those pressing suggestions upon him that he would “try and get their points of view considered”.

The Catch-22 in the situation is that over €6 million has been ploughed into the latest project in Matos Brancos. Owners Frutineves, of Silves, will “want to get the best return for their investment”.

Fernandes intimated that Frutineves stopped at 80-plus hectares for the planting because “100-hectares is the point at which producers have to undertake an environmental impact study”.

This encouraged more outrage from the floor where speakers insisted that whether it is law or not, Frutineves has a moral responsibility to undertake an environmental impact study.

Now it’s a matter of ‘what next’. Fernandes insisted that both projects (one already established involving 76-hectares and a request for 50 hectares more, and the other involving 80-plus hectares) “need the support of local populations” because thefts from avocado plantations can spell investment ruin.

He said Frutineves’ plantation would be open to anyone who wants to come for a guided tour.

Says environmental group Terra Saudável, that will be the next step.

But the ‘tragedy’ of this new onslaught on the gentle countryside is that hundreds of ‘dry orchard’ trees have gone forever, and with it locals’ sense of peace in an increasingly frantic world.

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