Victory in Ria Formosa as judge stands up against government bulldozers

It has been hailed as a victory won by the island’s shyest resident: the chameleon. But in truth it was more about justice, people-power and the true grit that lines every islander’s soul.

As we reported last night, Polis Litoral – the government-backed company determined to demolish multiple homes on Culatra island before the end of the year – has been delivered an almighty blow.

The “courageous” judge at Loulé’s administrative court has refused to accept Polis’ arguments that the demolition of scores of homes on Farol nucleus would be “in the public interest”.

Despite the backing of environment minister Jorge Moreira da Silva – who only last week vowed “the demolitions must continue” – the female judge has come out in favour of the islanders, ruling on the basis of an embargo lodged by Olhão mayor António Pina.

As a politician, Pina can well-appreciate the survival traits of chameleons and he used the “chameleon card” to the hilt.

It was an ingenious move – considering Polis demolitions had already uprooted a tree housing one of these endangered reptiles as it razed homes on Faro Island.

Pina’s argument was that islanders’ gardens provided shelter for these chameleons, and that therefore the islanders’ existence was vital for chameleon survival.

A jubilant Pina has since told reporters that Friday’s decision relating to Farol will almost certainly be repeated when the judge comes to consider Polis’ demolition plan for the neighbouring community of Hangares, as “the arguments are the same”.

But it is also certain that victory would not have been achieved without the islanders’ extraordinary campaign that has seen them travelling to Lisbon twice to pressure parliamentary debates on their future; interviewed on television; mounting protests and petitions and generally shouting their sense of injustice and outrage from the rooftops.

Anyone who can understand Portuguese would be humbled to read the islanders’ accounts on Facebook (SOS Ria Formosa) and Tumblr (SOS Ria Formosa) of what it means to them to live where they do. This has been a fight about heritage from the start, and these people’s determination has literally moved mountains.

One of the many who have written eloquently about the determination to face-up to the government’s plan to get rid of them is Selma Nunes, whose words reflect the poetry in islanders’ souls.
“We are made of the sand that burns our bare feet and burned those of our ancestors before us. We eat and breathe more sand than any other human being, and our skin smells of salt and the southwest”…

As Nunes explains, in the beginning, “being an islander was not fashionable” as the islands were without light, heat, any conditions at all – and their people were thought “dirty and burnt by the sun”. It was only much later that “suddenly everyone wanted to regulate the amount of sun, wind, sun and sand that we were made of”…

Thus, the fight against governments, politicians, expedient arguments centering on coastal erosion and environment may continue, but these people will never give up.

The tragedy is that before Friday’s victory, others were less fortunate. Polis’ destruction of the home of a mother and daughter in Faro will never leave the minds of Culatra’s islanders.
Indeed, the night before they blocked Polis’ entry onto Farol to “take possession” of their homes, against the order of a judicial embargo, many “slept in their clothes” they were so terrified the authorities might come and tear them out anyway.

For now, at least, any chances of destruction have been kicked into the long grass.
Polis’ so-called POOC (Plano de Ordenamento da Orla Costeira) for Vilamoura to Vila Real de Santo António was due to end last year, and was “extended” to take on 800 demolitions this year, for a cost of €17 million paid largely by EC funds.

With this latest judicial ruling – even if Polis appeals – the POOC will long since have lost its mandate.

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