Voices unite against authorities’ blinkered approval of water-guzzling avocado monocultures 

After years in which its members appeared to be shouting into a void, the Algarve’s Regenerate environmental association (born out of an earlier group, Terra Saudável) has been ‘joined’ by other voices railing against the folly of proliferation of water-guzzling avocado monocultures – not least the mayor of Aljezur, José Gonçalves who by dint of his position has managed to get his concerns straight onto the desks of the Ministers of Environment and of Agriculture.

While Regenerarte has lodged a legal case against the environment ministry, José Gonçalves’ intervention has simply reinforced the bottom-line message: authorities’ continued approval of plans to install avocado plantations in a region that is being quietly crippled by drought is “deeply worrying”.

Equally concerned is the Alentejo’s Facebook group Juntos pelo Sudoeste which has been warning of the damages caused by intensive agriculture along the Alentejo-Algarve westernmost border for a very long time (click here).

Welcoming José Gonçalves’ stand, the group posted earlier this week: “We hope that the mayors of the southwest will be heard by political leaders in Lisbon who haven’t got the slightest idea of what is going on in the real country – in this case the southwest which is experiencing extreme drought, desertification, relentless destruction of biodiversity and a form of uncontrolled mass immigration of people who live in degrading conditions” (this referring to the legions of Third World immigrants employed within the various intensive plantations). 

Says Juntos pelo Sudoeste, people “should be conscious that eating avocados should be an exception not a rule, likewise the consumption of red fruits”.

The issues of water-versus-intensive agriculture projects in the south appear never to be taken seriously regulatory authorities – hence the reason for Regenerarte’s legal action.

In the group’s words: “At a moment when the Algarve is facing the worst drought in recent memory; at a moment when climate change is being felt with special intensity throughout the Mediterranean region; at a time when the Algarve has given the sign that it means to prepare for climate change and face the issue of lack of water; when all this is happening it is intolerable that throughout the Algarve there is the planting of species like avocados which require a great deal of water”.

Even worse is that fact that inhabitants concerned by the demands on local water sources already compromised by climate change are “denied any kind of assessment of the impacts these plantations have” on the environment, biodiversity of the area, even the landscape.

Says the association that previously tried in vain for proper dialogue with the companies that have transformed swathes of ‘dry orchard land’ between Barão de São João and Espiche (Lagos): “With this lawsuit, the Regenerarte association intends to hold public bodies to account and bring transparency to the process of the emergence of monocultures with serious consequences to the environment and, to that extent, for all of us”.

It is arguable that even this lawsuit – lodged by a relatively small and unknown group – could be ignored. But this is now impossible in view of the intervention by Aljezur’s Socialist Mayor.

For this is a ‘critical political moment’ too. Local elections take place next year and traditionally Socialists have always ruled in Aljezur. It would be extremely misguided of any government minister to ‘ignore’ Gonçalves’ ‘concerns’.

Mayor Gonçalves may not have been as inflammatory as Regenerate, or indeed Juntos Pelo Sudoeste, but his words cut right to the chase, albeit chosen extremely carefully.

In a nutshell he stressed that projects that “have the potential to generate negative impacts on water sources, potentially affecting other environmental factors as well” should be subjected to the environmental impact studies which have up till now been bypassed.

“The extensive interventions in environmentally sensitive areas (in this case right in the middle of the national park of the southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina) – namely the transformation of soils – enhances the reduction of infiltration capacity which is likely to reduce underground water availability and affect its quality”, he warns.

Mayor Gonçalves ‘recalls’ a 20-year-old resolution by the Council of Ministers with “seven principal objectives” boiling down to the “preservation, compatibilization and safeguarding of environmental and natural resources”. 

He ended his missive to the ministries requesting “better appreciation of the matter” stressing Aljezur’s “greatest concern with water, which is an essential” and the “pressing need to adjust its consumption”.

Aljezur’s ‘situation’ is perhaps more tenuous than other boroughs in that its mains water is supplied by Águas do Algarve, but its agricultural water is serviced by the outmoded ‘canal de Mira’, supplied by the Barragem de Santa Clara – which like all southern dams is running dangerously low this year.

Coincidentally, all these initiatives – the mayor’s appeal, Regenerate’s lawsuit and Juntos Pelo Sudoeste’s exhortations – arrive as regionally we’re being told our water in the south is very close to ‘running out’.

Reports in the press on Wednesday warned of a ‘decisive autumn’.

“If it doesn’t in sufficient quantities by the end of the year, the situation in January will be calamitous”, former secretary of state for the environment and one-time mayor of both Faro and Tavira, Macário Correia told Correio da Manhã.

“Rain may not be a decision of the government”, said the man who is now himself dedicated to agriculture. “But there are many measures that can be taken in terms of agriculture and the supply of water to populations”.

Or as activists like Regenerate and Juntos Pelo Sudoeste would say, there are many measures that should not be taken in terms of agriculture, to ensure supply of water to populations…

Click here and here for two recent clips put out by Regenerate which is actively campaigning for support to promote its message ‘before it’s too late’.

[email protected]

Photo: Avocado plantation in Barão de São João: Nuno de Santos Loureiro.