President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa
President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa at the Prémio Pessoa event on April 18 in Lisbon. The prize went to maritime expert Tiago Pitta e Cunha, CEO of Oceano Azul Foundation Photo: ANTÓNIO COTRIM / LUSA

Why waste (more) time rediscovering our future? – President Marcelo

Focus this week has returned to the sea, and Portugal’s command of it.

The new government’s programme allocates €252 million of PRR (plan for recovery and resilience) funding to develop what has long been seen as “a strategic area for the country” – albeit one that is underwater.

Former President Cavaco Silva opened this door back in 2015, saying it was time “for a change of paradigm in the exploration of the oceans” – and slowly, slowly Portugal began the latest voyage towards 21st century colonisation.

The plan is to extend the continental shelf to almost four million square kms. This can only happen with the say-so of the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), and this far, the green light has not come.

But June’s United Nations Ocean Conference scheduled in Lisbon could change all that. Indeed, it looks like this is what is on the cards.

Thus, a flurry of soundbites this week have been setting the agenda, seemingly orchestrated by President Marcelo himself.

The elephant in the room is the fact that the new government did away with the Ministry of the Sea following the ‘absolute majority’ win in January’s legislative elections.

The sea is now in the hands of the ministry of the economy, which has been entrusted to former oil company boss António Costa Silva – the mastermind behind Portugal’s PRR (the investment plan benefitting from the so-called ‘bazooka’ of free cash from Brussels), and the man who is on record admitting that one of the many ways forwards for the country is in deep-sea mining and petrochemical clusters.

Environmentalists/conservationists have shuddered at the prospect: one of parliament’s smallest parties LIVRE has already expressed concerns that deep-sea mining is not the way to go.

The most positive aspect here, however, is that the longer it takes the UN to decide on Portugal’s submission (to double its domain of territorial waters), the more everyone – and includes politicians – seems to have woken up to the risks of ‘exploiting’ one of the last remaining natural resources left on earth.

Even the new Minister of the Economy and the Sea has admitted that “exploration of the sea could be a source of wealth, but it can only be done on the basis of informed decisions which safeguard natural heritage”.

Fast-forward to this week, and we saw the Prémio Pessoa (a prize for outstanding contribution to Portuguese culture) awarded to maritime expert Tiago Pitta e Cunha.

Tiago Pitta e Cunha isn’t just a maritime expert; he is THE maritime expert currently advising President Marcelo on matters of the sea.

President Marcelo was the man handing out the honours on Monday, and he used the occasion to pose the question – “why should we waste time in rediscovering our future?”

The floor then ceded to Pitta e Cunha who seemed to channel the way forwards: “We are a long way, as a country, as a State and as a civil society, from being exemplary … profound changes need to be made over the ambition to become one of the greatest maritime powers of the new 21st century paradigm,” he warned.

“We need to make choices, focus on concrete industrial policies where we can take a comparative competitive advantage.”

This means “reducing the scale of industrial fishing” to a form that is sustainable, and “increasing the still laboratory scale of marine biotechnology to an industrial level”.

For a country whose geography is “overwhelmingly maritime”, it makes no sense to keep building onshore wind farms and “photovoltaic parks of absurd proportions” because it will only take a few more years for everyone to realise that, in doing so, “we will have destroyed one of the last treasures of our natural capital: the landscape”, he said.

Divert renewable energy production to the sea and develop the industry of bivalves and algae. “If we do these things today, if we move in the direction of the future, if we anticipate, who knows whether in 10 years’ time we couldn’t be the maritime power that Norway is today? This should be our ultimate goal: turning the country into one of the powers of the new paradigm of the 21st century. It is certainly worth a try…”

But what does the government’s programme say about the sea?

Well, this is where the friction begins; where Tiago Pitta e Cunha’s comments may have been aimed: the government’s new programme (tragi-comically presented on April Fool’s Day) talks of the extended continental platform “guaranteeing sovereignty over living and non-living natural resources existing on the ocean floor and (in the) subsoil…”

A text in Jornal de Notícias describes living things as “organisms that are in permanent contact with the seabed and/or marine subsoil, like sponges and corals”.

Among non-living resources are “minerals like gold, manganese, cobalt, titanium, rare earth elements, tellurium, platinum groups metals, nickel, copper and zinc”.

In other words, deep-sea mining (or plundering, as so many would call it) is still a very loud and clear option.

Yes, the programme allows for 30% of maritime space to be ‘protected’ by 2030 – but that still leaves 70% of four million square kms to play with.

JN’s text went into “deepening relations with industry, universities and centres for investigation, for the reinforcement of business and technology-led clusters and to identify new opportunities in the blue economy” (…) “The government promises also to promote the reindustrialisation of traditional sectors, supporting the initiative of constituting Portugal as an international hub of the blue bioeconomy”.

But the bottom line remains that President Marcelo’s appointment of an advisor on matters relating to the sea may be the only way to temper the zeal of today’s politicians to make what they can from the ocean blue.

Scientists working out of three universities (Nova in Lisbon, Évora and Algarve) recently joined to create Campus Sul (a common platform to defend sustainable development). They admit to being “extremely worried” by the decision to eliminate the Ministry of the Sea and put responsibility for so many square kilometres of ocean in the hands of the minister for economy.

Talking to TSF radio on Tuesday, Alexandra Teodósio, professor of marine biology at the University of the Algarve, explained that “clearly the economic aspect will be more important than the environmental aspect. This, from a strategic point of view, is not correct. The environmental aspect is very important. By definition, the blue economy is the guarantee that we leave our descendants a sea that is in good condition, in good health and in a good environmental state”.

All eyes are back on the sea. We just have to hope they remain focused.


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