João Matos Fernandes, Portugal’s Environment Minister, tried in vain to convince MPs at a Committee on Environment, Spatial Planning and Local Government hearing today, that he knew what he was doing.
The subject under discussion was the recent flurry of demolition notices sent to householders on the Ria Formosa islands, 60 letters in total, demanding that islanders vacate their properties prior to their buildings being knocked down.
The Environment Minister assured MPs that the resumption of the demolition process on the islands affects 60 buildings, but that will be it for the next three years.
"Noting the risks, which will be evaluated every three years, more housing will have to be removed from the area, but in the next three years it will be just these 60 buildings and there will be no further demolitions," said Fernandes, fully aware of his recent promises to the islanders that each property would be dealt with on a one-to-one basis in close collaboration with the islanders and the various island groups set up to protect their rights.
The urgent parliamentary hearing had been requested by Communist Party and Left Bloc MPs.
Algarve MP, Paulo Sá, considered that these 60 demolitions are "an illusion."
"There is always someone who wants to deceive people. First these 60 demolitions are announced and then 60 more ... don’t try to deceive people," complained the communist MP, stating that his party will continue to defend the inhabitants of the islands.
On January 13th, another 24 demolition notifications were posted to homeowners in Hangares, and 36 in Farol, two villages the island of Culatra.
"So as not to be in any doubt, the responsibility for sending these letters is mine," said João Matos Fernandes, responding to the question as to whether "the Polis Litoral Ria Formosa Society in sending these notifications is following the recommendations of the Government or is acting on its own?"
According to the Minister of the Environment, of these 60 planned demolitions, there are seven houses that the government expects the owners to be able to prove that, even if these buildings are not first and only dwellings, they are working as fisherman, shellfishermen or are retired.
Left Bloc MP, João Vasconcelos, said the government once again has started the demolitions process without engaging in any dialogue whatsoever with those affected, which is regrettable.” It also is not what the minister promised.
For the Social Democrat MP, José Carlos Barros, "the essential things are the requalification projects" for the Ria Formosa area, referring to a new plan that the Environment Ministry is meant to be coming up with. This plan will look at the islanders, the islands and the lagoon as a whole and to recommend, after deep consultations with the islanders, an agreed way forward.
"Unlike the previous Government, which put its eggs all in the same demolition basket, we are moving forward with requalification projects," said the minister, saying these projects are expected to advance "during the month of February." He has yet to respond to the islanders' detailed report and recommendations on how best to manage the islands.
One significant change of tack from João Matos Fernandes was a statement that his great new plan for the Ria Formosa islands would have to be paid for by Faro, Olhão, Loulé and Tavira councils as the Polis Litoral Ria Formosa company "no longer had sufficient funds to cover the costs."
This will be news to local taxpayers and makes it all the more imperative that Polis Ria Formosa's accounts are analysed as the work it has undertaken in the past 11 years, when compared to its more than adequate funding, sets alarm bells ringing.
It is not good enough for this minister to agree a process of dialogue with the islanders and then twist this around. He deliberately sent out demolition notices, knowing the mental upset and damage this would cause, and now is saying that homeowners can come and convince him that they should remain in their homes.
This is not what was agreed and is a shameful misinterpretation by a cowardly politician, hiding behind his version of an agreement reached after the islanders, many of them elderly, had been ground down into a state of desperation by the constant threat of eviction.