Part of successive governments' devolution strategy has involved transfering the responsibility for ecological land (REN) to local councils which now are at liberty to reclassify these areas to suit local developers.
This increases the likelihood of corruption on a grand scale as former ecological land is relased for tourist development.
This new freedom has been pursued with vigour by the Alentejano councils of Grândola and Alcácer do Sal, already under suspicion for allowing the powerful Espírito Santo clan illegally to develop properties on the Comporta estate.
These two councils have reduced the protected ecological area under their control from 37% to 17% in Alcácer do Sal, and from 46% to 11% in Grândola – a massive land grab, by any measure.
"These are absurd values that reveal strong suspicions of substitution of the use of REN land for real estate and tourist purposes," commented João Branco, the head of ecological association, Quercus.
During a weekly parliamentary debate, the People Animals Nature party's sole MP, André Silva, highlighted, "the process of destruction that is taking place on the Alentejo coast and the extinction of much of the National Ecological Reserve in the municipalities of Alcácer do Sal and in Grândola where it has been reduced by about three quarters."
The environmental association ZERO worked out that that REN area in Alcácer do Sal "went from 55,340 hectares to 17,999 hectares and in Grândola from 37,905 hectares 9,150 hectares.”
Councils involved in this land grab claim that the law is being followed and the government claims the release of swathes of ecological land somehow is in the national interest.
Alcácer do Sal and Grândola councils state that the changes they have made in their REN areas, "fulfilled all the requirements and strategic options at national or regional level as per the Resolution of the Council of Ministers of 2012 and the legislation of 2008.”
"Who benefits from this drastic reduction?” asks PAN, “It is claimed that the law is complied with and that this reduction is of supreme national interest. But what public interest is this that reduces so scandalously the Ecological Reserve area? Who are the interested parties - hospitals and schools in these areas?" asked Silva.
Questioning the Prime Minister, Silva asked if he agreed with the seriousness of the situation when, "65,000 hectares lost is an absurd amount that reveals a strong suspicion that REN land is to be used for real estate and tourism purposes."
“Mr. Prime Minister, what justifies the passivity of the State in the face of this gross territorial encroachment and the common good? We are aware that the current government has not yet expressed its views on the environmental crime that authorises the irreversible destruction of the Alentejo coast," he added.
The PM said he had already spoken with the Environment Minister and will respond in the next few days.
Quercus looked at the remaining ecological zones in the two municipalities and concluded that by restricting the REN land to areas near rivers, the new zones took no account of watercourses and the recharging areas for essential aquifers which, if built on, may not fill up and will be subject to pollution.
So how have these two councils arrived at the new REN zones? By picking the most fervent anti-REN professional in the country, Professor Sidónio Pardal .
Manuel de Jesus, the councilor in Alcácer do Sal responsible for the planning department, said that all the technical work to alter the REN areas "was developed by the Technical University of Lisbon, under the coordination of the Professor Sidónio Pardal,” adding that the process "obtained favourable opinions from the CCDR-A (Alentejo Regional Coordination and Development Commission), and received an "unconditional favourable" opinion from the ICNF (Instituto de Conservação da Natureza e Florestas)."
Sidónio Pardal commented that, "The National Ecological Reserve is a scam that does not identify or serve any ecosystem." This is why he was chosen.
The mayor of Grândola, António Figueira Mendes, said that the changes to the REN areas in his municipality were carried out by the last council, but guarantees that all changes respected the technical and administrative procedures,” adding that "all the public, administrative and collective interests that were in question were safeguarded."
Collective interests may well include developers which eye the 45 kilometres of unblemished coastline with increasing relish, offering "numerous and diversified potentialities,” according to the mayor.
Mayor, Figueira Mendes maintains that "the balance between economic development, tourism and natural and environmental preservation of habitats, must continue to be a key factor and differentiator of the sustainable development strategy of this territory," and claims the various land-use planning instruments will ensure that this is so."
The Portuguese Environmental Agency (APA) also claims to have exercised its responsibilities with probity and vigour, "within the framework of the REN delimitation process" as per the Resolution of the Council of Ministers no. 81/2012.
Alcácer do Sal and Grândola councils have been itching to have big bucks tourist developments on their patches, not least from the Comporta estate project for resort-type tourism with hotels, residential areas and golf courses.
The prospect of 30,000 tourist beds across the two municipalities was almost too much to bear for these rural councils and when in 2008, the Council of Ministers approved a new development proposal for the Herdade da Comporta estate, which covers 12,500 hectares of REN land, the municipalities of Alcácer do Sal and Grândola relished the addition of 8,000 beds backed by the noble Espírito Santo name, despite its chief crook, Ricardo Salgado’s, fall from grace in 2004, a point that was brushed aside in the quest for tourism gold.
While Herdade de Comporta is undergoing a highly suspicious sale process, designed to exclude all but preferred bidders linked to the Espírito Santo family, the tourism projects at Herdade da Costa Terra and Herdade do Pinheirinho lie abandoned, blots on the landscape that the developers claimed they wanted to preserve and cherish.
The reason these projects were halted was a court decision following legal actions brought by Quercus and GEOTA.
The resort construction had been authorised by the Government but covered extensive areas of the Natura 2000 Network, another land categorisation that developers hate and for which there are no current plans to mess with.
The developer’s friend, 'Project of National Importance' status can still be used to get around most planning objections but with the removal of much of Portugal’s REN land, opening it up for development applications, the government may have to try and put this particular genie back into the bottle or face a future where ecological groups constantly are in court to halt development on land that should never have been released for building.