Just ten kilometres from the controversial Quinta da Ombria development (pictured) in the countryside to the north of Loulé lies another ‘me too’ tourism project, also with Project of National Importance status.
Vale do Freixo and Quinta da Ombria are ‘tourist village, hotel plus golf course’ style projects that are more in tune with the Algarve’s existing coastal tourist offerings than in the treasured and ecologically sensitive barrocal where 'nature tourism' is the preferred option.
Environmentalists question how on earth these developments got permission. Quinta da Ombria has started to be built and Vale de Freixo is going through the environmental impact assessment process which pays little heed to the fact that the area already is categorised as Natura2000.
The local parish councils are delighted to have local employers on their doorstep to service the 3,500 tourist beds to be created but the developments both lie above the main water supply aquifer for the Algarve (Querença-Silves) which is protected by community laws.
The Vale do Freixo Golf & Country Estate, whose draft plan has been presented to the Loulé council, has Arab money behind it and benefited from the greasy business methods of the former Foreign Minister, Paulo Portas, who ensured that PIN status was given, so as to speed up the planning process and to circumvent environmental restrictions.
The environmental association Almargem of course regrets yet another controversial project that somehow was considered of "relevant public interest" despite being a tired and uninspiring tourist model.
The PIN classification, says the president of Almargem, João Santos, is nothing more than "a blatant political whitewash, justified by the alleged economic, technological and 'green' character of the enterprise."
The proposal at Vale do Freixo in Benafim is for 1,700 beds, around the same as at Quinta da Ombria not far away in a formerly unspoiled rural landscape and which boasts "the five-star Viceroy at Ombria Resort and Viceroy Residences at Ombria Resort, an 18-hole golf course, freehold apartments, townhouses and villas amid cutting edge amenities: spa, health, fitness, leisure and entertainment facilities; food and beverage outlets; conference and sports centres" "all integrated as a contiguous zone of leisure and wellness inserted in a unique natural landscape."
Almargem's João Santos believes that the "cumulative impacts" of the two developments are evident and he is concerned about a return to "real estate fever" to the Algarve’s barrocal hillsides: "We will inform Brussels of what is happening, Community and national laws are not being respected."
The project was considered for PIN status in 2012 and the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests approved the application, subject to "adaptations and adjustments" to respond to the constraints imposed by law but not mentioning the Natura2000 parameters.
About six months ago, the draft plan was shown to Loulé council and mayor Aleixo responded, saying that national safeguards covering classified areas with protection status need to be adhered to.
The European Union has stated that after Quinta da Ombria, there should be no similar developments in the same area, yet it has done nothing to halt Vale de Freixo despite both resorts sitting on top of the aquifer. The corporate blurb admits with some delight the location as being, "Located in inland Algarve, close to the Fonte da Benémola and Rocha da Pena protected landscape areas and between the quaint villages of Querença and Tôr" where it asks you to "Envision a secluded and authentic lifestyle, carved by nature. Imagine a bespoke shelter for earth lovers."
Almargem is to re-alert Brussels as to what is going on with the second resort of Vale do Freixo with irreparable damage to the environment and the threat to the region's water supply. Whether, at this late stage, anything will be done remains to be seen but Portugal has a long history of ignoring EU environmental rules whenever it suits start-struck ministers involved with big business.
The collusion of the Portuguese government, whose use of the PIN scheme is a way to circumvent most environmental and land classification obstacles, seems again to be working to the permanent detriment of the countryside.
"We will fight with all means so that this new attack on the cultural and natural identity of the Algarve will not be perpetrated," says Almargem: and it is an attack, with the Vale do Freixo development covering 381 hectares of Natura2000 land and lying near the protected Rocha da Pena area.
The plan at Vale do Freixo is for 350 direct jobs, when two hotels, a golf course, eight villages and complementary infrastructure is built, although these jobs always seem to evaporate when such projects are completed - a good example being at the International Autodrome whose promoter, Parkalgar promised 1,650 direct jobs: there currently are around 40 employees at the insolvent racetrack.
In December 2012, during a tour of the Persian Gulf, the former Foreign Minister Paulo Portas highlighted the importance of the Vale do Freixo investment by United Investments, a company that is part of the Al-Bahar family stable who also control the Pine Cliffs Resort in Albufeira.
At that time, United Investments' managing director, Carlos Leal, said that the work should start in early 2014 with the final approval of the project dependent on the environmental impact assessment, which involves two dozen entities.
The Algarve Left Bloc MP João Vasconcelos called for an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Planning and Nature Conservation in January a year ago. He pointed out at the time that the project received a PIN classification, but argues that it should not have done as it “violates national and Community legislation.”
Environmentalists add that the Vale do Freixo venture endangers several habitats protected by community and national legislation, for example only a hundred meters away is "the most important cave of cave bats in Algarve, classified of national importance."
Bats or jobs? The public has not been asked to decide as these big projects are approved under the PIN system, deliberately designed to bypass normal planning regulations and consultation processes.
At least, for Vale do Freixo the delay to date has been down to environmental considerations.
With Brussels aware of the impact that Quinta da Umbria inevitably will have on the Algarve’s fresh water supply, can it sanction another ‘me too’ development just down the road?
See also, from Jan 2016: 'Algarve MP calls for urgent talks over another golf resort on protected land'