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The Gulbenkian Oceans Initiative versus Partex Oil & Gas interests in Portugal

Through rose tinted glasses...I must say that when I first heard about the Gulbenkian Foundation, I was 10 years old and had just been exposed to their arts program. Since then I have been following “on-and-off” many of their initiatives. Like many others all over the world, I saw them through rose tinted glasses.

I loved what they appeared to stand for! As so often happens in life - and although Portugal is not my country of birth, it did nonetheless become one of my favourite holiday destinations after I relocated permanently to South Africa (I am Portuguese by birth).

Every time I visited Portugal during the course of more than 40 years, I would do a pit stop at Gulbenkian in Lisbon. It was part of my travelling schedule.  It was only natural that being involved in civic society for as long as I have, that I would take a keen interest in what the Gulbenkian Foundation was up to in Portugal, especially, when family matters forced me to move to Portugal in 2010.

So when I first heard about their new project the “Oceans Initiative – Valuing Oceans for Tomorrow” I was undoubtedly excited.

This raised both my curiosity and my concerns, having spent most of my career in the petrochemical industry I have a fairly good idea of the risks that such initiatives poses to the environment and to local communities. But, I felt great! I knew that there was an ally that would be taking care of our shores, and would act to contain any negative impacts – I saw the Gulbenkian Foundation acting as an environmental watchdog – I really believed that the Gulbenkian Foundation would be a great protector of the Portuguese nation and its people interests.

Rose tiintes glasses began to crack...It was around this time that I also became aware of their other five year program – the Gulbenkian Environmental Project – that started in 2006 and would be completed by 2011, and I though – yeh! Here is a fantastic organisation doing their bit for people, planet and more importantly for Portugal. It was great to know that such a prestigious and highly respected civic organisation as the Gulbenkian Foundation was heavily involved in protecting the environment. It meant that there was a home that I could align to, and initiatives that I could support – after all we had common objectives – protect the environment, protect local communities, and protect people – together protecting Portugal.

I didn’t realise at that time how naïve I was.

But late in 2011 early 2012, I made a devastating discovery. The Gulbenkian Foundation owned 100% of Partex Oil and Gas, a major player and highly influential company in the global oil and gas sector who had their eyes focused on “grabbing” interests in offshore oil and gas concessions in Portugal (Peniche, Alentejo and Algarve basins).


So, when I first received a notification about the official launch of the Gulbenkian Oceans Initiative I looked at it with interest and with curiosity – and decided to attend the launch in Lisbon, so that I could hear from the horse’s mouth what they were planning to do to protect our environment, and hopefully be able to ask some very pertinent questions from these present.

On arrival at Gulbenkian’s offices in Lisbon, we were met by a “welcome” committee comprising representatives of the Gulbenkian Foundation and Partex Oil. That welcome committee went to great lengths to stop us from talking to other delegates present. We found their behaviour highly amusing but at the same time very tragic.


Nonetheless, we did get to have a behind close doors meeting, and got our hands on the Foundation’s brochure promoting their initiative – it made for interesting reading and highlighted some areas needing answers. During the meeting the representatives from Gulbenkian and partex, undertook to revert back to us with answers to our questions. Jokingly, I told them, hopefully it would not be in typical Portuguese style, or even the "best" of African timelines, but that they would get back to us within acceptable international timeframes.  Well, well … guess what? Seven weeks later we are still waiting for their agreed to feedback in writing.

I guess that clearly illustrates their commitment to any real “stakeholder” engagement processes.

Now that I have given you a bit of background, here are some of my personal observations of the Gulbenkian Oceans Initiative, and the roles that I see Gulbenkian and Partex playing in it – many question and many suppositions - all based on my own personal viewpoint:

1. Potential conflict of interest: Is there not major conflict of interest between the work that the Gulbenkian Foundation is doing in “protecting” the oceans for future generations and their own controlling interest in Partex? Taking into account that Partex is a member of consortiums that have been awarded various offshore oil and gas licences off the Portuguese coast? How can you “police” your own organisation actions when you control that same organisation? Is this exercise (the Gullbenkian Oceans Initiative) nothing more than a project to protect their own financial and economic interests (aka Partex) rather than looking after the well-being of the ocean, of Portugal and its resident population? Just asking …

2. Decison-making influence: Is there not some hypocrisy when in one hand the Gulbenkian Foundation says that "decision-makers often overlook the whole picture, looking instead at the net benefits of an economic activity of a project, ignoring external costs, and viewing for example an oil spill and environmental disaster as an economic and job creation benefit" - and in the other hand the role that both the Gulbenkian and Partex executives have had as advisors to decision makers? I suppose, reading their documentation, that we can reasonably accept that many, if not all executives and many employees from both the Gulbenkian Foundation and Partex play active roles as advisors to decision-makers both in governments and industry, or don’t they? I guess, I can be forgiven for asking, if that means that in the past they have advised these decision-makers on how they should consider and view for example - oil spills as an economic benefit and as a job creation exercise?

3. They talk about stakeholder engagement – and although I find their definition of stakeholders interesting, they've identified stakeholders as being: – children and youth, researchers, local communities, policy-makers, decision-makers, environmental NGOs, accountants of major maritime companies – but, I was surprised when in another section of the document, they clarify that capacity building programs will be targeted ONLY to specific audiences? Is this not a case of “Being seen to do right” rather than just “Doing right”? Is this initiative then just a tool to justify Partex’s role, when negative impacts of offshore oil and gas operations hits our ocean, shorelines and coastal areas and negatively affects Portugal, our communities and our economy? Their actions to date leads me to believe that the stakeholder engagement they are talking about appears to be nothing more than a whitewash process and a public relations exercise – meaning "it's back to business as usual"? Personally I’m not buying it! Smells of a great PR exercise!

4. Money - Money - Money makes the world go round: One area that concerns me having read, and re-read the Gulbenkian Oceans Initiative brochure is the strong “monetary and financial” focus underlying the entire brochure. I was left with the impression that anything can be justifiable if you can substantiate its “economic” value in real terms … everything else is up for debate. For example will Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs be used as a justification tool to do or justify “some” things as yet unspecified?

Finally, the one area that really raises my hair (not to mention my knuckles) is the fact that as a supposedly blue-chip Portuguese organisation, Partex Oil and Gas (Holdings) Corporation, was registered in the Cayman Islands and not in Portugal. The corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, a charitable foundation established under the laws of Portugal.


And if that was not enough, quoting from their site “ … Partex will continue placing its human and technological resources in support of the continued development of the oil and gas industry.” … and that says it all - maybe now, you will understand why I view the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Ocean Initiative Objectives with a pinch of salt and not worthy of my respect.

Because at face-value, it appears that the bottom line is that the development of the oil and gas industry is their ultimate objective, so its not really in their interest to invest in alternative energies seriously, or to worry to much about negative impacts that their operations may have on oceans, coastal regions, local economies or local communities.  I am left with the feeling that it is all just - about looking at their “bottom-line” profits, interests and agendas.


But above is just my opinion - and my personal view point. It is up to you to do your own research, verify as much as you can, and to then reach your own conclusions.

Laurinda Seabra


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