The Castro Marim Reserve, known to locals as the Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo, is a large protected area of marshland. The site is made up of an area of well over 2000 hectares lying beside the Spanish border, on the west side of the Rio Guadiana.
This reserve was established in 1975 in order protect the natural Algarvean landscape and ecosystem. It is also an internationally recognized Ramsar Site, under the guardianship of UNESCO. Habitat variety in the area includes productive and abandoned salinas, salt marshes, tidal creeks, seasonally flooded pastureland and the tidal shore of the Guadiana. Scattered throughout the wetlands are grassy hills, dry scrubland, farmland and orchards, which allow for an impressive amount of biodiversity in the reserve.
The heart of the reserve was the low grassy hills that formed the western section. On these hills various bird species populations would flourish, displaying signs of a bountiful and stable ecosystem. But alas, this will happen no more.
On the 21st of September this year Clive Viney, co-author of Algarve Wildlife - the natural year, witnessed a horror-inducing sight. These picturesque low grassy hills, well within the strict nature reserve, were no more. Rather unbelievably, they had been stripped bare of all foliage, layered with plastic, and an expanse of many hundreds of hectares had been covered with a vast avocado monoculture.
The area that previously served as a resting and breeding place for multiple species of local and migratory birds had been eradicated of all signs of life.
Mr. Viney returned on the 9th of October to take photographs of the abominable farmland from an open track, and although there were no signs, and he passed through no gates, a car sped to him and the young man who drove warned that he had to leave and not take photographs. One can question what he was trying to hide, since the seemingly endless environmental desert which Mr. Viney witnessed wasn’t exactly something that could be easily concealed.
The budding avocado saplings arose from the plastic groundsheets, being treated with the poisonous herbicide glyphosate, which only makes the situation worse. The largest avocado plantation in Europe is at Barão de São João in the western area of the Algarve, and has been regularly challenged environmentally and economically (see eco123.info online). It seems as if this is tragically the direction that this area of the protected reserve is heading in.
Malaysia is infamous for its environmentally destructive palm oil farming practices, and now Portugal seems to have its avocados. Mr Viney pointed out that he is “not against the productive use of countryside that is of nominal environmental value” and claims that “like neighbouring Spain parts of Portugal will become nothing more than great swathes of barren monocultures.”
Over all this, there is one question that prevails. How on earth could this happen in a nature reserve?
The reserve is managed by the Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e da Floresta (ICNF), whose officers are based in the Information and Exhibition Centre situated in the reserve.
Mr. Viney highlights that this centre has a reputation for being nothing short of a disgrace. He says: “Although a relatively new building, it has never been maintained and the public are all but discouraged from entering. It is not open at the weekends, closes for long lunches and at other times a half-open sliding gate discourages all but the most curious from entry.”
“All external signage is either unreadable or has fallen down and the few trails are either overgrown or difficult to follow. A birdwatching hide is permanently locked but would be of little use, as the area it faces has not been managed. There is a patrol vehicle but it never seems to leave the car park but this may be to save the bother of patrolling huge areas of the reserve which were made out of bounds.”
What is certain is that this eyesore of a monoculture must have been approved by the ICNF. If this is the case, then the approval is an utter disgrace and the public are deserving of an explanation.
(Credit to Mr. Clive Viney, co-author of Algarve Wildlife - the natural year: https://www.algarvewildlife.com/papa-figos/papa-figos-oct19-avocado.php)