Algarve Newsletter: 'life's a gas, Amarelinho's cake fetish, palm oil pollution'

Dear reader

News and views from the Algarve...

The war horse of Portuguese politics, always outspoken, always refreshingly honest in his views and opinions, Mário Soares has died at the age of 92.

Soares was the first prime minister in the free elections after the 1974 Carnation Revolution and served at the President of the Republic of Portugal between 1986 and 1996.

The southern shores of the Ria Formosa islands have been hit by pollution after a passing tanker flushed out its tanks and dumped an estimated 40 tonnes of palm oil at sea.

The resulting congealed mess has found its way to shore to the dismay of the islanders and the concern of the authorities.

But the State surely is prepared: buoyed by the October showcase event in Portimão, the two-day, 'Preserving the Marine Environment' conference, at which Secretary of State for the Environment Carlos Martins said that Portugal can guarantee a “rapid and efficient response” to pollution events.

The emergency plan was activated for the Ria Formosa islands and the call went out for... volunteers to clean up the mess - gloves to be provided.

Before this sticky substance had been analysed and its toxicity assessed, the government response was to ask its own citizens to clean up the unidentified mess.

If this had been a 14 kilometre oil slick, would this wholly inadequate response by the State have been the same?

Sadly, I fear that the answer is likely to be ‘yes.’ The government’s safety and pollution plans have been shown to be a sham - calling for volunteers does not give us confidence that a more serious pollution event will be dealt with effectively.

One of the more bizarre laws passed by the last government was that every returned bottle of gas will have to be weighed and the value of the remaining liquid, normally around 300gms, credited to the customer.

Consumer watchdog, Deco, moaned that each household that used gas was being overcharged by €72 a year for the small amount left in the bottle every time one was exchanged.

A bizarre and over-complicated scheme was planned that involved every gas reseller having precision equipment to weigh-in returned bottles.

The gas industry refused to play along and said the whole scheme was very silly - and that it could be dangerous as people would be tempted to remove the valve and add water to the gas bottle to get a higher credit.

This was a clear case of the government meddling in an area of life that really did not need to be meddled with. Consumers were not bothered that they could not use every last cubic centimetre of gas so why introduce a scheme that no one wanted.

This legislation now has been referred to as ‘voluntary,’ by the Secretary of State for Energy, Jorge Seguro Sanches.

For once I agree with the head of Galp Energia who said that "the legislature must be able to find a common sense solution."

More fiddling is going on at government level to make the law work. What is needed is someone having the cojones to scrap a law that serves no known or useful purpose.

Something changed over Christmas. The first shipment of Italian rubbish destined for landfill in Portugal had its classification downgraded to enable the rotting detritus to be accepted by the Portuguese authorities.  

Before Christmas, samples of the first 2,700 tonnes of waste showed unacceptable levels of ‘dissolved organic carbon’ which could leach into water systems and bond with trace metals, creating water-soluble complexes.

Over the holiday period, the Ministry of the Environment gave the clearance needed for the rubbish to be dumped. It may be no coincidence that the Portuguese company contracted to bury this stuff is owned by the former Secretary of State for the Environment, Dr Pedro Afonso de Paulo.

The question that nobody in government has answered is why is Portugal taking in and burying Italian rubbish?

Are the Italians prevented from burying their own rubbish due to local environmental laws that somehow do not apply in Portugal?

The government’s popular cancellation of the onshore and offshore oil and gas licences is to be challenged in court by Portfuel and the Repsol-Partex consortium. Good luck with that, as unless these companies know a short-cut, they should be waiting years before these cases are heard - the same delays as faced by the rest of us in a justice system that most avoid due not to its complexity but its lack of speed.

Sousa Cintra hasn’t a legal leg to stand on as Portfuel was set up specifically to enter the sole ‘bid’ for onshore drilling and hence could never have provided the three years’ trading and safety track record required as an essential prerequisite. The owner’s complaint that he ‘had the nod from high up’ that everything would be OK opens more questions than it answers.

We are now in a period where nobody trusts anybody in the oil and gas game. The government is saying all the right things about cancelling the Algarve contracts, while other concession holders are gearing up to start drilling this year, notably the Galp-ENI consortium off Aljezur.

Various anti-oil associations sensibly and jointly have asked the government for a clear statement as to what is going on and what its intentions are. Until the government answers, the situation remains unclear.

Curiously, the oil services support company, Medserve, announced on January 5th, 2017 that it has a contract with ENI “to support exploration activities offshore in Portugal's Alentejo Basin.”

In fact, this contract was celebrated early last summer, even before the start of the public consultation process. How did ENI know it could go ahead with drilling even before the consultation process had been followed through? Medserve had failed to reply to the questions posed by algarvedailynews.

The government is caught between existing and valid contracts with oil companies, its stance that ‘we just want to know what’s out there’ and Portugal’s commitment to CO2 reduction in an agreement signed in Paris and confirmed at the 22nd Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh.

Some clarity and leadership is needed here.

Many of the Algarve’s animal welfare groups and associations have banded together to oppose the Algarve mayors’ plan to set up two ‘super kennels’ at either end of the region.

Claiming that this geography alone will disadvantage volunteering and deter those wanting to home an abandoned pet, plus fears of uncontrolled euthanasia behind closed doors, the group asks the mayors to involve them in the decision-making process and to support a region-wide neutering programme.

Nothing is decided and this approach to mayors’ group AMAL is timely as the only known action the mayors have taken is to have commissioned a report into the super kennel proposal.

The involvement of these animal care groups is essential in advising AMAL what is best for the animals and a serious campaign to stop the production of unwanted puppies and kittens must be part of the solution. Hopefully, a solution will show the mayors and the voluntary sector working in purrfect harmony.

To banking and the behaviour of the now former-president of Caixa Geral de Depósitos, António Domingues, who left the State-owned bank to be run by just four remaining directors, the rest having joined Domingues’ walk-out over their refusal to submit tax and asset statements for public scrutiny.

There is a delay in the hand-over to the new Caixa Geral chief, Paulo Macedo, during which it would have been proper and correct for Domingues to stay on for a few weeks until the European Central Bank had approved Macedo’s appointment.

This, in his typically strident manner, Domingues refused to do, leaving the bank with just four directors as it entered the most important period of its history, undertaking a massive, taxpayer-funded recapitalisation.

Domingues was never a sensible choice to run Caixa Geral and the Finance Minister has been damaged by this badly run affair.

The sale of Novo Banco is close to securing its own place in the history books as the most badly run sell-off in Portugal’s financial sector.

The Bank of Portugal has little grasp of how to handle the media, leaks are endemic and the initial choice of Minsheng proved to be yet another embarrassing mistake when the Chinese failed to provide the necessary funds.

Next came the announcement that Lone Star is in the lead to buy Novo Banco, but that it cannot be considered as the American vulture fund wants to be covered by the taxpayer if there are any hidden non-performing loans on Novo Banco’s books: the government remains insistent that ‘the taxpayer will not be damaged’ in this sale.

The deadline by which to sell Novo Banco is in August this year. If a buyer is not confirmed, the bank will be wound up and its assets returned to creditors, a situation that many creditors say is their best financial option.

Selling off this bank to a US vulture fund would be a shameful end to a sorry saga but the €1.5 billion on the table is nowhere near the €4.9 billion needed for the Bank of Portugal’s governor, Carlos Costa, to be able to claim the creation of Novo Banco was anything other than another huge miscalculation in a career remarkable for a lack of regulation of the financial sector and Costa’s resulting ‘solutions.’

Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, has not put Portugal first as he dithers over the Spanish nuclear power station row.  

The ageing reactor at Almaraz is well past its sell-by date and suffers from years of poor maintenance, with cheap spares often used to keep the plant going. The problem here is that the location is 100 kilometres from the border on the river Tejo and that Portugal lies downstream.

The Spanish have failed to involve their western neighbour in plans for the power station and now are building a nuclear waste dump on the same site, to the horror of environmentalists.

The minister has offered little but platitudes while assuring the public that everything is fine and that he may even complain to Brussels "if the Portuguese government feels that there are trans-boundary impacts from this project" - there are and he hasn’t.

Meanwhile, Portugal’s Environment Minister, João Matos Fernandes, has been snubbed and the Spanish carry on as of Portugal does not exist.

The same vacillating minister last week displayed his ability to postpone all activity that might require a decision by giving the Iraqis another week to decide whether they are to lift the diplomatic immunity covering the twin sons of the ambassador to Portugal. Both are wanted in connection with the savage beating of Rúben Cavaco in Ponte de Sor last August.

The last deadline for an Iraqi response, already extended out of politeness, came and went last week with the Iraqis leaving it until the last minute before asking some legal questions in order to delay responding to the perfectly simple question that has been asked - “will you lift the diplomatic immunity covering the ambassador’s sons?”

The firm, unequivocal and masterly response from Augusto Santos Silva was to give the Iraqis another week. He then left on a trip to India.

One legal case that has been going on for a while with no formal accusations to date is the Monte Branco money laundering inquiry.

This is the scheme that used a ‘coins and medals’ shop in Lisbon to route tens of millions of euros out of the country, spin it on Wash Cycle II and see it pop up for the customer’s untaxed use at a choice of Portuguese banks.

One of the key actors in this devious subterfuge was Francisco Canas, aka ‘Zé Medals’ whose shop acted as a laundry for the rich. He died last week, thus denying us the pleasure of hearing him in the witness stand, seeing him found guilty and spending time in an uncomfortable prison.

The prosecution service really needs to get a move on with these big cases, the public requires that criminals are identified, charged and brought to court. The public is paying for this service and is not getting a good return.

At least in the long-running investigation in the financial life and times of José Sócrates, March 17th, 2017 is the final date by which he needs to be charged.

The Monte Branco investigation has been going on since 2011, surely enough time to amass enough evidence to nail these tax-evaders?

The former mayor of Olhão soon is going to be spending significant periods in court as the public prosecutor not only is charging him over a €6.5 million ‘underpayment’ for some public land sold to a builder, but he now faces an additional charge of jointly authorising the construction of a large villa on land in the Ria Formosa natural area where no such construction is allowed.

The reason was that the property owner and his father were rather important to the then mayor Leal who ensured the opinions of the council’s own engineers were ignored and permission to build was given, quite illegally.

Loulé council has a budgeted income of €27 million this year from IMT receipts, the municipal tax on real estate sales.

Mayor Vítor Aleixo’s re-election campaign fund will be brimming and he already has announced a range of vote-friendly spending measures, no doubt held back from previous years to have maximum effect at this autumn’s council elections.

The mayor would do well to sort out a few of his ‘vote losing’ problems such as the continuing harassment of domestic customer by water services company Infralobo, run by Aleixo’s brother-in-law whose arrogance and bullying have reduced the concept of customer service to a new low.

Blaming foreigners for the high price of property is not the best way of garnering voter support but Vítor Aleixo is determined to use expatriates as a scapegoat when locals complain they cannot afford to live in his council area.

Not all people in Loulé’s expensive properties are foreigners and many foreigners are registered to vote in local elections. Aleixo makes these poorly thought out comments at his own risk.

The rural council area of Aljezur is noted for its wonderful countryside and a mayor who drives around in a beaten up hatchback, rather too frequently stopping off for coffee and cake in a variety of welcoming local cafes.

José Amarelinho realises that Aljezur can’t compete with the Algarve’s central areas for summertime tourists so continues to focus on off-season tourism - as well as hosting a vibrant surfing culture.

Launching three new walking routes last week, Aljezur council has shown that a small investment can bring long-term dividends from hikers looking for a new challenge in the country terrain in and around Bordeira.

The Aromas, Tides and Hills trails add 42 kilometres for walkers to complete in some of the most inspiring countryside the Algarve has to offer.

Good move and happy hiking!


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