Acção Ambiental [Environmental
Action] para o Barlavento, [for the western section of Portugal's
Algarve], was established in 1997 when a group of neighbours became
concerned about plans to build a landfill in their area. We believed
that a coordinated campaign was needed and that letters to the responsible
authorities from a duly constituted NGO would have more effect than
those from individuals.
The landfill campaign backed by several demonstrations
and a 3,000-name petition had some initial success and the Silves
Mayor in whose district the project was to be built refused to authorise
it. Within days, however, Lisbon dispatched Under Secretary for
the Environment (and later Prime Minister) José Sócrates
to the province and he soon persuaded the Mayor of the adjoining
Portimão district to authorise the construction on land only
a few hundred metres from the site originally proposed targeted
but within his jurisdiction.
The campaign continued and alternate sites were
proposed. But the Portimão Mayor proved far more tenacious
than Silves’, dismissing every concern and objection raised
and even producing an extraordinarily spurious ‘sociological
study’ justifying the landfill's location. Perhaps more significant,
almost everyone, whose objections were classic NIMBY (Not In My
Back Yard) cases, lost interest or became resigned that nothing
could de done.
And they may have been right. AA took the case
to the European Ombudsman pointing out that the construction contract
was officially put out to bid before the technical documents had
even been received from Portugal by Brussels’ Environment
Directorate, that the proposed landfill specifications fell far
short of standard US EPA codes, that not a single request for landfill
documents had been honoured in spite of Community Directives specifically
entitling citizens access to such material, that alternative sites
were not seriously considered and that landfill promoters ignored
the on-site presence of nesting threatened raptors.
These issues were raised during the discredited
Santer Commission and, perhaps for this reason, almost every point
in the case was lost. Nevertheless, a geocomposite waterproofing
layer was added to the single protective HDPE membrane originally
specified as we had called for. But AA cannot (yet) confidently
claim that this significant improvement was in any way a result
of our lobbying.
With this possible exception, the three-year landfill
effort was a major disappointment. Existing European legislation
was consistently flaunted - apart from the lack of documents, public
hearings were held to satisfy Brussels (whose Cohesion Fund financed
85% of the landfill cost) but not to register, still less respond
to, public concerns.
Just as disillusioning, support from almost every
Portuguese NGO was minimal or non-existent. We must note, though,
that the Liga pela Protecção da Natureza, the organisation
which has done most to protect the country's wildlife, was invaluable
in helping AA to be formed.
During those years, we learnt much about landfills.
This led us to the conclusion that after effective implementation
of the three Rs, (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), well-constructed and
professionally and transparently-monitored landfills in tandem with
composting of organic waste constitute the most acceptable, or least
unacceptable, measure to deal with society's burgeoning waste problem.
We wanted to share our knowledge with the close-to-forty
other communities in Portugal targeted to receive similar facilities
following the European Commission's (absolutely correct) decision
to replace the thousands of uncontrolled rubbish dumps in member
states. Repeated requests for the names of communities being considered
for future landfills to Quercus, Portugal's largest environmental
NGO and the only one that has done extensive research on solid waste,
were in vain.
AA also fought another major project during those
years, the 85M€ Odelouca dam which proposed capturing water
from the Odelouca and Monchique rivers and flooding an area of important
habitat for the European Lynx, the world's most threatened feline.
The dam's environmental impact study, prepared in a clear case of
conflict of interest by the same consortium that would build it,
minimised this threat and justified the construction on two premises
- that regional water consumption was growing fast - there are over
30 separate golf courses in the province with many new ones are
planned - and that traditional sources of water were polluted.
But at no point in the document was there any
account of steps taken to reduce water demand or to minimise recognised
leaks and waste before opting for a multimillion Euro project. Similarly,
no measures to mitigate, let alone eliminate, pollution, mainly
from pig farms, were contemplated. As with so many government proposals,
the symptoms of a problem are tackled rather than its causes and
officials opted for a far more costly response. It was disconcerting
that large, veteran NGOs should not have recognised this in their
own, equally critical, comments.
This was one of several factors which persuaded
Antonio and Adriano Lambe, two of AA's officers with links to Latin
America, to undertake and ultimately concentrate on new conservation
efforts where needs were greater, more wildlife remained and limited
resources would have a greater beneficial impact.
Exploratory trips were made to Central America
with the intention of selecting and buying land for reforestation
and biodiversity restoration. The need is desperate dire. The region
is generally densely populated, very poor and desperate to extract
short-term benefit from the land whatever the long-terms cost. Much
of what little forest remains is burnt annually - on our last road
trip the shroud of smoke accompanied us every day from southern
Texas to the Costa Rica - Panama border. Honduras, which has lost
more than a third of its forest cover since only 1990, has suffered
the greatest percentage of forest destruction of any country in
Latin America. Moreover, apart from a concrete land purchase proposal
from the Nature Conservancy, there was minimal interest in our proposals
from other NGOs and almost none from governments.
At a conference in Costa Rica, the director of
ProNaturaleza, the largest conservation organisation in Peru, invited
us to consider his country. On our first visit, it quickly became
clear that in terms of geography and biodiversity Peru is extraordinarily
rich. Although it faces severe problems, much of its natural resources
are intact and the situation is not as seemingly hopeless as Central
Since 2001, AA has worked on or supported a range
of projects, mainly in Peru's Cuzco region, and recommended many
more. These are described separately in Projects