Saturday, June 30, 2012

Salgados - a shoddy and shameful saga

A new spurt of public interest in Lagoa dos Salgados has focused the spotlight once again on a well-known bird site that years of painstaking negotiations have failed to protect.
Portuguese government authorities have long stymied efforts to have the lagoon formally declared a Special Protected Area (SPA) under EU law.
Various governmental and non-governmental bodies have held endless meetings about other ways of conserving Lagoa dos Salgados rather than letting it become destroyed through neglect or overwhelmed by yet more development.
Then in 2008, the RSPB in close collaboration with the Portuguese bird society SPEA, felt able to announce that just one last hurdle remained before a final deal could be struck between all the public and private parties involved in the discussions.
 The hurdle involved control of the water level so that the wetland habitat could be carefully managed for the benefit of the many species of breeding, wintering and migratory birds, as well as many resident and visiting nature lovers.
Since 2008, things seem to have gone backwards.
At the climax of the breeding season this year, the water level was dropping alarmingly. The northern and western end of the lagoon was drying up because of a lack of rainfall and allegedly because a regional water authority was not supplying water from a new treatment plant to the lagoon as well as a neighbouring golf course as previously agreed.
A few weeks ago, SPEA expressed concern about this. The ARH hydrographical administration reacted by putting out a press statement saying it was taking measures to correct the situation.
SPEA accused ARH of lying because the water level continued to drop. It has done so to such an extent that much of the lagoon is now an exposed expanse of cracked earth. 
  There was no explanation from the ARH in Faro or the Portuguese Environmental Agency in Lisbon to which the ARH had deferred questions.
Following a complaint from a member of the public, the GNR’s specialist ‘SOS Ambiente’ unit briefly looked into claims that the neighbouring golf course and private gardens were illegally siphoning off water to the determent of the lagoon. The police saw no reason to take the matter further.
The golf course in question, along with an unfinished hotel and a closed aparthotel currently in the hands of banks, is owned by the CS Group, which is now in administration. The Albufeira municipal council is believed to have cut mains water supplies to the development.
On top of all this came an unexpected announcement at the end of last week from the Silves municipal council about construction of another huge tourist development on the opposite side of the lagoon. The developers, Finalgarve, are expected to start early next year.
The announcement was unrelated to the fact that Lagoa dos Salgados was drying up (though conspiracy theorists have sought to spot a link). However, it sparked an outcry in the form of press reports, an online petition, and a letter from the Almargem environmental group to the EU.
The Finalgarve golf and hotel complex was planned long ago. It was finally approved in 2007 only after the project had been considerably scaled down, with far fewer beds and a buffer zone between the golf course and the edge of the lagoon.
The international financial crisis delayed the start of construction. It was scheduled to start in 2009 and should have been well on its way to completion by now.
The recent go-ahead announcement seemed barely believable given Europe’s deepening financial worries, serious regional tourism troubles, and the unsightly CS "resort" at a standstill on the opposite bank.
Even if the Finalgarve project does go ahead next year, Salgados could have a future as a safe haven for wildlife – but  only if it is kept supplied with water.
For far too long the area has been subject to the vagaries of two municipal councils, two water entities, two major developers and a clutch of ineffective governmental and non-governmental environmental organisations. There has been far too much babble and not enough positive action to finally create a permanent sanctuary.
It has been a shoddy and shameful saga. It’s not too late to save Salgados from greed, ineptness  and stupidity– but there is no lasting solution yet in sight.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Corruption and clear consciences

By a strange coincidence, the most corrupt countries in Europe are the same as those in deepest financial trouble.
It gets more sleazy the more southeast you go. On a global scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the worst possible), the perceived level of public sector corruption in Greece is 3.4. In Italy it’s a bit better at 3.9. Portugal scores 6.1, a point ahead of Spain.
Oddly enough, the corruption level in cash-strapped Ireland is a relatively respectable 7.5, ahead of France and not far behind the UK. Germany is on 8. Norway, Sweden and Denmark are the least corrupt with a score of 9 or more.
Somalia and North Korea, by the way, are rated the most corrupt countries in the world. Afghanistan is not far behind them. But let’s get back to the supposedly civilised world….
Lest you have doubted it even for a moment, Portugal along with Spain, Italy and Greece have - to put it politely - “serious deficits in public sector accountability and deep-rooted problems of inefficiency, malpractice and corruption.”
These words are contained in a new report published in Brussels by the anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International. The organisation is active in more than 100 countries, but this latest report focuses on what it calls “a pan-European problem.”
Transparency International’s managing director, Cobus de Swardt, said the report “raises troubling questions at a time when transparent leadership is needed as Europe tries to resolve its economic crisis.”
The report emphasises that corruption has been allowed to run rampant and undermine economic stability because of close ties between governments and businesses.
After assessing more than 300 national institutions in 25 European countries, Transparency International concluded that many governments were not sufficiently accountable for public contracts believed to be worth a total of €1.8 trillion a year.
Talking with one of the organisation’s volunteers in Lisbon, I learned that crooked ministers and mayors don’t necessarily award contracts to firms in the hope of being slipped a plain brown envelope stuffed with cash. Sometimes it is because of subtle inducements, such as the promise of a lucrative job or other personal perks after retirement from public service.
In other words, corruption, like everything else in life, is not as simple as it used to be. Solving it is not going to be easy. Transparency International’s vision of “ a world in which government, politics, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption” may be a pipe dream.
Only two of the countries assessed for their latest report — Norway and the UK. — adequately protect whistleblowers who have the courage and determination to speak out against corruption.
Unfortunately, Transparency International cannot itself investigate reported cases of wrongdoing. That’s up to national authorities. And, of course, many of them, including police forces and judiciaries, are themselves, eh, riddled with corruption.
All of this helps clear the consciences of us lesser mortals who increasingly these days might be tempted to provide or accept cash for goods or services without official receipts, thus avoiding the inconvenience of VAT.  Anyway, that’s not really corruption. It’s just the normal way of doing things in order to survive, isn’t it? 

First published in Portuguese, German and English in 
Jornal Algarve 123, Edition 733 14 June 2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Money worries, depression and worse

 It is one of the pinnacle events of the English summer social season, but Charles Harbord, the Harrow-educated aristocrat and former Algarve resident, will not be attending Royal Ascot this month.
He appeared to be in good spirits when photographed at Ascot last year in top hat and tails, with a champagne flute in hand, next to his party-loving daughters, Astrid and Davina.
Appearances can be deceptive, of course. To some outsiders, Charles Harbord was an upper crust snob. Those who knew him better say he was an English gentleman of the sort you don’t often meet any more.
He was not a ‘Champagne Charlie’ as described in the British tabloid press, said one of his old friends in the Algarve, “but he liked a glass or two of wine – just like the rest of us.”
It turns out he also had financial worries - just like the rest of us.
A fortnight ago, Charles Harbord shot himself in his family home near Gillingham in Dorset.  His wife and daughters were devastated.
Charles was a descendant of Harbord Harbord whom Prime Minister William Pitt appointed 1st Baron Suffield in 1786. Charles’ second wife Sarah-Juliet – SJ to her friends – is prominent in children’s charity circles in the UK.
Their two daughters are close friends of Prince Harry.  Even before her romantic attachment to Harry, Astrid was a companion of  Kate Middleton and attended Kate’s hen party before the wedding with Prince William.
Charles  first came to the Algarve as a young man at the end of the late 1960s or early 1970s. He and some of his pals once dressed up in drag for a night on the town in Albufeira. Wearing kaftan dresses, wigs and jewellery, they looked so authentic that they were prevented from entering Albufeira’s renowned Harry’s Bar because the management had a ban on “unescorted women”.
Moving back and forth between England and the Algarve, he lived well without working, seemingly on inherited wealth. When he returned permanently less than 20 years later with his wife and two young daughters, he built  a large, impressive house in the western Algarve.
An enigmatic figure, Charles had successfully sleighed down the mighty Cresta Run in Switzerland. But he was unable to ride a precursor of the jet ski in the calm waters at Meia Praia in Lagos Bay. After falling off several times, he told the owner: “This thing's got some kind of basic instability built into it.” It was Charles who had the instability.
Although in many ways a private man, he opened his Algarve home to art classes with tutors brought out specially from England. He didn’t seem to do it for profit. 
An Algarve businesswoman and artist who regularly attended recalls the Harbords as being utterly charming. “The dinners at their home were delightful and always featured lovely wines, but they were not flamboyant affairs,” she recalls.
Eventually, Charles sold the house and moved with his family into rented accommodation.  All the while the children had been attending a local English-language primary school.  When they were ready for secondary school, the family returned to England for good.
After some years in a magnificent country mansion in Wiltshire, the Harbords sold up and moved to the apartment in a Grade II listed manor house where he chose to die.
Charles Harbord would seem to epitomise the fact that while money cannot buy happiness, a lack of it often causes great unhappiness. In these difficult economic times, an increasing number of people in Portugal, regardless of ancestry, know that only too well.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that in the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Although suicide has traditionally been highest among men  in Charles Harbord’s age bracket (65 and over), young people are now the group at highest risk in many countries. Youth suicide is increasing at the greatest rate.
Depression is associated with the great majority of suicide cases. Unemployment is one of the main contributing factors. Joblessness fosters feelings of hopelessness. The number of unemployed in Portugal is expected to reach 16 per cent next year.
All that can be said in mitigation is that only a small proportion of people who consider suicide, perhaps one in 200, actually commit it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Vatican unveils guidelines on miracles

The Vatican has made public its hitherto closely guarded guidelines on how apparitions, miracles and other supernatural phenomenon should be evaluated within the Church.
The authenticity of wondrous events at places such Fátima in Portugal and Lourdes in France has long been officially accepted. Appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fátima on the same date on six consecutive months, and the ‘miracle of the sun’ witnessed by tens of thousands of people in 1917, were genuine occurrences, according to the Vatican. Sceptics dismiss all this as deluded mumbo-jumbo.
Now the Vatican has openly expressed the ground rules for deciding. In essence, it is up to the local bishop advised by a specially set up panel of theologians, psychologists and doctors. They must determine whether such a spiritual revelation corresponds with Church doctrine and whether it comes from a mentally and morally sound source. 
This clarification comes amid the on-going Vatileaks scandal over documents allegedly stolen by the pope’s butler.
Ironically, the current top two at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, and his second-in-command Tarcisio Bertone, were the prelates who made public the long-withheld ‘third secret’ of Fatima in 2000. But their explanation of the secret was widely rejected within the Catholic Church as a cover-up of the truth.
The third secret was said to have been entrusted by the Virgin Mary to Lúcia, the eldest of three child visionaries at Fátima. When eventually disclosed after years of public clamouring, the Vatican unconvincingly linked the secret to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square in 1981.
Many Catholics believe Our Lady of Fatima warned that the Church was in grave danger of being destroyed from within. There is now dark talk that the leak of confidential documents at the Vatican points to an internal power struggle.
The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, has denied media suggestions that the pope is considering resigning because of the scandal. The Curia has expressed its solidarity with the pontiff and continues to work “in full communion with the Successor of Peter,” he said.
“We are seeking the truth, and trying to objectively understand what may have happened. First, however, it is necessary to be sure to have understood it, in respect for persons and the truth."