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
to which the ARH had deferred questions. Lisbon
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
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.