Ministry of the Environment "unknown" that felling trees in Cacela was protection against fires

A response from the Minister's office guarantees that there is, "at the moment", any intention of an agricultural project

The environment minister's office says it is not aware that the felling of trees in Cacela Velha, in the Ria Formosa Natural Park, "was aimed at defending the forest against fire, as alleged by the owner's representative." 

O Sul Informação had access to the response of Matos Fernandes' office to the questions of José Carlos Barros and Cristóvão Norte, Algarve deputies of the PSD, made on the 5th of July. 

The answer from the minister's office, dated 30 July, stresses that "there is no housing in the vicinity" of the land, "nor does the area integrate the primary or secondary range of forestry defense planning against fire in the municipality" of Vila Real de Saint Anthony.

"Although that was the intention that presided over the intervention, it would always be necessary that the other applicable legal regimes were followed - which did not happen, with great harm to the public interests", considers the Ministry.

The tutelage says that, through the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF), it became aware of the situation through an e-mail from a local association, ADRIP, on the night of 4th July.

The next day, an ICNF team went to the field, "having found that work was underway" that "involved cutting and pulling up trees (wild olive trees), shrubs (aroeiras) and other vegetation, using a rotating machine" .

The deforestation, which affected around 29 hectares, resulted in «the removal of all the shrubby vegetation», as well as «several specimens of olive trees» of medium size. Only "some larger specimens of olive and carob trees" remained, according to the reply sent to the deputies.

The office of Matos Fernandes also notes that "interventions were made in the bed and banks of the watercourse, removing all riparian vegetation", present along the watercourses.

"According to information gathered from the owner's representative, who was not in Portugal, the intervention would aim to clear the land that had been abandoned for a long time," adds the Ministry.

However, according to the information given to the tutelage, the owner does not have, "at the moment, any intention of an agricultural project", despite part of the land being located in the irrigation perimeter of the Sotavento Algarvio Hydroagricultural Development.

Photo: Teresa Patricio

It is true that the intervention took place in the Ria Formosa Natural Park, in the Rede Natura 2000 area and in the National Ecological Reserve, and involved the «use of the water domain, with the legal regimes not being respected» of each of these protection statutes .

The fact is that "the competent authorities were not consulted in advance", such as the ICNF, the Portuguese Environment Agency and the Regional Coordination and Development Commission of the Algarve. "A substantial part of the intervention", guarantees the Ministry, "could not have any acceptance under the legal regimes".

The felling of trees negatively affected «not only the vegetative substrate, but also the various species of fauna that characterize the existing habitats there, causing relevant environmental damage, extending to the surrounding areas, increasing the erosion process in the cliffs and watercourses and creating instability in ecosystems».

Therefore, the "sanctioning procedures", which should impose fines on those who made the interventions, have already started, as Sul Informação did the trick. Fines can reach 5 million euros.

“Public entities were also asked (…) to articulate their actions, so that measures are taken to reestablish the conditions that initially existed in the place”.

The minister's office also admits that the "intervention may call into question other legal regimes, whose application does not concern the Ministry of Environment, such as that relating to the cutting or grubbing-up of olive trees."

On the 4th of July, when the Sul Informação reported for the first time this felling of trees in Cacela, after a complaint from a resident, a source from the GNR told our newspaper that this cleaning had been 'authorised' by ICNF.

Then, in response to our questions, that institute guaranteed that "no authorization was requested" for cutting trees, announcing that he was going to analyze the process.

The following day, on July 5, the Algarve Social Democratic deputies José Carlos Barros and Cristóvão Norte questioned the Ministry of Environment about the case.

On July 20th, eight associations came together to demand answers on this question. In a statement, the signatories denounced the "deafening and opaque silence" about this felling of trees, in addition to the fact that the intervention, "without regard to species, size or location", had left a "bare terrain, completely exposed to erosive phenomena, on the bank of a watercourse, over tens of hectares».