Oil

Television show

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit

The apricot tree by the swimming pool is laden with fruit, which will be ripe in a week or two

The prickly pear is in flower

The prickly pear is in flower

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed

Pink oleander are opening up all along the riverbed

 

At five o’clock this morning, Husband returned from an evening trip to Lisbon. He had gone along with other concerned local citizens to be in the audience of a TV debate called Prós e Contras, this week featuring the arguments for and against the exploration for oil in the Algarve. I didn’t go, mostly because of work demands, but also because at certain points in life my natural reserve holds me back. Not so Husband, who is, by the way, a heckler supreme.

So the plucky group from the Algarve entered the studio, having registered for seats, and found themselves outnumbered by an audience of extras, paid a small sum to be there instead of by their televisions at home, and exhorted at the beginning not to rustle their sweet papers too loudly. In the front rows were a number of key witnesses, including one ‘Algarvian citizen’ (whose Facebook page reveals him to be a geologist living in Cascais, Lisbon) who appeared so clearly to be an oil industry plant that even the moderator was taken aback, and remarked that he must to be the only ‘Algarvian’ in favour of oil exploration.

On one side of the panel, the grinning villain Paulo Carmona of the national fuel entity (ENMC) and two industry cohorts, who barely assembled a convincing argument between them. On the other side, two Algarvian mayors, of Tavira and Aljezur, and Vítor Neto, the president of NERA (association of tourism entrepreneurs in the Algarve), whose arguments ranged around quality of life, the beauty of the natural environment and by the way the fantastic contribution to the Portuguese public purse made by the tourism industry of the Algarve.

All familiar arguments, nothing I hadn’t heard before, and of course you know my stance. So I shall leave you with two observations. A brilliant lawyer, who was one of the witnesses, pointed out that the 1994 law on which many of the oil contracts were based was a retrograde step in environmental protection, overruling earlier laws, in order to open Portugal up for business, which makes sense for the era. (I’d given those lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, that the evidence for man-made climate change wasn’t powerful enough – even though it was powerful enough really. Anyway, I was wrong.) A 2013 law, which demands public consultation and environmental impact studies, is routinely ignored by the likes of Paulo Carmona; they prefer to tread the easier ground of the 1994 decree. And the second: a geologist and former oil-industry employee stepped up to say that fracking was pretty safe, and the chemical contamination of local water supplies was at barely half a percent, at which point Husband shouted, ‘You drink it then!’ (In Portuguese, naturally.)

The show has at-home audience participation in the form of a voting system. At the end, the passionate arguments for wellbeing, beauty and sustainability won: 68 per cent of the voters said No to oil in the Algarve. The coach-load of Algarvian ‘Indios’ was in party mood on the way home.

Water

The river is clear and serene again. Fish jump to catch the insects dancing on the water surface. I only hear three turtles dive in off the rocks when I approach, instead of the eight I had become accustomed to. I wonder if some of them took the chance of high water to go exploring, or got swept away to new shores against their will. Ducks disappear on my approach too: they whoosh creakily into the air and flap off. Last year we accidentally disturbed a nesting duck, who shuffled away with wounded wing, tempting us with an easy target. We left her alone, of course, and anyway we knew she was faking it to distract us from her ducklings. These are the familiar Mallards, but wild ones, not the bread-entreating kind we find in cities.

We took delivery of five lorry-loads of water this week – for our pool. The men came round pre-delivery to assess the site. They needed to choose between their big and their little truck.

‘The concrete bridge has a weight limit of nine tons,’ said Husband, who tends to obey rules, and whose hecklerism doesn’t arise out of disdain for them.

‘Oh, we can’t read,’ said one man, nudging the other.

When we returned home at the end of the water delivery day, we were happy to see the bridge was still there.

Today we had an unscheduled visit from the câmara, who examined the pool and the surrounds and declared it all good, and said our pool licence would be with us within a week to ten days. The pool was only just complete and we hadn’t even had the chance to swim in it. So, after they’d gone, we swam for the first time in the pale jade water. We looked at the hills all around us, and decided there could be no greater joy than this.

The pool

The pool

Fancy a dip?

Fancy a dip?

 

Oil and water

River at its peak this week

River at its peak this week

Another view of the swollen river

Another view of the swollen river

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode this week

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode

 

It carried on raining for a few more days. Our river got higher and browner and swirlier. We went to Tavira on Thursday and the tea-coloured river was brimming. It was freshly poured Assam, with a dash of milk, the surface still moving after having just been stirred.

Then on Sunday it began to turn into the May we expect. The sun shone brightly and the days warmed up. The water in the river reduced and turned clear. We filled our cisterna from the well, which was more full than we’d ever seen it. Crystal water gushed into the cisterna and showed no sign of faltering; after three hours and twenty minutes we decided it was enough. The over-large cisterna – 30,000 litres – that supplies the house was almost at capacity. I continue to filter and boil the water for drinking, then chill it. It’s a chore, but not only does it save a little money, it also avoids acres of plastic waste. Best of all, our water tastes heavenly. It’s the most delicious water ever.

The streaky yellow serin continues to punctuate our days at home with its break-neck song. It sways from side to side, for the broadest possible cast of its notes. It resists my attempts to get near to photograph it.

Prime minister and priest

On Saturday the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, came to Loulé, a nearby town, for a Socialist Party meeting. Naturally enough, the various activist groups gathered at the site to let their feelings known. We were there – Husband, Mother and me – as part of the Tavira em Transicão (TT) group, waving anti-oil banners. I wore my protest hat. My protest hat is not entirely successful. A few months ago Husband and I made ‘protest selfies’, and I adapted a pink trilby for the occasion. I fancied a Mad Hatter look, so I stuck letters around the brim. The hat remained on the hat stand in the hall until my eyes alighted on it as we leaving on Saturday. I thought it might serve the purpose for Loulé so I grabbed it and put it in the car.

When we got there, Mum took a restful position on a concrete bench at the back of the protesters, TT banner aloft. It was in this slightly out-of-the-way spot that she managed to be caught by a TV camera and thus made an appearance on Portuguese television news. The islanders – the people of Culatra and other sand-bank islands who are protesting against the demolitions taking place there – made the biggest splash. All in black t-shirts, marching in a group, they chanted ‘Ilhéus unidos jamais serão vencidos’ as they got into position. The chant was picked up on our side with ‘Ilhéus’ changed to ‘Algarve’, and the islanders joined back in with us.

‘Algarve unidos jamais serão vencidos!’ A united Algarve will never be defeated!

I glanced back at my mum. She was wiping away a tear from her eye. Her first demonstration, and she found it very moving.

PM Costa arrived and, to my surprise, and I imagine others’ too, he went around the ranks of protestors, smiling and talking to people. I waved and grinned as he came in our direction and he made his way towards me. Panic settled on my face at the thought that he might talk to me and catch me out as a non-Portuguese speaker. The letters on my hat had by now rearranged themselves, several slithering down into the hatband, and no longer read ‘FRACK OFF’ but the rather less effective ‘RACK’. My disconcerted features and my ambiguous hat were enough to deter the PM, who moved on to talk to someone else. He then invited a representative group to talk to him within the building. (See Asmaa’s site for an account of this.)

Mass on Sunday capped an emotional weekend. It was Pentecost, the last day of Easter, and my mum was keen to celebrate at a Portuguese church. I’d been told that Mass started around eleven. After coffee and pasteis at the café amid the sound of church bells, we entered the church at ten to eleven and selected prime pews, aisle-side for easy access to Holy Communion. Eleven o’clock came and went. I have still not learned the lesson that the start time means the time the people who are involved start to gather and get ready. Microphones were placed on the altar and two pulpits. A multimedia screen was lowered from the ceiling. A group of children – boy and girl scouts who were to take part in the service, with much obvious stage direction from the priest, and to receive special blessings – were photographed in front of the altar. The image was soon on display via the screen above. Old Portuguese ladies descended on our pew in a pincer action, squeezing us into the middle. The church slowly filled. Plastic chairs were being brought in to supplement the pews. The Mass finally got under way at about quarter to twelve. My mother likes Portuguese time, and is thinking of introducing it to Father John back in Lincolnshire.

Mandai, Senhor, o vosso Espírito e renovai a Terra

was one of the responses during the Mass. ‘Send your spirit, Lord, and renew the earth.’ We could do with some of that, I thought, and found myself wondering if the priest is up to speed with the oil exploration plans for the Algarve.

The protest trilby

The protest trilby

Husband's walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated bread by carrying in a loaf, wine with a bottle, music by holding aloft a guitar, and love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek to face the congregation

Husband’s delicious walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated the riches of life: Bread, by carrying in a loaf, Wine with a wine bottle, Music by holding aloft a guitar, and Love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek so as to face outwards to the congregation

Rain

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

The same flower the next day, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

The same flower the next morning, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the 'undulate margin' of the 'stalkless and hairy' leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the ‘undulate margin’ of the ‘stalkless and hairy’ leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

The river in spate

The river in spate this week

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

The unfordable ford

The unfordable ford

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ I didn’t realise this old saying was about the Algarve. A week ago I cast a clout in the form of a thick, winter duvet, replacing it with a light one, and woke up cold the next morning. The sky was dark and a storm was about to discharge itself all over the valley. By midday we had the fire lit and the lights on. The rain came down in sheets all day, and the next day, and one week later it is still raining.

‘We’ll be all right for water in the summer,’ said Eleuterio with a smile.

‘It’s like gold in the bank,’ said an acquaintance in the village.

The river is wide and flowing fast, its colour turned to brown. We can’t ford it in this condition. It even deterred Horse. We got a phone call from his owner to say he’d gone AWOL again and I went down to the river to look for him, but no sign. He returned to his stable later the same day. I think he must have got to the river and been spooked by the swirling torrent, so decided to pass up on his holiday for a while. I do feel sorry for any tourists who picked this week for their dose of sunshine. And much as we love the rain, I hope it eventually eases off for our next guest, my mother, who is arriving on Thursday.

São Brás de Alportel

We attended another open meeting on the prospects for the Algarve if the oil industry arrives here. This one took place in the museum of our local town of São Brás, and was well attended, all seats taken and some people standing. Most of the audience were Portuguese, only a few foreigners were there, one of whom, a disgruntled Scotsman, identified himself very early on. The presentations were given by a solar energy expert and two hardworking members of the PALP group (Plataforma Algarve Livre de Petróleo). The no-brainer energy solution that solar is for the Algarve is clear – a week like this one notwithstanding – and it was the solar engineer who spoke first. It was uncontroversial material for the audience, except for the Scotsman, who, only five minutes into an event that was to last three hours, stood up and declared it was all rubbish, all lies, and he knew what he was talking about because he used to work for the oil industry. He marched out, his stout frame quivering with indignation, and the presentation carried on without a hiccup. If he felt he really had a case, why didn’t he stay to make it?

Many passionate speeches were made by members of the audience. One or two went on longer than seemed to me entirely necessary, but that’s how it goes. I was moved by the man who spoke up for the natural industries of the Algarve: its world-beating cork, its super-carbon-soaking carob trees. And I was impressed by the town mayor who stood up at the end of the presentations and promised to put himself physically in front of any machines that come here with the aim of exploring for oil. That’s going to be harder to do at sea, mind you.

Our solar energy production at home has carried on without any hitch despite the weather. The electricity company (EDP) have been to disconnect their meter, though we are not entirely free of them yet. We have a second meter, put in to supply three-phase electricity for the bread oven; we are going to switch this to a greener provider. As well as being needed for the bread oven, it’s also a back-up for the rest of the house, but we have little recourse to it. Through our photo-voltaic panels and battery storage, we are supplying about 90 per cent of our own energy: free after the cost of installation, renewable and clean. All thanks to the blessed sun, even on cloudy days.

Here's a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. It will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

Here’s a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. The pool will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water from evaporation, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

The self-made man – undone?

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda . . .

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium Angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We'd never seen a lizard of this size before. The photo also serves to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We’d never seen a lizard of this size before. Its arrival also served to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

 

When you hear a whistle at your back, a sharp, clear Fee fee-ooo, of course you turn to see who is calling you. It turns out to be the Golden Oriole, whose fluty call is one of the dominant sounds of the valley right now. The bird is about the size of a blackbird; the male is brilliantly yellow with black wings, the female drabber in olive and yellow. Despite the gloss-paint shine of the male bird, he is well concealed in sunlit leafy trees. A couple are often in our back garden and might be nesting there.

Sousa Cintra heard a whistle at his back this week. He has finally been stopped from drilling on a site in Perdigão in the western Algarve. Under guise of drilling for water he was covertly, and slightly ludicrously, engaged in oil exploration. Activists had been monitoring the site, where chemical froth was pooling on the land and running into a nearby stream. A geologist employed by Portfuel – Cintra’s hastily put together ‘oil’ company – was found to have been on site for much of the time; a hardly necessary appointment had Cintra simply been drilling for the water. In a joint action of planning and environment agencies, along with the GNR (the national republican guard), Cintra was told on 27 April to suspend the work.

On 28 April, Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-Minister for the Environment, faced a joint hearing of the parliamentary committees on environment and economy about the onshore oil concessions in the Algarve. He continued to make the mutually-self-cancelling defences that the contracts are for exploration only, and that the people of the Algarve deserve the wealth and the development opportunities that oil will provide. He said that all the fuss about the oil was being kicked up by retired foreigners who wanted to preserve the Algarve as ‘uma terra de índios’: a land of indigenous poor people. As a politician’s view of the people of the Algarve, it’s revealing. Until 1911 when Portugal became a republic, the country was known as ‘the kingdom of Portugal and the Algarve’, and this sense of the Algarve as being ‘other’ seems to prevail.

The money argument is a difficult one. The idea that oil brings wealth is deeply embedded in human culture. However, even if you kick all the environmental arguments into the long grass and pretend that it’s still a good idea to dig up Mother Nature’s fossil fuels, it isn’t going to make Portugal rich. If you compare the planned payments to the public purse of the explorations in Portugal with those of, for example, Norway, the difference is startling. The Portuguese concessions must pay, after all their expenses have been recovered, 3 per cent (to begin with); in Norway it’s 80 per cent. And by the way, why have the payment terms been stipulated when the contracts are ‘only for exploration’?

But we cannot kick the environmental arguments into the long grass. The law which allowed these oil concessions to be awarded is dated 1994, not so long ago in human years, but aeons ago in human consciousness. We emphatically know the risks of global warming now that we only suspected then, and we have dangers now that we’d barely dreamt of then, such as fracking, and its release of methane gas, even worse than carbon dioxide. And we are compelled to act upon this new knowledge. Or we should be, especially if we are the Minister for the Environment. But not so Moreira da Silva.

Then, just to show that he truly is shameless, we learnt that he stood for the post of executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He reached the last two in the competition. He didn’t get the gig; it went to Mexican Patricia Espinosa instead. Small mercies.

The local mayoral organisation, who are vocal in their condemnation of the contracts given to Sousa Cintra to explore for oil onshore, are less vocal about the offshore concessions, which are due to start activities in October this year. That’s a whole other battle.

The self-made man

Morning mist in the valley

Morning mist in the valley

Our dipping pond - until the completion of the swimming pool. The pond is too cold for me, but I hope provides a nice memory for some of those who have visited us and were robust enough to swim

Our dipping pond – until the completion of the swimming pool. The pond is too cold for me, but I hope this provides a nice memory for those who have visited us and been robust enough to swim

Bougainvillea, coming back after heavy pruning

Bougainvillea, coming back after heavy pruning

A Small Tree Mallow that has managed to grow on the drive between us and our neighbours

A Small Tree Mallow that has managed to grow on the drive between us and our neighbours

Borage hides its pretty face

Borage hides its pretty face

The 'bottle-brush tree' in flower

The ‘bottle-brush tree’ in flower

 

The days divide themselves between blazing and blustery. The blustery versions feature short but heavy downpours. I feel sure this spring is wetter than last year, but I have only two to compare. People who have lived here much longer say all the seasons are drier now. Dry or not, the wild flowers continue to display furiously. Tall stands of estevas (Cistus ladanifer or Gum Rock Rose) cover many hillsides, their leaves a dark gleaming green, their many flowers like tissue-paper bowls that appear not so much to have grown on the plant as to have landed on them, the by-product of an inexplicable skyward event. Rows of lavender muscle up against prickly yellow gorse, and pretty red vetches sprawl among clouds of fennel. Along the roadsides for a couple of weeks now Judas trees have been displaying their creamy purple, blackcurrants-stirred-into-yogurt blossom.

Golden orioles have arrived in the valley, bee-eaters are flying above, and swallows once again glide teasingly in and out of our veranda. We are glad we took down the old mud nest, squatted by the sparrows for repeat broods last year. Sparrows may have undergone a decline in the UK in recent years, but worldwide they are a common, even dominant species, so we decided to let them fend for themselves, while the swallows, should they choose to, can always rebuild their own mud nest.

Red-rumped Swallows on the telegraph wire

Red-rumped Swallows on the telegraph wire

 

In the news

‘We’ve just seen you on the television,’ said our neighbours to Husband one day this week. We were having breakfast on the veranda; they were returning from having coffee in the café in the village, where the television is always on. The news was about the anti-oil activism in the Algarve, and the footage was probably of protestors in Faro last December, gathered outside the office where AMAL, the local mayoral association, was meeting with the grinning Paulo Carmona of the ENMC. This week, Carmona was interviewed for a television report that touched on the grimier aspects of the oil business and, in response to a question about accountability and transparency, answered only, ‘And?’, then again, ‘And?’, while wearing a smug ‘And-your-point-is?’ face. I will come back to this.

The current news mostly concerns one Sousa Cintra, self-made millionaire and, I hazard, horribly perfect example of a man who knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’, to use Oscar Wilde’s exquisite words. Now in his seventies, the beer mogul and former football club (Sporting) president has reinvented himself as an oil tycoon. Ten days before the previous administration closed its doors, Sousa Cintra got the signatures on two contracts giving him the licence for onshore drilling across 300,000 hectares of the Algarve, and the rights to any oil and gas found there for the next forty years. The contracts are in the name of a hastily put-together company called Portfuel, an offshoot of a tourism company in the names of his wife and son. A journalist visiting a registered company address found only a cleaner who said, ‘Oh, they aren’t actually based here, but the wife drops by occasionally to check the post.’

The word on the street, and in the newspapers, is that the government is going to investigate the Portfuel contracts. The man who authorised them, Jorge Moreira da Silva, when he was Minister for the Environment in the last government, has leapt to his own defence. He continues with the line – heard often now – that the contracts are for exploration, not extraction. This leaves the matter of Cintra’s forty-year rights to ‘freely dispose of any oil he finds’ (‘A concessionária pode dispor livremente do petróleo por si produzido’; contract shown as part of a TV report) as something to be puzzled over. Moreira da Silva also claims the contracts were signed at the beginning of September and not the end – attempting to refute the newsworthy ‘ten days before the old government left office’ claim. He also remarks, disconcertingly, that Portfuel had said ‘it would sue the State for any administrative delays. So there had to be a decision, and that decision . . . had to be positive.’

Portfuel has begun putting down messy bore holes in the Alzejur region, has already been fined for causing environmental damage there, and is rumoured to be about to start in the Tavira region. The call has gone out over social media for people to look for suspicious activity. It’s as though an unqualified man-in-a-suit turned up at a blood donation centre, threw on a white coat and started jabbing needles in people’s arms, and the only immediate course of action available is for the people awaiting their tea and biscuits to try to challenge him. At least Sousa Cintra seems rattled: in a recent letter to one of the mayors of the Algarve he complained about local activism. What? These people won’t let me bleed them to death? What’s the matter with them!

The good news is that this business is dirty enough that it really might be possible to make a case against the issuance of the contracts. Two grounds are that Portfuel is too young a company to have the clean three-year technical and financial record that the contract terms demand, and that it lacks adequate insurance. The bad news is that the ENMC, with its head the grinning villain Paulo Carmona, is the regulator in charge of oversight. Indeed, it was probably Carmona’s signature on the contracts, the contracts that he should now investigate. Additionally, the former Chief of Staff of the Ministry of the Environment is now with the ENMC, appointed by Moreira da Silva before leaving office. It was in answer to questions about this appointment that Carmona put on his ‘And your point is?’ face.

Back to the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Poppies (für meine Schwiegermutter); from a meadow by the river

Poppies from a meadow by the riverbank

Yellow lupin

Yellow lupin (Lupinus luteus), from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender, common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender (Lavandula viridis), common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

I pulled my first garlic from the ground - a little early, but it tasted heavenly

I pulled my first garlic from the ground – a little early, but it tasted heavenly

The apricot tree in blossom

The apricot tree in blossom: this is the one that fruits first

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called them Green Linnets

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called the birds Green Linnets

 

A blushing Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) sang on our wire this week: such a pretty song. I don’t think I’ve heard it before. No wonder ‘me old cock linnet’ was once such a popular caged bird, enough to have appeared in music-hall song. The little streaked yellow Serin continues to fill the air with its manic, high-speed, glass-beads-shattering-on-a-stone-floor song, and the Zitting Cisticola dzips as he rises and dips on his looping flight. A pair of greenfinches is considering the conifer at the front of the house as a possible nesting site, obviously not put off by the nearby posturing of Mr Cock-of-the-Walk Sparrow. All these little bundles of feathers bursting with life and song: it seems miraculous.

I’ve had time to go back to the river this week. The cold water slides slowly over the rocks with their streamers of weed. That the water is cold I can feel through my wellies. The toad spawn is largely gone: dispersed or eaten. I hope a few eggs have found their way under rocks to develop into toadlets (or are they called tadpoles, like frogs?). I can testify to the irresistible deliciousness of the eggs, however. Not personally, exactly, but by the fact that we got our first ever good look at the mystery wading bird thanks to the toad eggs. We were about to drive over the ford and there was the bird, quite unable to fly off into the distance in its usual way, with a flash of long white rump and a complaining kyew, because it couldn’t stop dipping for toad eggs. We grabbed the chance for a close inspection – binoculars thankfully in the car – then carried on our journey and left it alone.

It’s one of a pair now, though usually we see a solitary bird. We see it often; it can’t be migratory. It’s like a Greenshank, but smaller, with a distinctly straight beak. We haven’t settled on what it is, though it’s got to be something obvious; it always is. Therefore, it cannot be a Marsh Sandpiper, even though that’s the only bird in the book that fits the bill (or beak).

Water, fire and oil

The well was almost full and we ran the crystal water into the cisterna under the front veranda for two and a half hours. That’ll do us for a good while. And I have finally faced up to something that has been on my conscience: all that bottled water we drink, most of it in plastic. We had our well water tested and were advised not to drink it: it was pure of every contamination except, possibly, bacterial. We cook with it and clean our teeth, but were drinking from bottles. We recycled them afterwards, of course, but recycling plastic barely limits the damage. Then it clicked, at last. Good heavens: just boil our own water using our solar-powered electricity, cool it and keep it in the fridge. It tastes wonderful, and this is a big weight off my mind.

The days are warm under the sun but the wind has been chilly. We still light a fire in the evenings. The metric tonne of firewood we had delivered at the start of winter ran out and, rather than get a new delivery so late in the season, we’ve been scavenging. The old woody branches of Gum Cistus, the plant that grows in such richly scented, resinous profusion all over the hills, was once a common fuel, I read, so we went collecting uprooted or fallen branches of that.

On return we took a shortcut back to the house, straight down the hill, unwieldy branches in hand. It’s steep, but the horizontal plough lines make reasonable steps, and you just need to watch where you place your foot among the stones. But the driver of a JCB had been watching us. That was dangerous, he told us when we reached the house. I don’t think I mind that the driver of a JCB in our garden is excessively safety-conscious. And, should you wonder what he’s doing there: he is completing the rectangular hole for the swimming pool.

A last word, for this week, on oil. At the tourism trade fair in Lisbon last week, the mayor of Tavira gave a speech – the Algarve being the featured region of the fair. He nodded to us in the audience and said, in Portuguese, ‘Nice T-shirts.’ Afterwards he told us it was good we were there, good to keep up the pressure, but that he had it all in hand. On 9 March we read that the Assembleia Municipal of the Tavira district had passed a motion by the Socialist Party, with 24 in favour and only 2 against, to reject and condemn the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the area, both on- and offshore. This is, of course, wonderful. But is it enough? I wish I could believe it was.

photobomb2

Yours truly photobombing the Algarve stand in my protest T-shirt (this photo, of course, was taken by Husband)

Activism

Red-rumped Swallow on our telegraph wire

Red-rumped Swallow on our telegraph wire

A little further away on the wire: a Blue Rock Thrush, one of Husband's favourite birds

A little further away on the wire: a Blue Rock Thrush, one of Husband’s favourite birds

Lordy, as ever, not wanting to look at the camera. (A bit heavy-handed on the eye-liner, too.) Estrela is pleading: 'Won't you let me have a bit more of that nice bread?'

Lordy, as ever, not wanting to look at the camera. (He’s been heavy-handed on the eye-liner, too.) Estrela is pleading: ‘Won’t you let me have a little bit more of that nice bread?’

 

I heard two swallows babbling on the wire a week ago, just after I’d posted the previous blog. It wasn’t the sound of the Barn Swallows, it was something ever so slightly different, a difference contained in – for me – a greater feeling of familiarity: it was a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. I wasn’t expecting them for some weeks yet, as I had declared in the blog post. Last year, when I was so keen to see them for the first time, they showed up only in late March. Their reappearance was heart-lifting, like the return of old friends.

Of course, no sooner had they alighted on the wire than Mr Sparrow arrived and muscled up to them in a repeat of last year’s avian soap opera. He also chased off a nuthatch and a greenfinch from the alfarroba near by. He thinks he’s cock of the walk all right. One bird he cannot chase off, however, is the eagle. Yes, we have eagles. During lunch with friends in the back garden last week, two Short-toed Eagles appeared over the hill, causing spoons to clatter into soup bowls as cameras and binoculars were reached for. Then this week we saw one of them again, this time over the valley in front. It perched on a telegraph pole across the river, perfectly caught by the light, and stretched its neck. After a while it took off and glided away, turning one way and then the other, giving us a perfect display of its colours and patterning.

But it isn’t birds that have preoccupied me this week. I haven’t even been wading up and down the river these past few days.

laundry

Tourism trade fair

You see, we decided – with some other active citizens – to go to the tourism trade fair (BTL) in Lisbon and see if we could engage more of the industry’s support in making a case against oil and gas exploration here in the Algarve. The mere idea of it gave me a couple of sleepless nights. We turned up at the Feira Internacional de Lisboa on one of the days given over to professionals – not the public – and got in under slightly false pretences. Then we went around the stalls, asking people what they knew about the fossil-fuel extraction plans, offering some information and asking if they wanted to sign the petition. And this was the outcome:

People who were friendly and nice about being approached in this way:       100%

People who wanted to sign the petition:       90%

People who’d heard of the plans to turn the Algarve into an oil-producing land, vs those who hadn’t heard anything about it before:        roughly 50/50

People who were in favour of turning the Algarve into Texas: one. One solitary man. He was in favour for economic reasons, and I tried to show how it wouldn’t make the country rich, nor even the government rich, and he agreed to give that strange notion some thought. We shook hands on it, amicably.

Difference this will make in the world: almost none, but you have to try, don’t you? I don’t like having to use economic arguments against the fossil fuel industry, when the slow suicide that is climate change should be enough, but it just so happens that the tourism industry is already tipping more into the government’s coffers than the fossil fuel industry ever could, certainly at current oil prices. Granted, it is an argument based on one against the other. Arguably an oil industry wouldn’t wipe out tourism altogether and immediately, but it certainly wouldn’t do it any good.

Dwelling on this subject does not allow for much serenity. The more you look into it, the worse it gets. The government’s arguments all along have been that the initial stages are exploratory and they just want to know more about the geology of the land. (Incidentally, ‘exploration’, rather than ‘exploitation’, can legally be done without Environmental Impact Assessment reports.) Then a keen journalist uncovered the transcript from an investor meeting given by the (non-Portuguese) oil company that holds the offshore contracts closest to us here, in which it clearly showed that they already know exactly what’s there for the taking, and they are cock-a-hoop over the cheap contracts they’ve managed to get to extract it all.

I started the week with the heart-lifting sight of the Red-rumped Swallows. And now, at the end of the week, it was another bird that lifted my heart all over again: coming over the concrete bridge on the way from Flaviano’s emporium, I saw a bird I’ve longed to see here but had never yet spotted. Finally, there it was: the unmistakable, life-enhancing, turquoise flash of a kingfisher in flight. The earth wins.*

*Pace JerryG.

Zombies

'Algarve snow'

‘Algarve snow’

Spot the almond tree

Spot the almond tree

I love this tree - the alfarroba or carob - with its tent of branches

The alfarroba or carob tree: it’s like a big tent

Aloe flower; the birds love to feed from these

Garden

Garlic I planted a week ago. I have high hopes for this

Garlic I planted a week ago. I have high hopes for this

 

It’s been a week of sunshine and rain, rain that was as fine as mist and gently soaked the ground and turned our green valley into somewhere like Wales for a while, then a tropical downpour which started with black clouds piling up and then everything melted into liquidity, including the outline of the Meditation Hill. For me that day, indoors with my eyes glued to my laptop screen, the first indication of rain were the drops that started tapping on the roof, soon turning into a thunderous drumming. In between the rainy days, sunshine encouraged walks. One, towards the valley we discovered on Christmas Day, reacquainted us with Long-tailed Tits, Crested Tits and Sand Martins, and gave us better views of our very own Common Buzzard (we have claimed the buzzard for ourselves, you see). On another I saw a Red Admiral on the stony path, a butterfly I’d never seen before. Its colours were astonishingly rich and deep but nothing in the books came close to its vibrancy. It took some searching before I was able to give it a name.

I like to know what things are. I also like to know what sentences mean. I don’t like it when things don’t make sense. Things not making sense is what drives me crazy, and is probably why I’ve worked as an editor for all these years: trying to make things make sense. From making sense it’s a short step to truth and beauty, in my book. Proper words in proper places, as Jonathan Swift said.

So I hope you will come along with me while I try to make sense of something: what’s happening around here with regard to oil exploration. First, let me confess I’ve taken the Zombie idea in the blog title from a writer called Bill McKibben, who had a piece in the Los Angeles Times this week (19 January 2016). He writes so clearly and makes such perfect sense that I’m going to borrow a few sentences from him, though best of all is if you read the piece itself:

Even as global warming makes it clear that coal, natural gas and oil are yesterday’s energy, two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in zombie-like fashion. In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is underway. In statehouse hearing rooms and far off farmers’ fields, local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. … Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have the clout to keep politicians saying yes. … The money, however, is only part of it: the whole process is on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that laws and regulations favor business as usual.

Zombies in Portugal

In the national election in October 2015, with its slow and compromised outcome, the leader of one small party made it into parliament: André Silva of PAN (Pessoas, Animais e Natureza: People, Animals and Nature). He’s very much not a zombie, so perhaps I haven’t started at the best place here. He is a strict vegetarian – in English we’d call him a vegan – but he says he doesn’t look like one because he’s the chubby sort (‘Sou um tipo gordinho’). Question-time in parliament takes place every two weeks. On 15 January 2016, O Gordinho asked O Gordo (as I’m choosing to call PM António Costa) to have ‘the courage to break with the old paradigm of fossil fuels’. In reply O Gordo declared that ‘the oil contracts in place have to be met’, that ‘prospection has to go ahead’, that ‘it is absolutely essential for the country to know what its natural resources are’, and that therefore ‘the government will continue prospecting for oil’. (Note: O Gordo got left out of the Paris COP21 talks because the named Portuguese delegate was not him but his predecessor. So perhaps he hasn’t heard of climate change?)

Three days earlier, an interview with my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC (combustible fuel entity), was published by a paper called Sol. In this Mr Carmona declared that ‘drilling for oil is just like drilling for water’, that in the event of an accident with natural gas, no problem, ‘because by definition it just evaporates into thin air’, and that ‘with all this investment, never mind if we find oil or not, at least the state is going to know its subsoils really well’. (The declared investment of oil companies in this region so far is 58 million euros, which of course they’ll want back in commercial rewards.) Paulo Carmona also said, in the ‘clarification’ meeting I attended on 12 January, that explorations so far had shown evidence of hydrocarbons, but they were not of commercial interest. (So stop looking, then?)

All of this borders on the barmy, until you remember that we are dealing with zombies here and they cannot be expected to make sense.

The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, is reported in Postal on 25 January as having said that ‘no economic reason would compel the state to compromise its natural resources’, and that:

the state’s duty is to protect the territory and its communities from damage. However, there would be no harm in knowing what there is in terms of minerals, gas, oil . . . And no economic activity should be prejudiced just because, in the end and only in theory, it might do environmental harm. Although of course there can never be any breach in relation to the requirements of our natural environment.

You couldn’t make it up.

The president of oil company Partex, which, with Repsol, has the concession for the Algarve offshore sites, says that in October or November this year they will start drilling, adding that ‘the oil price will have to help’ – giving us normal people hope that the current floor-level price of oil might be a deterrent. On land, contracts are held by Portfuel. They say they have invested 15 million dollars, and warn that if they go ahead in prospecting for oil and natural gas then their costs will be inflated by 40 million dollars. (So don’t do it then?) Their methods of extraction will undoubtedly include fracking, but they are keeping quiet about that.

Good news is that the government has now said it will not issue new contracts for oil exploration. But it will continue to respect those currently in force. The existing contracts, issued without any public oversight, come with their own clauses that guarantee them perpetual exemption from any future laws; their own built-in non-obsolescence. That’s an almost perfect definition of a zombie.

As of Sunday we now have a new president: centre-right candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who won with a considerable majority. He helped write Portugal’s constitution in the 1970s after the dictatorship had been brought down. When campaigning to be elected mayor of Lisbon in 1989, he jumped into a dirty river to raise awareness of environmental issues; he didn’t get the mayoral gig but I like that he did a river-jump. He’s a television personality and a consensus man. As the president, he has limited powers, though he does have the power to order reviews of contentious legislation. I don’t know if it’s worth hoping for anything from him, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Oh, and in the latest World Travel Awards, the winner of Europe’s Leading Beach Destination is: the Algarve. Good luck with that, everyone, if oil exploration starts.

I went for a walk in the river to think; I misjudged the depth and filled my wellies with cold water. That’s partly because I’d spotted part of the shell of a dead turtle among the reeds at the water’s edge and wanted to get a closer look at its patterns, not realising that to reach it took me through a deeper channel of water. And of course the turtle wasn’t dead at all, and was, I hazard, none too happy to be forced to wake up sharply and slide off into the shallows

I went for a walk in the river to think; I misjudged the depth and filled my wellies with cold water. That’s partly because I’d spotted the shell of a dead turtle among the reeds at the water’s edge and wanted to get a closer look at its patterns, not realising that to reach it would take me through a deeper channel. And of course the turtle wasn’t dead at all, and was, I hazard, none too happy to be forced to wake up sharply and slide off into the shallows

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