The self-made man
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.
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.