Opinion article by Laurinda Seabra, ASMAA's CEO
The nine oil and gas drilling contracts that were active in Algarve when we started in 2009 are now a thing of the past. The concessionaries (oil companies) were strongly “encouraged” by our campaigns to pull out of active contracts (Galp/ENI and Repsol/Partex), and two contracts (Sousa Cintra/Portfuel ) were cancelled by government, but only after a targeted local campaign started by ASMAA was successful.
We know, just as government representatives do, that it was ASMAA's constant, persistent and ongoing campaigns that led to this victory - with the help of many local residents, and thousands of foreign individuals that love the Algarve.
Looking back, it was to be expected that once we took the fight into the Portuguese judicial system, that heavy legal guns would be unleashed on us. And although, we were expecting it, the fact is that we were a small team fighting a very well funded, with deep financial pockets opposing legal platoon - nonetheless, we know that we gave them a run for (all) their money.
However, it was an expensive exercise; both in economic terms as well as the negative health impacts it has had on ASMAA team and the impact it has had on our families. But in the process we learned a fair bit about what to expect, when any 100% truly independent but concerned non-profit organisation in Portugal fights to ensure the protection of environment or human rights in this country, and takes on a fight against government, various ministries and big oil companies.
We now share with you, some of the experiences and lessons that we have learned.
ASMAA and the legal campaigns
ASMAA launched the first legal action to put a stop to any drilling in the Algarve when it lodged an action with the Portuguese Attorney General’s office/Public Prosecutor on 20 February 2017, this was followed on 12 February 2018 with a legal opinion that ASMAA presented to the various affected councils (local municipalities), and on the 6 April 2018, ASMAA lodged its legal challenge in the Loulé high court. (You can read some of the legal chronology here)
Our experiences lead us to believe that the statement “There’s Law and Justice, and often they have nothing in common” could in fact be true!
The view that we at ASMAA have taken from this legal battle, is that the justice system in Portugal is extremely politicised. We are left with the opinion that laws were passed in the Portuguese parliament, with the sole purpose of protecting vast financial and/or political interests, instead of the greater good – be it the public or nature. But this is just our opinion based on our own experiences.
Looking back, here are three salient points that we take with us:
- The various “games” played by "massive" opposing legal teams with the sole purpose to increase our legal costs and in the process place a serious financial burden on our association.
Things like, “there’s no risk of an oil slick at sea for Portugal because the current will carry the oil slick to the Canary Island”, “That 42000 people may have changed their minds of being against the drilling”, and even a more ludicrous claim that our “Charity shop which is open sporadically and is used primarily to assist families in need, was in competition with Cash Crusaders and other second hand shops”.
There were many other claims that we had to refute, but which greatly increased our legal costs as they had intended.
- The next big lesson we took, was when the presiding judge was changed without the court having the decency to inform us that such a change was taking place, and thus give us an opportunity to oppose it. Only in April 2019, we realised that the judge had been changed. It was a fact-accomplished, although it’s not common practice that such change happens at the final stages of legal processes in Portugal.
We were indeed very surprised, especially because the previous judge was changed by a judge that had just finished her “court” articles (estágio) in December 2018 in the Sintra administrative court - thus replacing a well-seasoned judge that had been responsible for the legal processes since its inception in April 2018. Meaning that the newly appointed judge to Loulé court got involved ONLY at the final stage of the legal processes - the final award/decision phase! Nonetheless, that is a process that although not very commonly used it is allowed for in law.
We have our own opinion on why this happened.
We should be forgiven for "thinking" that maybe, just maybe some political influence was at play, especially when we received the final court award, which failed, in our opinion to award ASMAA full costs, as after all, we had not lost our legal cases nor had we withdraw our cases. Instead, with this award, we were left having to carry our own costs, although we were not responsible for the opposing parts personal legal costs.
Yes, we could have challenge the awards, but as we had got what we wanted – which was to PREVENT the drilling from going ahead - we decided that it would not justify spending more money on legal costs challenging the judge decision, although it did leave a bad taste in our mouths, and ASMAA with an account of over 51.500€ just in legal fees from one legal firm alone. (This fee does not include other costs that we incurred in obtaining other international legal opinions, nor in technical experts reports, nor does it account for the many hours of Pro-Bono work that we received from many others).
- And the final one lesson was when we were informed by the Attorney General’s office that they had archived our case on the 6 August this year. To say that we were surprised, it would be the understatement of the year.
We could write a book about our anti-oil drilling campaign experiences in the Algarve.
But all we want to do right now is leave a warning to all, especially taking into account the fact that the fight to protect our environment in Portugal is far from over. All we have achieved is a brief interval in this fight. A moratorium. With elections around the corner and a new government in power thereafter, don’t for one moment think or believe that the fight is over. Far from it.
Traditionally contracts can be/and are cancelled all the time, but the concession areas are still in place. Meaning new contracts can (and will probably) be signed in the future. New tenders will go out. (Which has already been disclosed by government sources - international tenders are on the way)
It is clear that there are many interests at play! Not only do we need to be aware of how easily the political landscape in Portugal and in EU institutions is corruptive, but also the risk that lobbyists succeed in influencing "good and/or naive individuals" with jobs, careers, etc. for themselves or family members.
Keeping in mind that ASMAA’s anti-oil exploration legal battle in Algarve cost more than 100,000€ over a period of 3 years, even with all the Pro-Bono work that we received, whoever takes on a fight needs to be aware of various factors. Some of which we have described here, but what is here is far from exaustive.
The reality is that to fight the establishment and individuals responsible for certain government portfolios (and the companies involved) - and that have access to unlimited public (tax payers) money to promote their interests and/or the financial/business interests that keeps them in power, needs people with courage, ethics and determination. Unfortunately they are in short supply in Portugal.
Currently, there’s still a fight against two active fracking contracts in the center of Portugal, against Australis who want to frack the areas of Bajouca and Aljubarrota, and we can’t leave out the lithium and other minerals open-pit mining risks neither.
The warning we leave here, is that if you want to fight to protect our country for the greater good of all and planet, anyone involved, anyone that cares about our country:
needs to budget and find vast amounts of money;
needs to find good experts that are not in conflict of interest situations;
needs to have the commitment and energy needed to be at the pit face 24 hours out of 24 hours, 7 days a week for as long as needed.
Not an easy situation, but this is the reality. But above all, we need ethical political representatives in government. With elections around the corner, choose wisely. You have to ask yourself, if the available representatives will look after the greater good of all and nature, or will they be looking after their own personal interests?
There’s no doubt that ASMAA succeeded in what we set-up to do, but the success came with a heavy price tag. We still have unpaid legal as well as other related anti-oil campaign bills of 31,314.50€ and 7,165.88€ left to pay.
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