4 June 2020
The Portuguese government is gearing up to build a new airport on the country’s most important wetland – the Tagus Estuary.
The area is on the path of hundreds of thousands of migratory wetland birds that congregate there for the winter or on their journey between Northern Europe and Africa. It is also protected under numerous international treaties due to its importance for these protected species.
So we’ve stepped in. Working with Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA), and supported by seven national NGOs as well as being backed by local and international researchers and organisations, we have filed a court action against the government, aiming to annul Montijo Airport’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
At a time when we need to be protecting and restoring our most precious habitats to help tackle both the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis, the Portuguese authorities are pushing ahead with a project that would irreversibly compromise one of Europe’s most important wetlands – as well as unavoidably generating vast amounts of carbon emissions.
The EIS is an important document which should consider the impacts of any development on the environment. The law requires that a series of tests be carried out before a development can go ahead which affects a protected site. The Portuguese authorities failed to carry out those tests and have simply proposed to ‘relocate’ the habitats and birds that will be affected by the airport.
Protected migratory birds and habitats in the Tagus will be permanently disturbed if the airport is constructed, and failure to fully assess the project’s environmental impact, and suggesting that birds can and will simply inhabit nearby salt flats, is a clear breach of EU and national laws.
Our wildlife lawyer Soledad Gallego said: “At a time when we need to be protecting and restoring our most precious habitats to help tackle both the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis, the Portuguese authorities are pushing ahead with a project that would irreversibly compromise one of Europe’s most important wetlands – as well as unavoidably generating vast amounts of carbon emissions.”
The potential consequences also extend beyond damage to the Tagus Estuary. Because of its importance for migratory birds, damage or disturbance to the Tagus Estuary will also have an effect on sites all along the migration route to northern Europe. Gallego added: “Montijo Airport could have far-reaching consequences felt well beyond Portuguese borders. Failure to consider this will cause irreversible damage to nature, people and the climate.”
The project has been heavily criticised both at national and international level. In Portugal, it has been met by public and political outcry. Environmental groups in Portugal have also expressed their disapproval, with experts citing the construction as a “crime against nature”.
In the Netherlands, thousands of people have signed a petition against the construction, as it would seriously threaten the migratory Black-tailed Godwit, the Dutch national bird.
In a first major success for our case, Portugal’s top legal official has issued guidance confirming the project’s insurmountable issues.
The Public Prosecutor’s legal Opinion strongly supports our action, piling pressure on the Portuguese government to abandon the project.
The Public Prosecutor drew attention to the major deficiencies, technical errors and inconsistencies in assessing the impact the airport would have on the Special Protected Area in the Tagus Estuary, as already highlighted during the environmental assessment of the project and as required under EU nature laws.
The Opinion also highlighted that the cross-border impacts the project would have on international and European migratory birds and therefore on other protected sites across Europe, were unjustifiably understated by the authorities. Downplaying the airport’s transboundary impact means the authorities avoided consulting other countries who might be affected by the future project.
Reacting to the Public Prosecutor’s Opinion, Soledad said: “The Public Prosecutor stresses not only the importance of recognising the potential impact the project will have on migratory birds and on the integrity of the protected site, but also the potential knock-on effect it would have outside Portugal’s borders. The Opinion goes further still, highlighting further reasons why the airport should not be built, including the failure to assess the risk of major accidents, as required under the Seveso Directive.
“We hope that the Court will follow this Opinion, but more importantly, we hope that the Portuguese authorities will realise their legal duty to protect the Tagus Estuary. Primarily because protected migratory birds and habitats depend on this unique natural area for their survival, but also because of the key role these ecosystems play in ensuring a robust and healthy climate.”