Amnesty International accuses government of foisting mega solar parks on communities
Amnesty International (AI) Portugal has accused the government of pushing through plans for mega solar parks without any proper consideration of the ‘bigger picture’.
In an investigation entitled “Mega solar power plants: When the ‘green’ transition is not fair”, the NGO identifies “lack of transparency and absence of dialogue with populations” which, in the final analysis, threatens the productive future of vast swathes of territory.
AI explains that civic movements throughout the Alentejo and Algarve are already challenging the roll-out of these ‘megalomaniac projects’, “including in the courts, for fear they jeopardise people’s rights and the sustainability of their territories”.
Opposition is not simply based on economic factors. As a pitched battle in the eastern Algarve has already shown (see below), this is about potentially destroying ancient (and vital) underground systems that feed critical aquifers.
One of the projects targeted in AI’s report is the Fernando Pessoa photovoltaic plant in Santiago do Cacém, promoted by Spanish electricity company Iberdrola.
Says the report, if the Santiago do Cacém plant moves forwards, “it will be the largest in the country and in Europe. It will occupy more than 1,200 hectares and its construction will involve the felling of more than one and a half million trees.
“It is not only the scale of this mega plant that is causing social and environmental alarm, but also the choice of land, which, in this and other cases, covers areas classified as National Ecological Reserve (REN) and National Agricultural Reserve (RAN).”
According to the document, the criterion for the location of power plants is proximity to high voltage lines, which can inject the energy produced into the grid.
The criterion completely disregards social and environmental impacts, says AI.
The NGO also questions the green light given by APA (Portuguese environment agency) to two further power plants planned for the Alentejo, “as their location seems to coincide with areas considered sensitive by the Ministry for the Environment and Climate Action.
“Further south, in the Algarve, another project, in the process of public consultation, is also creating controversy because of its location. The future Estói photovoltaic plant will cover the municipalities of Faro, Olhão, São Brás de Alportel and Tavira. According to the civic association Probaal, most of the 156 hectares will be implemented in the National Ecological Reserve.”
AI Portugal has compiled its research by listening to businesspeople, producers and farmers whose land and activities will be neighbours of the planned power plants. All have pointed to concerns about the impacts on soil and underground water reserves, noting that the Estói plant is planned “for a valley that is an aquifer recharge area, with direct impact on streams and on water storage in the soil”.
Based on information obtained from its discussions, AI Portugal also highlights how citizens encounter difficulties accessing documents about these projects, and when they do manage this access, the documents tend to be in a “technical language, which hinders the participation of the population”.
Another obstacle is in the systemic lack of publicity of public consultation processes. These invariably come to the knowledge of citizens sometime after they have been opened – and “without any disclosure by municipalities”.
AI’s report makes a point of tackling ‘environmental impact assessments’ as well, which they claim are being used expediently “and to the potential disrespect of the rights of populations, of the environment (as stated in Article 66 of the Portuguese Constitution) and of international law itself”.
“AI Portugal recognises the advantages of solar energy over energy obtained from fossil fuels but calls for plans for the country to be able to involve the entire population, in an inclusive and transparent way.
“AI believes that respect for human rights and climate justice are only possible if the solutions are able to keep the focus on sustainability and the horizon on the planet we want to leave to future generations,” the document concludes.
Citizens group “has been trying to meet with Iberdrola for two years”
The group of citizens behind Probaal, in the eastern Algarve, is spearheading opposition to the mega solar park planned by Iberdrola, and has been working on its arguments for the last two years.
During that time, members have repeatedly sent emails, letters, and requests for meetings to Iberdrola, without success. Last week, by what they believed was happy chance, a representative of the Spanish energy giant travelled to the site, for a meeting with officials of the ICNF (nature and forestry institute).
As Probaal members told us, “we quickly printed out an open letter and jumped in our cars…”
A group of about 20 Probaal members converged on the spot, and “asked everyone if they worked for Iberdrola, but no one affirmed that they did (…) At this point, we realised it must certainly be the gentleman who passed us as we arrived, his head down and already making a call on his mobile phone. When we found him, we tried to offer him our open letter, but he refused to accept it, saying that we should submit it through the proper means.
“Then it was said that he would give us a business card (presumably with the address for our letter?), but once inside the car, the doors were shut and the car drove away without giving us any card.”
As Probaal members explained: “Communicating through the normal means is a nice idea, but we have written emails, paper letters and communicated through the press to Iberdrola over the last two years, and only once was our correspondence met with anything other than silence. Indeed, our previous open letter published 07/10/2021 in the El Correo newspaper of Bilbao, where the company has its headquarters, elicited no response.
“For this reason, we wanted to deliver this open letter from person to person.”
Probaal’s experience last week is just one example of how much authorities really appear to rate the importance of public participation.
For those who have not yet understood the battle on Probaal’s hands, the group’s website (probaal.org) includes information on how to respond to the public consultation process, open until July 20.
There are currently 28 large-scale solar farms in Portugal (projects involving more than 100 hectares). They cover 5,886 hectares (2,058 of which are in the Alentejo). Favourable environmental impact assessments have been delivered for another 33 mega projects (i.e., more than double the number that exist right now), to cover another 19, 275 hectares.
Amnesty International “has questioned the Ministry of Environment about the country’s policy options in terms of solar energy production, the size and choice of land. We have not received a reply”, states the NGO, whose report carries the quote of “a resident and businessperson in the region”, which runs: “There is no green transition, because there is no transition. They are just exchanging oil for sunshine, but the mentality is the same.”