This week, I took part in the latest Global Council meeting of BirdLife International.  Unsurprisingly, we took some time to compare notes on the responses that partners around the world are experiencing in light of Covid-19 - a mix of the good (including the green recovery package outlined by the New Zealand Government), the bad (massive reduction in funding for protected areas in countries like Mexico) and the ugly (ongoing illegal killing around the world including in the UK).  Probably the biggest and ugliest development of them all (and one which is unaffected by the current pandemic) is the proposed international airport and associated infrastructure in the internationally important Tagus Estuary near Lisbon, Portugal.  If ever there was a need for us to collaborate to save our shared nature, this is it.  Which is why I was happy this week to add my voice to calls to support our partner in Portugal (SPEA) stop the airport.  Below, my colleague Ian Barber, Senior Country Programme Officer, explains what's at stake.


The Tagus estuary is one of Europe’s most important wetlands and one of the most important passage/wintering sites for waders and wildfowl in the East Atlantic flyway. It supports up to 300,000 birds on their journey between Northern Europe and Africa and around 200,000 birds overwinter on the estuary.

Migratory species and the corridors and flyways they use connect the planet. But all around the world these critical stepping stones of habitat and sites, the lifeblood of migratory species, are being degraded and destroyed. For each site lost there is a wider impact on migratory routes and a knock-on effects for migratory species. In order to safeguard connectivity the potential impact on migratory species of proposed developments must properly take into account the impacts on the wider flyway.

Among the worst current such threats is the proposed international airport and associated infrastructure in the Tagus Estuary near Lisbon, Portugal, which will encroach on a Ramsar site and Special Protection Area. The estuary is internationally important for 12 waterbird species and is especially vital for the Near Threatened black-tailed godwit, supporting 80,000 or more than a third of the total flyway population. Black-tailed godwits of both the limosa (breeding mainly in continental Europe) and islandica (breeding mainly in Iceland) races gather in the estuary and surrounding rice fields in late winter, using the area as a vital stop-over site on migration.

Photo: Jaime Sousa (SPEA)

Many black-tailed godwits known to Project Godwit have been spotted at the Tagus estuary. Project Godwit is a five-year partnership project between the RSPB and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), working to secure the future of black-tailed godwits in the UK. Wild-reared godwits studied at project sites in the East of England during the breeding season, plus head-started godwits which have been hand-reared from eggs and released at fledging age have both been recorded on the Tagus Estuary.

Protected migratory birds and habitats in the Tagus will be permanently disturbed if the airport is constructed. The safety of aircrafts, people and birds would also be threatened by the risk of “bird strikes”, while the health of people and nature would be affected by higher levels of noise and pollution emitted from increased air, road and river traffic.

Photo: Will Meinderts (FLPA)

The Portuguese government is facing a legal challenge over its disregard of EU law with lawyers from ClientEarth and Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA/BirdLife Portugal), together with seven Portuguese NGOS, having filed a court action with the Lisbon Administrative Court.

The lawyers accuse the Portuguese environment agency of failing to carry out reliable assessments, instead proposing to relocate the birds affected by restoring marginal areas of the protected area.

Joaquim Teodósio from SPEA said: “An estuary of this size is an ecosystem of enormous complexity that cannot be replicated. Considering this project will have negative impacts across practically all sectors, from public health to nature conservation, a more ill-suited location could not have been chosen. The Tagus is the worst possible place to install an airport. It simply makes no sense and is a clear breach of EU and national laws”.

The project has been heavily criticised both at national and international level. In Portugal, the construction has been met by public and political outcry #STOPTagusAirport. Environmental groups in Portugal have also expressed their disapproval, with scientists citing the construction as a “crime against nature”.

Many other countries on the East Atlantic flyway invest heavily in the conservation of migrant birds and BirdLife Partners have come together to voice their concerns by writing letters of objection and sending a video to the Portuguese government. The effects of the airport would be felt far and wide with the Faroese Ornithological Society (BirdLife Faroe Islands) saying:

“We have no more than five breeding pairs of black-tailed godwit and we cherish them. Every single one of these birds’ matter, and the proposed airport development is a threat to the survival of this species in the Faroe Island”.

Over 40,000 people have signed an online petition against the construction, organised by BirdLife Netherlands whose national bird is the black-tailed godwit. Furthermore the UN African Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) has opened an Implementation Review Process to help try and avert this disaster.

Given the uncertain economic climate due to the current coronavirus pandemic and the negative impact this airport development will have it simply doesn’t make sense and it’s another challenge our threatened migrants could really do without.