I was delighted to hear last week that, in a long-running court case in Portugal, a property developer had been given a two-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 150,000 euros for habitat destruction to the Ria de Alvor marshes.

I first visited these marshes more than 15 years ago. The Ria de Alvor is one of the most important wetlands in southern Portugal, and is protected as a Ramsar and Natura 2000 site. It is home to birds such as this black-winged stilt.

In recent years, however, access to the marshes has been prohibited and the developer moved the diggers in, in the hope that he would get permission for a lucrative tourist resort.

The Christian nature conservation organisation A Rocha, which has now been studying the area for more than 25 years, was instrumental in getting the case to court and providing scientific evidence about the habitat destruction. You can read their press release here.

Although the Portuguese legal system is very different to that in the UK, this case is noteworthy, and not just because the Ria de Alvor is one of the few undeveloped stretches of coastline in the Algarve.

The size of the fine and the custodial sentence make it a very unusual case. In Britain, cases like this which get to court usually rely on the protection given through the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation which underlies most Natura 2000 sites.

The RSPB has long argued that the penalties handed out by UK courts for environmental crime rarely reflect the seriousness of the case. Looking at damage to SSSIs in England, there have been only 16 successful prosecutions since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. There was only one custodial sentence, of 28 days suspended for two years, for damaging a chalk river bank with probable impacts on breeding fish. More details here and here.

This is another timely reminder (see yesterday’s post about Talbot Heath) about the Nature Directives providing valuable protection for Europe’s rarest and most threatened habitats and species. The Algarve’s economic success, largely founded on its tourism industry, ultimately depends on the quality of its natural environment. That’s something which all governments need to note.

So congratulations to colleagues in Portugal for bringing this case to a successful conclusion. We would love to hear from anyone else who has examples of a custodial sentence imposed for habitat destruction any where in Europe.

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