Conservation bodies were today jubilant about an ‘unprecedented’ verdict against a rogue developer in what could be a first for religiously literate ecology.
A Rocha, the only international Christian conservation organization, headed up a consortium of charities that secured a suspended two-year prison sentence for Portuguese development magnate Aprígio Santos.
This is thought to be the first time a custodial sentence has been handed out to an individual for environmental crime.
Simon Marsh, Head of Planning Policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said the win was ‘a huge credit to A Rocha’.
‘We are not aware of any other example of a developer receiving a custodial sentence for habitat destruction,’ he added.
Santos, who also owns a football club, has regularly flouted the law in an attempt to begin building on rare marshland at Ria (estuary) de Alvor on the southern coast of the country.
Described as ‘the most important wetland area within the western Algarve’, Ria de Alvor is the last green, undeveloped area of the popular coastline.
The court found Santos guilty of ‘damaging nature’ and seven counts of ‘disobedience’ after he ignored an injunction and police complaints against his firm Butwell Trading.
They also imposed a swingeing fine of Euros150,000 on the well-known businessman, who owns Associação Naval 1º de Maio, commonly known as 'Naval', a football club based in Figueira da Foz.
Santos met his match in A Rocha – whose name means ‘Rock’ – founded in 1983 specifically to protect this estuary habitat which is home to a staggering 273 species of bird and 500 of moth.
A Rocha founder Peter Harris said the successful five-year campaign could have ramifications not just for European tourism, but among groups campaigning for increased awareness of the religious dimension to habitat management and campaigns.
‘I don’t know in the history of the church a single other occasion when Christians have secured a legal judgment for environmental crime.
‘In this kind of work, you don’t often get a really clean landmark moment, but this really is one.’
He credited the long-term commitment of the A Rocha team, and their ‘sense of place’
‘It is beliefs that cause you to commit, or to exploit.
‘There’s something about the way we as Christians work: we have a long-term commitment to the community and our people come out of these communities now in the first place.
‘It means you can do things that couldn’t be done on a three-year boom and bust funding cycle by outsiders.’
Portuguese environmentalists are also hailing the specific contribution made by A Rocha, which now has national organizations in 19 countries.
‘Unlike most environmental organizations it was this group that fought the inertia, who never let the subject die. They worked away like ants on the ground and they never unlike many others talked nonsense . . . but provided strong scientific evidence’ said the leading Portuguese environmental blogger Ambio.Blogspot.com.
Aprígio Santos was sentenced on Thursday 23 February by the Judicial Court of Portimão.
Santos had ploughed up and removed vegetation on his 200-acre estate which is part of Natura2000, the network of nature reserves set up in 1992 under the European Commission’s Habitats Directive.
Santos had continued flouting the law in what commentators viewed as blatant contempt of the authorities. Fines are budgeted for by developers who usually absorb them as part of their normal business costs, according to sources, but this time the court punished the company owner.
This result calls time on land owners who will be less eager to flout the rules in future. One Portuguese website said: ‘Santos may easily be able to pay the fine, but his reputation is sullied and besmirched, and those campaigning that he observe the law and the many injunctions against him may justifiably congratulate themselves.’
The Monitoring Group of the Ria de Alvor, led by A Rocha and made up of the League for the Protection of Nature, Quercus, Geota, SPEA and Almargem, are continuing with a civil suit demanding restoration of the destroyed habitats and species by leaving them alone for ten years.
For more on the belief debate in conservation see the below documents: