There is little in life that is black and white. However, the present-day river Tejo (the Tagus in English) is just that. It’s black on one side and white on the other. Transparent water alongside dirty water. This separation of the waters in the middle of the river is not due to force majeure in the classic, divine sense of the expression, but rather in a much more contemporary sense: the pollution of the river Tejo is due to the major paper factories on its banks in Vila Velha de Rodão.
Until recently, no one had the courage to point out the great pipes that tip polluted water downstream. With the exception of Arlindo Consolado Marques. It is not by chance that he is known as the “Guardian of the Tejo”. His heart beats with the waters of the Tejo. There’s no doubt about this. And it beats fast, in time with the tremendous transformations that have been taking place on the land around the river and in the lives of the people who live there.
I arrived at Entroncamento by train and accompanied the “Guardian” during a day of patrolling and racing by car along the banks of the river. At night, I returned to Lisbon with a bag full of tangerines from Ortiga and my head overflowing with information, words, and above all with awareness. Awareness that those tangerines in my bag, most probably irrigated with water from the Tejo, had lost all of their sweetness.
Arlindo Consolado Marques, Fifty-two-year-old Arlindo Consolado Marques was born in Ortiga, a little place beside the river Tejo in the municipality of Mação. He says he was born in the river. He played in the river. And he grew up with the river. His grandfather had a wooden boat called Piquareto, in which he used a short rod to catch fish from the river. Nowadays, Piquareto is no longer on the river, nor are there many fish. Arlindo has three children and he’s a prison warder in Torres Novas. In the past few months, he has become known as the “Guardian of the Tejo” thanks to his work as an environmental activist and his key role in the citizen’s movement for the protection of the Tejo, proTEJO. Together with proTEJO, he started a crowdfunding campaign to be able to pay his legal costs in the case against Celtejo, one of the companies producing bleached paper pulp in Vila Velha de Rodão, which is suing him for defamation and demanding damages of €250,000.
You are a prison warder. And you are the guardian of the Tejo. At the prison, you guard the prisoners. What are you guarding in the river Tejo?
In this case, everything. I am protecting it against those who try to destroy it. Those who try to kill it and mainly its waters. Its waters used to be crystal clear and there were fish diving. And suddenly everything disappeared.
Hence my revolt. I have tried to save this river. But this wasn’t my struggle alone. It was done by the people who followed me on Facebook, the people who supported me, municipal councils, institutions, it was they who gave me the strength to continue.
But your role as the “Guardian of the Tejo” is essential in this narrative, isn’t it?
I know that not everyone has the opportunity to be close to the river. I can be, thanks to my profession. I work for 24 hours and then have two days’ rest. But I have to tell you, I would often get home at night go to bed and then the telephone would ring. It would be a fisherman: “Arlindo, this is really terrible. Arlindo, there are dead fish.” Resting mattered little to me. I would cover 70 kilometres, often exceeding the speed limit. Why? To prevent the evidence from vanishing.
And did you succeed?
The slaughter of fish we found, I and my friend Francisco São Pedro, my right hand in all of this, a fisherman who has never abandoned me, was incredible… He would say “Arlindo, this is the end of the river. We have thousands of dead fish.” I arrived before the Inspectorate-General of Agriculture, the Sea, the Environment and Spatial Planning (IGAMAOT), before the Municipal Secretariat for Environmental Protection (SEMPMA), before all those people from the Environment. And I was able to show people, in various videos, thousands of dead fish. It wasn’t a river anymore, it was a river of dead fish. There were big fish… pike, perch, bass, carp, all dead… Because I got to the site so promptly, I prevented them hiding the proof, as had happened once before. And once I was at the site, with the evidence in my hand, they could take all the fish away…
What made you certain that Celtejo was the company responsible for the pollution and for the slaughter of the fish?
I was certain because Francisco spends every day in Vila Velha de Rodão; he fishes upstream from Vila Velha because the waters there are transparent. When he and his colleagues passed right there in the middle of the river, they noticed that the water changed colour there. It was the colour of red wine, brown, the colour of white coffee. And they knew that, upstream, nothing like that had happened. So, the source of the pollution was there. Sometimes more, at other times less. This pollution came out of Celtejo’s pipes. They were pipes a metre and a half in diameter. And the water from Spain, when the river is flowing, pushed us downstream, passing the Fratel Dam, the Belver Dam and the controversial Abrantes weir. And from there it went to the sea. That’s why I wanted to go there to film.
Celtejo is now suing you for defamation and demanding 250,000 euros…
Isto é mais grave do que se pensa, ando aqui a lidar com o diabo. Já me preocupei muito, mas agora penso: a verdade está do nosso lado! Está do lado das pessoas! Eu hei-de me defender. Tenho um pé-de-meia, algum dinheiro para emergências. E vou gastá-lo todo, mas não faz mal. Não quero saber disso para nada. Nunca tive nada. Se conseguirmos pôr o rio a correr de forma normal, não quero saber do dinheiro. Dinheiro não vale nada. A vida, sim, os pássaros sim. O que vale é eu estar lá no verão e mandar-me para dentro da água e não ter medo. Os miúdos a perguntarem-me: ‘Arlindo, posso tomar banho?’ E eu a dizer: ‘vão lá a vontade’. Agora não posso dizer-lhes isso!
What would have to happen in politics for the situation to improve?
This is more serious than might be thought, I am fighting the devil here. I have been very worried, but now I think: the truth is on our side! It’s on the side of people! I’ve got to defend myself. I have a nest egg, some money for emergencies. And I’ll spend it all, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t care about it. I never had anything. If we make the river flow normally, I couldn’t care less about the money. Money isn’t worth anything. Life is, the birds are. What matters is that I can be there in the summer and jump into the water and not be afraid. The children asking me: “Arlindo, can I have a swim?” And me saying: “Feel free”. I can’t say that to them at the moment!
And what can private individuals do?
People who love the river have to lose their fear, they have to report things. Ring the Environment line, which is available 24 hours a day. If you witness a source of pollution, be it from Celtejo or from a truck, you have to call. People have to understand that they are looking at the future of their children, of their grandchildren. If they can’t report something, they can call me and proTejo will deal with it.
What should people from the city know about pollution?
Because it is there that this water is consumed too. The problem doesn’t remain out here in the country…
Nowadays we are all rushing about, on buses, on the metro. But there is something we must never forget: all the products that we buy in hypermarkets, in markets… if they’re not inspected, they’re harmful to people’s health. For example, take the case of cellulose… You just need to go on the internet and write “cellulose factories dioxins”. Dioxins from a factory working legally enter the food chain. People are sometimes not interested. They get there and shop and are not interested in much else. But it would be good to keep your eyes wide open because it’s your health that’s at stake. It is proven that the fields in the area of Almeirim, Alpiarça, the cultivation of strawberries, onions, potatoes… they are irrigated with water from the river Tejo. The river is being killed, people are being killed.
A campanha do Crowdfunding PPL já terminou e foi um grande sucesso com a angariação de 22.032€