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For better or worse

Over the last thirty years, I have often been asked where I come from and where I was born. Does this matter? And, if so, why? What can you deduce from knowing that someone was born in Metz, Monchique or Minden? Isn’t it enough just to be European? What if the woman in the queue behind me asks me once again and I reply that I’m from Monchique? Will that be of any help to her? In what way? Does it explain anything about the person inside me? When she smiles and shakes her head, I look at her and I can see she doesn’t believe my answer.

© Uwe Heitkamp

The European ideal has been badly shaken by this Covid-19 pandemic. The solidarity between European countries only seems to exist on good days. But we can change this. Do we want to be as bold and courageous as the Americans were when they created the ideal that became the dream of so many emigrants originating from England, Germany, France, Portugal and Ireland? We could reverse the tide and finally create the European Constitution. Now stop laughing, and please pay less attention to conspiracy theories. Because these cause us to forget what really binds us together. I’m thinking about something much vaster. We could take some new decisions about our modern-day society – not about the way that it is now, but about the way that we want it to be. Perhaps for the first time in the history of our modern states, we are witnessing the fact that politics can make everything possible. So, never again will a male politician be able to tell a young woman that the measures needed to protect our climate can’t be implemented because they’re too costly, too complicated or too restrictive for our economy. Obviously, we can do everything when we’re threatened by danger. We’ve learned that now. And why can’t we apply this same lesson to more positive aspects?

Why, for instance, don’t we grant each European citizen the exclusive right of ownership to their own personal data – and not allow these to fall into the hands of any company, organisation or State?

Why don’t we consider it to be an inalienable human right to live in an ecologically intact environment? And why don’t we decree, once and for all, that economic interests must be relegated, to a secondary position in relation to universal human rights, anywhere in the world? Am I being naive? Perhaps. But we have already seen that our countries are capable of acting when it’s important. And such demands for a European Constitution are not, in fact, any more utopian than the declaration made in America, in 1776, that every human being has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the right moment. Isn’t this the real task facing us at this time? After the barbarism of the last century, shouldn’t we be leaving something bright and cheerful to future generations? Something new springs from all catastrophes. Here, in the western world, we thought we were safe – our State, our economy and our culture. Of course, there were wars, hunger, poverty, financial crises, terrorism, dictatorships and other abominations. But, generally speaking, we lived in a sheltered world. Every year, a new iPhone would appear, the shops were full of products, our newspapers were free and critical, stupidity could keep politics, television and people occupied for weeks on end – in short, our democracies seemed to be consolidated. We were protected by modern laws, with a fully functioning legal system.

Our rights are guaranteed by our constitutions and by our parliaments, with their members being freely elected by the people, while all our duties are strictly determined for us. The government has the possibility of choosing between security and freedom. Until 17 March, we all knew how much we had or received, what was permitted and what was banned. Everything had its rightful place.

And now, suddenly, nothing is right. What we thought was firm ground has been whipped from under our feet. Right now, we feel closer to one another, despite the safe distancing. It has now become clear just how much we depend on one another. We understand our world at this moment as a tiny planet, as a pale blue dot drifting in Space. We have to stay united, though, and continue to fight for an unconditional basic income all across Europe. That would enable us to survive any state of emergency, and, what’s more, with dignity too.

The virus has brought us to a turning point in time and history. As we now understand, everything is possible. We will be put to the test as human beings. Do we see ourselves as a well-oiled and fully functioning machine that wants to govern the world, or are we just a part of everything, living in a complex and intelligent space that we don’t yet understand and that we are unconsciously destroying? Real knowledge isn’t created by reading books, but by observing reality. That’s why we need a foundation, a common European Constitution. So, it doesn’t matter what country we’re born in. We can’t choose what we have at birth. It’s 25 April as I write this, a very special day in Portugal, the day when we celebrate the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship. I’m going to a meeting with a lawyer and we’re going to be talking about human rights.

We are in Bemparece, in Monchique. My guest is a lawyer, by the name of Rui Amores.

I was told your mother was born in Monchique.

It’s true. Although she lived most of her life in Portimão, her origins were in Monchique. My grandfather was from Pereirinhas. He used to distil medronho here and he opened some wells in Monchique.

And your father’s from Portimão?

Yes, from the parish of Alvor.

But you were born in Germany.

My parents emigrated in the sixties, like many Portuguese, and they stayed in Germany for nearly seven years, where I was born, in 1972.

We can’t choose where we’re born, right?

Nor where we die… My parents came back to Portugal six months after I was born.

And how did you come to study Law?

© Uwe Heitkamp

I’d already been nurturing the idea since secondary school. And I never applied for any other course. I never wanted to be a judge (laughs). I always considered myself to be more useful as a lawyer. I took my degree in Lisbon, trained with a law firm and embarked on my professional career.

And why didn’t you become a doctor? Or a journalist?

The educational system in Portugal tends to channel us as students and directs us towards certain areas. I studied Arts and made a choice, one of those youthful ideals.

How did you end up becoming interested in environmental law?

It was when my daughter was born and I became aware of all the mistakes that are being made. I became involved in environmental law through a platform that was set up in the Algarve: PALP (Algarve Fossil Fuel Free), which was recommended to me by a colleague in Lisbon. I began to detect a series of situations that were repeated in other cases related with the environment – large companies, driven purely by profit and with a total disregard for the wellbeing of the people – and this led me to devote my attention more and more to Environmental Law.

Mostly, you represent clients who don’t belong to the 43 billionaires that own half of the world’s wealth. You represent citizens’ associations that are concerned about the destruction of our environment.

I’m swimming against the tide, or maybe not, if you compare what I saw five years ago with what I can see now. And I’m talking about people’s capacity to organise, the awareness they now have that they can get support at some stage in their legal battles. And we may be talking about the greenhouses in the South-West Alentejo Natural Park, or the building of a bridge in the heart of the Tavira Ecological Reserve…

The fact that, as citizens, they need legal support makes me think that I’m probably not swimming against the tide so much as I thought (laughs). I also represent groups of citizens – they don’t need to be associations – as happened in Setúbal.

© Uwe Heitkamp

In your line of work, is there room for emotions or do you always keep a cool head?

When I start working and thinking about the presentation of my results, I forget about my feelings. Obviously, I have my opinion, which I sometimes express in the social media or in articles published in newspapers like “Barlavento”. Sometimes, I even get to say things like: well, we can’t go down that route, because, technically, this one is better, although sometimes people don’t understand this.

What, for you, is Justice?

That’s a very complicated question. And asking me this on 25 April makes it even more complicated (laughs). Justice is still associated with an idea of Good. Sometimes, it doesn’t correspond to what’s written in the law. That’s curious, don’t you think? St. Thomas Aquinas used to talk about unjust laws. We have to be aware that Justice can’t be limited exactly to what a legislator decided one day to put down on paper. Every day we’re faced with environmental laws that are made not to protect the environment – that would, in fact, be Justice – but instead to protect certain established interests. And these cases of injustice affect a lot of people.

Generally speaking, Justice is the idea of doing good at all times, and that has to be shaped in the law. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen – that’s why I’m a little upset with the law.

Humankind, and all the species growing on this planet, need water, earth and air. Do you agree that we need to find another way of defining property – a third way, something that can make a different kind of definition: this land is protected, nobody here can exploit it, capture water, extract oil or plant monocultures?

But we already have all these laws: the problem is that they aren’t applied. For some years now, we have been building a legal structure, admittedly more so at the European level, which is designed precisely to protect the value of the earth, air and water…

So, who owns the Arctic, and the Antarctic? Do they need an owner?

There are several owners. You don’t need to go so far.

And what about the sea, and the oceans? We’ve been catching fish until we’ve exhausted the stocks…

But there are laws designed to protect maritime areas. In Portugal, we have vast maritime areas that are already protected. When the question arose of drilling for oil in Aljezur, there was a certain area that hadn’t yet been classified because they were playing for time, under the terms of the law (there you are – an unjust law), so that they could press ahead with the drilling for oil. And only when this work began would they get round to classifying it as a protected maritime area. Whoever decides these things knew that, as soon as the area was classified, there couldn’t be any drilling for oil.

I’ll give you another scandalous example. In the South-West Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park, we have an area of 12,000 hectares, whose legislator wants it to be used for organic farming or for forms of agriculture that have the lowest possible impact. But the authorities don’t inspect the area when there are laws that protect it.

Can I buy a plot of land there and build a hotel?

You can, provided that the terrain allows for the building of a hotel and you obtain a licence from the various authorities. But, if you want to build a hotel by the sea, then it’s a bit more difficult (laughs)…

Can I build an area for monoculture?

You can…

…but using a plastic rather than a glass greenhouse.

That’s a very interesting question. We have the idea that agriculture has very little impact on the environment. But that’s a tremendous mistake. Because of the way it’s being practised nowadays, it’s one of the activities that has the greatest impact. Today, if I want to build a family house, I need a great heap of licences, and I have to contact a whole range of different bodies and authorities: the municipal council, the agricultural reserve, the ecological reserve, depending on the location; but to engage in agriculture, if it’s below certain limits (if it’s no more than fifty hectares in a protected area, or a hundred hectares, generally speaking), you don’t need an environmental impact assessment or any licensing at all.

© Uwe Heitkamp

And can I use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilisers? Can I build things in plastic?

Curiously, you can. The use of the famous glyphosate, for example, is banned in public spaces, next to gardens and schools. There’s a whole series of rules in place regarding its use. But, in agriculture, its use is just restricted to certain limits, which are not supervised.

Do you have any idea about how we can solve this problem?

With a sense of citizenship. People are already aware that things aren’t going well, and that’s very important. Ten years ago, it wasn’t like that, but the level of pressure on the territory wasn’t what it is today. The Algarve is a very clear example of this, because it’s always been a very attractive area, both inland, due to agriculture and forestry, and on the coast, due to building and tourism.

There is now widespread awareness that the greenhouses in the south-west of the Algarve have created an anomalous situation. Now we must begin to take action. The problem is that the people who want to press ahead with these environmentally devastating projects always move faster.

There’s a joint document, signed by all the mayors, but we still haven’t seen any local authority banning anything at all. Because it’s all a question of buying farmland, and buying and selling property is a private business. And that’s what the companies have been doing. If it doesn’t exceed the limits I mentioned, then you can start farming immediately, and you’ll have the support of the government too, helping in the hiring of fruit pickers, for a very short period of time.

We’ve now reached the theme of slave labour.

Workers from Nepal, India, Pakistan…, yes.

There are now more foreigners living and working in São Teotónio than there are Portuguese.

Exactly. And that’s causing a huge problem. It was already like this before the pandemic. People have reported cases – and quite recently too – of houses being sublet that should only accommodate three or four people, but which have twenty or thirty workers living inside. This raises very complicated problems at the social level, problems of health, hygiene and working conditions.

To understand this madness and to find solutions, does it help to play chess? What are your hobbies?

I read a lot and I like to debate things… Unfortunately, the colleagues I have to discuss these subjects with all live very far away. Here in the Algarve, sadly – and perhaps I’m being a little unfair – nobody has yet said: right, I’m going to abandon all the other areas of my legal practice, and I’m just going to concentrate on this. And then I’ve got my family, and my daughter. Yes, I do play chess, and I enjoy it, although I’m a little out of practice.

© Uwe Heitkamp

Is there anyone you’d particularly like to defend?

I’m going to say something that may be controversial. The spoken word has less impact than the written word.

One of the reasons why I’ve been moving away from the kind of lawsuits I was taking on before is that I prefer to defend causes rather than people. All the rest is important, of course, and it all has its place in the legal system, but there’s a whole series of things that need to be done quickly. And lawyers have a great responsibility in offering consultancy to the groups of people who draw attention to problems, but who then come up against all the legal intricacies, which are always highly complex.

However, this branch of Law is not only complex, but it may also not be so profitable as the other branches, which dissuades a lot of people in the professions from taking on such cases. And yet, it’s a fundamental area in the whole structure of the law, not just for us, but for our children too. It’s fundamental for us to change things. People from an association are building water tanks to support the community in the event of future fires; this is crucially important, but then there’s a whole legal structure behind all this.

Is your life difficult?

No, I have a wonderful life. But I’m not being ironic, I’m being honest. Sometimes, the smaller a situation is, the more dangerous it can become. I don’t ever receive any threats, but sometimes I do get harassed in the social media, in fact quite often, and by my relatives too, because of some of the actions I’ve taken. My actions in support of citizenship are always governed by the fact that I’m a lawyer, but when I spoke out about the demolition of one of the last symbolic villas at Praia da Rocha – something that was completely illegal – I was put under a lot of pressure, receiving some quite unpleasant posts…

And one last question: After the Covid-19 pandemic, will life be more difficult or easier?

From an economic point of view, it’s going to be very, very complicated. In other respects, curiously, it’ll bring us some good things, I think.

I’m one of those people who think that this will last quite a long time. The virus has already taken a hold in our community. In Portugal, we’re witnessing something rather strange: statistically, we’re continuously recording the same number of confirmed cases and deaths, which means that the curve is not dropping, but instead flattening out, and so it will be around for quite some time. The longer it goes on, the worse it’ll get.

But it’s also going to bring us some good things, such as the chance to reflect on the way we work and consume things, and the way we depend on other countries.

In the short term – in one to two years – it will have some very complicated consequences. It already is doing.

It’s like a “cure” for cancer.

It is. And, if the disease stays around for a long time, then it will serve as a cure; if it’s a quick thing, people will go back to their normal behaviour of a year or six months ago, and very little will change. Like all cures, it brings pain and suffering. If the pain is just a rapid one, people will quickly forget all about it, but if it’s a protracted affair, unfortunately then the pain will become imprinted in our minds, and it’ll change our habits. Now, with greater or lesser difficulty, we’re all adapting, and it is possible to live differently. Because there’ll be another pandemic one day.

Thank you.

Uwe Heitkamp

traduções: Fernando Medronho & John Elliot | fotografias: Uwe Heitkamp

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