Portugal’s proposed new airport would threaten thousands of protected birds – ClientEarth is taking action
The Portuguese government is gearing up to build a new airport on the country’s most important wetland – the Tagus Estuary. The area is on the path of hundreds of thousands of migratory wetland birds that congregate there for the winter or on their journey between Northern Europe and Africa. It is also protected under numerous international treaties due to its importance for these protected species.
Attempts to go ahead with the project show a disregard for important EU laws and a lack of consideration of the severe impacts of building the airport on an internationally protected nature site.
So we’ve stepped in. Working with Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA), and supported by seven national NGOs, we have filed a court action against the government, aiming to annul Montijo Airport’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
An incomplete environmental assessment
The EIS is an important document which should consider the impacts of any development on the environment. The law requires that a series of tests be carried out before a development can go ahead which affects a protected site. The Portuguese authorities failed to carry out those tests and have simply proposed to ‘relocate’ the habitats and birds that will be affected by the airport.
Protected migratory birds and habitats in the Tagus will be permanently disturbed if the airport is constructed, and failure to fully assess the project’s environmental impact, and suggesting that birds can and will simply inhabit nearby salt flats, is a clear breach of EU and national laws.
Our wildlife lawyer Soledad Gallego said: “The Portuguese government is bound by law to protect the birds and habitats that depend on this unique natural area for survival. Approving this airport threatens this important wetland and the wildlife it supports.”
Damage to sites beyond Portugal
The potential consequences also extend beyond damage to the Tagus Estuary. Because of its importance for migratory birds, damage or disturbance to the Tagus Estuary will also have an effect on sites all along the migration route to northern Europe. Gallego added: “Montijo Airport could have far-reaching consequences felt well beyond Portuguese borders. Failure to consider this will cause irreversible damage to nature, people and the climate.”
The project has been heavily criticised both at national and international level. In Portugal, it has been met by public and political outcry. Environmental groups in Portugal have also expressed their disapproval, with experts citing the construction as a “crime against nature”.
In the Netherlands, thousands of people have signed a petition against the construction, as it would seriously threaten the migratory Black-tailed Godwit, the Dutch national bird.
Plans for new Lisbon airport opposed by local authorities, and the Dutch (for harm to national bird, the godwit)
There are plans to construct a new airport for Lisbon (Portugal) as the existing airport – Humberto Delgado Airport – is considered by the authorities to be full. Plans have been considered for many years, but a new airport at existing Montijo military air base, near Lisbon, got approval on 8th January 2019 when the government signed an agreement with ANA – Aeroportos de Portugal (the country’s airports manager). The Montijos site is on the Tagus estuary, a nature reserve where the godwits, a threatened species, stop off on their way from Africa to the Netherlands. There is now considerable opposition from the Netherlands, where the godwit is seen as the national bird. The planned airport would devastate the areas where godwits feed, and many birds would be culled if the airport was built, for air passenger safety. There is now political controversy about the airport, as in Portuguese law, if local councils oppose a development, it is not permitted. The government wants to over-rule this ability, as various councils led by various political parties are blocking government plans. Due to costs, TAP Air Portugal, has firmly stated it would not move to the new airport.