Saturday, January 29, 2011

Awaiting trial, Serena Wylde campaign for change in libel laws

Algarve holiday homeowner Serena Wylde has had some sleepless nights but not the slightest remorse over the letter of complaint about a Portuguese lawyer that has landed her in court facing a charge of aggravated criminal defamation.

On the contrary, she regards her experience at the hands of the law here as a sort of call-to-arms. She is angry and points out that “anger produces energy.” She has launched a campaign to highlight all kinds of injustices in cases involving ethics, human rights and politics. (For the background to her own case, see my last blog).

Ms Wylde, 59, is a retired businesswoman. Married to a retired Portuguese bank executive, she is highly intelligent, tenacious and passionately concerned with ethics, truth and justice.

After a criminal process was opened in 2007 over her letter of complaint to the Portuguese lawyers' regulatory body, the Ordem dos Advogados, she began studying law herself. She is in the process of studying for a masters degree.

Not all Portuguese lawyers are in her line of fire. She has nothing but praise for the professionalism and punctiliousness of her Lisbon-based defence lawyer, Francisco Teixeira da Mota. This formidable advocate has successfully prosecuted Portugal for violation of Freedom of Expression at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg no less than five times, the latest just before Christmas.

Defamation is broadly defined as a statement that gives a false, damaging impression of someone to others. In verbal form it is called slander; in written form it is libel.

In her own words and reported here for the first time, this is how Serena Wylde views the situation regarding defamation in Portugal compared to the UK. While there are differences, a most important fact to bear in mind is that the law in Portugal does not exist in isolation; a person convicted of a criminal offence in Portugal is automatically recognised as a criminal in the UK and elsewhere.

Serena Wylde says:

<  Vexatious libel litigants in Portugal have little to lose, because:

1. It costs relatively little to bring a criminal libel case in Portugal as it is essentially paid for by the Public Prosecution Service. (Judges themselves who bring libel cases enjoy favourable terms…and are exempt from paying any court costs!)
2. In Britain litigants who bring false actions for libel are ordered to pay the other side’s legal costs and expenses, and if found to have lied are prosecuted for perjury and given a jail sentence. No such consequences hang in the balance in Portugal.
3. Even when the European Court of Human Rights determines that Portugal is in breach of Article 10 governing Freedom of Expression (which it invariably does) and orders the State to reimburse the applicant all fines and damages paid plus expenses incurred, the Portuguese litigant still gets to keep his/her “compensation” as the bill is footed by the Portuguese taxpayer!
There are therefore few deterrents to discourage spurious claims. Hence, libel actions are used as a highly effective intimidatory and persecutory weapon to silence critics, whistle-blowers and consumers alike, leaving the hapless individual who has spoken out with a European Criminal Record and the claimant with a profit! A win-win situation for any malicious litigant.

Unlike in Britain, where it is considered essential that libel cases be determined by a jury, and thus it remains the only civil case still to be decided by twelve members of the public, in Portugal the decision rests at 1st instance with one judge.

The offence of aggravated defamation is an inversion of democracy because it provides for greater punishment where the plaintiff is a judge, public official, lawyer or member of the clergy; insulating from criticism and scrutiny the very people who exercise power over other people’s lives, and therefore need to be subject to greater, not less, scrutiny and accountability.

The only legitimate purpose of libel laws is to protect reputations from unwarranted attack and the dissemination of false statements of fact. A reputation is an objective, definable concept and hence the European Convention refers to the balancing of the rights of freedom of expression and protection of reputation.

In Portugal, criminal libel proceedings can be initiated on the flimsy and totally subjective argument that “one’s honour has been offended”, regardless of the legitimacy of the criticism or the veracity of the statement, and the Portuguese version of Article 10 of the Convention has substituted the word “reputation” for the term “honour.”  >

"The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, January 24, 2011

Controversial trial of English holiday homeowner suspended

To the bewilderment and dismay of many international observers, an Englishwoman, Serena Wylde, was due to stand trial in Lagos tomorrow (Tuesday) as a result of making a complaint to an official regulatory body of the Portuguese legal profession.

Then this afternoon, the court in Lagos confirmed that Ms Wylde’s trial date has been suspended. The decision followed an urgent application made by her Portuguese lawyer questioning the impartiality of the trial judge.

Shortly before the suspension announcement, the British organisation Fair Trials International issued a statement saying “it beggars belief” that the trial was being held. “The prosecution flies in the face of free speech and puts those in positions of power beyond reproach,” said the organisation's' chief executive, Jago Russell.

Ms Wylde, who owns a holiday home in Praia da Luz, faces a possible nine-month jail sentence because of a letter she sent in confidence in January 2005 to the bar association, Ordem dos Advogados.

In her letter she called for disciplinary action to be taken against a prominent lawyer in Lagos, Pimenta de Almeida Borges. It arose from a dispute she had in 2004 with a neighbour about a gate and a garage. Mr Borges had been acting for the neighbour.

Ms Wylde claimed that she and her neighbour settled their dispute out of court in August 2005 and that Mr Borges was instructed accordingly, but he carried on legal proceedings away. This caused considerable anxiety for both her and her neighbour, said Ms Wylde.

She told the regulatory body in her letter that Mr Borges had acted in “an improper and unscrupulous manner”. She asked that his conduct be investigated. In June 2006, Borges also wrote a letter of complaint to the regulatory body – about Ms Wylde, claiming she had defamed him.

While still investigating the matter, the regulatory body forwarded Ms Wylde's letter to the public prosecutor's office which began proceedings against Ms Wylde for aggravated criminal defamation. The first inkling she had of this was in February 2007 when two policemen arrived at her Praia da Luz home and told her to report to the office of the Judicial Police (PJ).

Mrs Wylde, a 59-year-old businesswoman from Putney in London, has a close connection with Portugal. She has a Portuguese husband and speaks the language. Both of her parents, from whom she inherited her holiday home, are buried in the Algarve.

Mr Borges is the son of a former Supreme Court judge. He comes from a prominent family in Portugal and has described himself in correspondence with the prosecutor 's office as “a well-to-do and cultured individual”. He is seeking €50,000 in damages, although he admits “it is difficult to fix a sum to indemnify the offence suffered by one who exercises his profession with such honour, dignity and seriousness”.

Fair Trials International is taking a rather different view. They believe “this type of criminal action has the effect of placing the legal profession in Portugal above reproach and outside of any effective regulation”.

Fair Trials International added: “Serena Wylde took the responsible route of making a complaint when she encountered what she considered to be inappropriate actions by a lawyer. She did this, not to further her own interests, but to seek to uphold the integrity of the legal profession and to protect others from unprofessionalism. As a result she is being put through a harrowing and completely unjustified ordeal”.
It certainly has been an ordeal for Ms Wylde. She said in 2009: “It is devastating to be charged with a criminal offence. In my case this happened because I told what I believe to be the truth and it has been turned against me by those who don’t want to hear it. This ordeal has made me question every reference point of my daily security, and even my own sanity.”
Britain's former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw said in December 2009 he had discussed the case with Portuguese State Secretary Jose Magalhães and would "follow it up" . Straw said he was using the case as an example of why close cross-border co-operation in justice and home affairs issues was crucial in Europe. "Nobody asked me to intervene - I just raised it because I saw a news item on television about the situation and decided to pursue it," he said.
It was hoped the case would be dropped. But no. The legal action has been brought by the State, with Mr Borges as a civil claimant. Now that it has been suspended, the challenge to the conditions for a fair trial will be assessed by a higher court in Évora. If successful, a different judge will hear Ms Wylde's case

Sunday, January 23, 2011

From Boliqueime to Belém Palace
- Algarvian re-elected as President

Aníbal Cavaco Silva, born and bred in the modest Algarve village of Boliqueime, has secured occupancy for the next five year in Lisbon's Belém Palace, official residence of the President of the Republic of Portugal.

Of the two main candidates in Sunday's presidential election, there was never any doubt that voters would go for the centre-right economist rather than his main rival, Manuel Alegre, a celebrated leftist poet. As expected,Cavaco Silva, 71, won emphatically.

Cavaco Silva is well qualified to be Portugal's head of state at this time of extreme financial difficulty. Ironically, it was failure as a schoolboy living in Boliqueime that seems to have set him on the path to academic achievement and political success.

The President was born in Boliqueime just off the N125 main road, north of Vilamoura and Albufeira, in 1939. His family dealt in locally harvested dried fruits. His father also ran the local filling station.

The story goes that the young Aníbal did not shine at school. When he failed an exam as a 13-year-old, his grandfather decided the lad needed a shake up. He is said to have “punished” him by forcing him to work the land with an enxada (traditional heavy hoe). This seems to have done the trick because Aníbal went on to become an outstanding student, graduating with a degree in economics and finance in Lisbon in 1964. He later gained a doctorate in economics in the University of York.

During his subsequent career, he held professorships, senior positions within the Bank of Portugal, served as finance minister and twice as prime minister at the head of the Social Democratic Party.

Former presidents of Portugal have been dictators. Others have been mere figureheads. Cavaco Silva has chosen to use his high office to wield influence while avoiding party polemics and not directly interfering with the running of the country.

During his first term as president, Cavaco Silva has backed the efforts of Socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates to stabilise Portugal's economy without resorting to an EU bailout and all the strings that would entail.

The centre-right party Cavaco Silva once led has become increasingly critical of the socialists' economic performance. Opposition members of parliament are demanding the prime minister's resignation if Portugal is forced to resort to a bailout.

In theory, the next general election is still two years away, but there are doubts if the government can hang in until then. The president's official powers are limited but one of them is the right to dismiss a prime minister and dissolve parliament if he thinks fit.

Carvaco Silva is not without critics, of course. Many Portuguese, especially the young, are disillusioned by his support for the government's austerity measures to tackle the country's budget deficit, thus identifying himself with wage cuts, tax rises and worsening unemployment. Still, it is clear that the majority of Portuguese voters want a confident professional economist to preside during the undoubtedly difficult months and years ahead.

This man of humble birth certainly does not lack confidence. He once said in a newspaper interview: “When I make a decision, I never have doubts, and I rarely get it wrong”.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Did Portugal's PM “beg” for help?

It seems that someone in either the Portuguese Prime Minister's office in Lisbon or the German Chancellor's office in Berlin has been telling whoppers.

Politicians and those around them are generally not held in high esteem when it comes to straightforward honesty, but the story of a reported telephone conversation last week between José Sócrates and Angela Merkel suggests blatant lying rather than political obfuscation. Or could it be that one of Britain's most respected newspapers, the Guardian, has got it all wrong?

The Guardian reported that Sócrates last week phoned Merkel and “begged for help”. Sócrates wanted to know what he should do about Portugal's financial crisis. Quoting “witnesses”, the Guardian said Sócrates sounded desperate and eager to please.

The conversation took place amid the backdrop of Portugal being widely tipped to be the third eurozone country after Greece and Ireland to need a German-led bailout.

Sócrates promised to do anything Merkel wanted, with one big exception. He insisted that Portugal did not want, or need, a eurozone bailout, with the extremely tight strings that would entail.

According to accounts circulating in Berlin, Merkel left Sócrates to wait on the line while she sought the views of two high-powered visitors - Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French head of the International Monetary Fund, and Giulio Tremonti, the highly regarded Italian foreign minister.

The IMF chief was dismissive. The Portuguese plea was pointless, he said, because Sócrates would not follow any advice he was given. So Merkel gave Sócrates a "cynical" brush-off that the Guardian interpreted as symptomatic of rising tensions within the EU.

Fascinating stuff – except that the story was totally false according to the Portuguese Prime Minister's office. A spokeswoman for Sócrates, Mafalda Costa Pereira, was adamant that the phone conversation did not take place. “It is not true,” she said. A source told the Portuguese newspaper Expresso that the last time Sócrates spoke with Angela Merkel was at the last European Council meeting.

So who's fibbing? We'll let you know in the unlikely event of someone owning up.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Safety and security for tourists

The mass evacuation of tourists from Tunisia has been a timely reminder that Portugal in general, and the Algarve in particular, is a far safer place for holidaymakers than many competing destinations in North Africa and elsewhere.

Riots and violent demonstrations have severely disrupted the capital, Tunis, Hammamet, Douze and other places popular with tourists. This has lead to a state of national emergency, the ousting of widely hated President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and, by the way, the ruination of a great many Thomas Cook, First Choice and independent holidays.

Tunisia was seen as one of a growing number of countries in North Africa and parts of Europe developing new tourist industries and doing their best to lure holidaymakers away from more traditional destinations such as southern Portugal.

The fact is that while some of these emerging tourist destinations have been offering cheaper holidays, lower prices usually mean lower quality and often inferior amenities and services.

Meanwhile, in the face of a slump in bookings due to the international economic crisis and unfavourable exchange rates, the Algarve tourist industry continues to try to keep costs as low as possible while maintaining high standards.

It is in the fields of national and regional security, plus mandatory standards of health and safety that Portugal can claim to be second to none. The Algarve is an important component in a country based on law and order, exuding genuine hospitality to visitors, especially those from its major market, Britain, with which it has a special relationship for centuries.

It is significant that while the Tunisians have just forced their president into exile, accusing him of heinous crimes against his own people, the Portuguese are preparing to re-elect their much-respected president to a second five-year term in office.

Portugal's fully-fledged revolution back in 1974 was characterised by carnations in gun barrels and no direct violence on the part of the revolutionaries. Tourism has developed hugely since then to become the Algarve's number one economic activity in the absence of any further serious political unrest, natural disasters or the climatic extremes that have dogged many other places.

During a visit at the beginning of the 19th century, the English romantic poet Robert Southey described the Algarve as 'Paradise', with a capital 'P'. Even without political suppression, racial tension, devastating earthquakes, mudslides, floods, oil spillages, volcanoes or war, a small 'p' seems sufficient in these days of global economic crisis.

From Britain alone, nearly 1.63 million visitors a year come to Portugal to relax. In its advice to travellers, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office notes that “most visits are trouble-free” and “crime remains comparatively low”.

We mustn't gloat because of the misfortunes of others any more than we should be complacent about our good reputation for safety and security. But the events in Tunisia in recent days show yet again that, even amid fairly gloomy economic forecasts for 2011, things here could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bailout may bring down
the Socialist government

The guessing game has reached fever pitch: will Portugal have to succumb to a financial bailout or not? While the country's top political leaders stubbornly say no, many commentators say it is inevitable. The answer may decide the future of the present minority Government.

It may all seem a bit academic to ordinary folks faced with 23% value-added tax, pay cuts and worrying employment prospects, but the bailout controversy is becoming pivotal.

Socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates has said repeatedly over most of the past year that he will do whatever it takes to avert the need for an international financial rescue. Responding to new claims that Germany and France are set to push Portugal into accepting a bailout, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, former Social Democrat prime minister and current president of Portugal, says Portugal has no intention of asking the IMF or the EU for financial help.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Portugal has not asked for help and Germany is not pushing Portugal into it. EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner, Olli Rehn, says there had been no formal discussion about a bailout for Portugal and none is envisaged “at this stage”.

Reassuring remarks have also come from Spain where Economy Minister Elena Salgado said this week that Portugal won't need a bailout because it is “enacting reforms that will help save the nation's economy from imploding”.

Greece and Ireland repeatedly denied that they were seeking a bailout before they accepted rescue packages amounting to €85bn and €110bn respectively. Many analysts believe the Portuguese government is trying to avert the unavoidable. To stop the financial crisis spreading further, some commentators reckon that Portugal will need between €60bn and €80bn. They say a bailout looks certain to happen in the first half of this year.

“Economists fear that Portugal's economy cannot grow quickly enough to avoid being forced into a bailout,” according to the Guardian. There is a growing feeling in the markets that Portugal is heading towards requiring a financial rescue as borrowing costs are now at potentially unsustainable levels, according to the Associated Press agency. Just as the Prime Minister was trying to quash persistent talk of a bailout, the Bank of Portugal released its gloomy prediction today, Tuesday, that the economy will shrink by 1.3% this year.

Meanwhile, President Cavaco Silva has reiterated that nothing should be done to make “the government's life more difficult” as it works to avert a bailout. This seems to be a pointed warning to his own supporters who have become increasingly critical of the government's handling of the economy.

As the nation prepares for a presidential election on 23rd of this month, Cavaco Silva's popularity is such that he seems assured a second term. He is being backed by the Social Democrats who backed the Socialist government's austerity measures at the end of last year, but who are now demanding Sócrates' resignation if Portugal succumbs to a bailout.

The leader of the Social Democratic Party, Pedro Passos Coelho, says it is necessary to “turn the page” and elect a new government to bring a fresh approach to Portugal's economic woes.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Maddie, Prince William and a right royal honeymoon muddle

An official invitation to Prince William to come to the Algarve on his honeymoon seems to have gone astray. It is not likely that he would have accepted the invitation anyway because of a much more serious matter, that of Madeleine McCann who went missing while on holiday in the Algarve in 2007.

By an unfortunate fluke of timing, the story of Madeleine McCann last week became intertwined with that of the forthcoming royal wedding. The mystery surrounding the honeymoon invitation (of which more in a moment) is a quite separate issue, though some ardent conspiracy theorists may be able to conjure up a connection.

The story of missing Maddie has obsessed a large section of humanity for nearly four years now. News of the fairytale royal marriage is sure to fixate the entire planet for many years to come. Last week, out of the blue, the two did a sort of pirouette.

Kate and Gerry McCann had already announced that their book entitled Madeleine would be coming out on April 28th, shortly before the fourth anniversary of their daughter's disappearance. Then the Royal Household announced that the wedding of Will and Kate had been scheduled for Westminster Abbey on April 29th.

Obviously the clash of dates would mean that the McCann's book launch would be overshadowed by the glitzy royal spectacular. So the McCanns and their publisher, Transworld, announced that the book launch had been postponed for a fortnight, until May 12th. The new date is still conveniently close to the date Madeleine went missing, May 3rd. Also, it neatly coincides with what will be, or would have been, her eighth birthday.

The timings are not good so far as the Algarve is concerned. Nuno Aires, president of the Algarve Tourist Board (ERTA), told me recently he was “optimistic” that Prince William and his bride would accept the official invitation sent from his office shortly after the original wedding announcement in November.

Nuno Aires first mentioned his intention to invite the royal couple when he spoke with the retiring British Ambassador, Alex Ellis, at a dinner in the Algarve. A written invitation was then sent to the British Embassy in Lisbon for forwarding to the Royal Household.

“We said we would be honoured and delighted to receive Prince William and his wife,” said Sr Aires. He thought having the honeymoon here would be appropriate because of the historic relationship between Portugal and the UK. He had met William during the prince's visit to the west coast as a member of a stag party group in 2006. Like Will, Nuno enjoys surfing. The prince told him, “I feel at home here”.

Many top hotels had let it be known to the tourist board that they would welcome the royal couple and that no expense would be spared in laying on everything they required. The state would be able to provide the highest security arrangements.

But would the royal couple want to be here at a time when the media will also be focusing, yet again, on the most publicised missing child case in human history - and a highly controversial one at that?

Meanwhile, it emerged at the end of last week that the honeymoon invitation sent on 25th November had still not been received by the Embassy. In confirming this, a spokesperson said that the Embassy could not have forwarded the invitation anyway. All gifts or invitations intended to mark the occasion of the royal wedding have to be sent by post directly to HRH Prince William at Clarence House, London SW1A 1BA.

The Embassy spokesperson added: “ It is also important to bear in mind the fact that many thousands of letters and offers of services have already been received by HRH Prince William and Miss Middleton.”

What a shame. A royal honeymoon visit would have given the Algarve tourist industry a welcome boost but, alas, for one reason or another, it doesn't seem to be on the cards. Our best hope is for a bit of private prenuptial surfing involving just the boys ahead of the main stag parties in London and Cape Town.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Expat scam may have endangered lives

Police in Britain are investigating Algarve expats Seamus and Paula Mongomery for allegedly running a £1 million MOT scam that may have put the lives of road users here and elsewhere at risk.

It is alleged they advertised Ministry of Transport road-worthiness certificates for owners of UK registered vehicles and sold more than 1,000 a year, charging £200 a time. Police suspect the scam ran for least five years.

Following their arrest in Essex, the Montgomerys have been released on bail having surrendered their passports.

The retired couple, both in their sixties, were still regularly playing lawn bowls at Alvor until early last month. They have an apartment in Alvor. Acquaintances say they also own a house in the eastern Algarve, which they want to sell. Up until a couple of years ago, the Montgomerys were selling HP sauce, Heiz Baked Beans and other typically British delicacies through their company, Montys Online Grocery Service, MOGS for short.

They offered to take orders for products from Tesco, Sainsbury's and other British stores and deliver them to customers via 18 drop-off points right across the Algarve. A local newspaper reported that “nothing is too much trouble for the Montgomerys” and described their service as “tremendously popular, mainly with British expatriates, but with some Dutch residents as well. ”

After taking part in the 2005 BLIP exhibition the Montgomerys were so enthusiastic that they declared online: “Yes, MOGS will definitely be taking a stand in 2006, we were overwhelmed by the number of contacts we made,we would like a similar position next year.”

Acquaintances described them as “a couple you either liked or disliked.” They were highly regarded by many people at the bowling club in Alvor – at least until this weekend.

Just how the Montgomerys' focus changed from MOGS to MOTs is not clear. It was the MOT business that interested police in Essex. It involved 'genuine' MOT certificates and has exposed a serious weakness in the British MOT documentation system. The police allege the Montgomerys issued certificates to owners without their vehicles ever going though the mandatory tests.

The certificates may be 'genuine' in that they are thought to have been from a batch of stolen documents. For expats in the Algarve, it saved bringing their vehicles back to the UK for testing. Such owners may be as guilty as those who supplied and sold the certificates.

“My son reported this racket to the UK police two years ago,” an expat wrote on an Algarve website yesterday. “They didn't want to know. They said it was out of their jurisdiction.”

The scam was exposed at the weekend by the Daily Mail after the pair were arrested in their mobile home in Maldon, Essex. The service had been advertised with a contact email address and mobile phone number in newspapers in the Algarve where they spent nine months of the year.

The Mail applied for a certificate for a write-off Ford Fiesta. The car had been so extensively damaged that the insurer decided not to repair it. The tyres were bald, the seatbelt mountings rotting and windscreen wipers missing. The MOT certificate duly arrived from Essex in a brown envelope a week later. It was a genuine document, which suggested the test had been carried out by a garage in Bermondsey, south-east London.

“The 12-figure test number quoted on the form had been fabricated and the MOT did not show up on the Vehicle & Operators Services Agency database,” according to the Mail. “The document could, however, have been used to obtain a tax disc at a post office, if shown with a log book and insurance details.”

The Mail reported that officials of the Automobile Association (AA) said the alleged fraud “may have put potential death traps on the road and that is frightening.”

Anyone with one of these bogus certificates needs to be worried. Driving a car with a false MOT certificate is a criminal offence. The vehicle insurance won't be valid. No doubt the GNR will be on to all this. Drivers of UK register vehicles can expect to be pulled over in the weeks ahead.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ten reasons to cheer the New Year

Many people are giving 2011 a cool reception. For starters, most of us can forget about it being a prosperous New Year, but here are ten reasons why we in Portugal can look forward with some optimism.

Strong leadership On 21st January the Portuguese will go to the polls to elect their next President. It's virtually certain that the incumbent, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, will be elected to a second term. He has just the sort of experience needed for the job at a difficult time like this. Born in Boliquieme in the Algarve, Cavaco Silva is an economist who graduated in Lisbon and gained a doctorate at the University of York in the UK. Having worked as a professor and held a senior position in the Bank of Portugal, he entered politics after the 1974 Portuguese Revolution and became leader of the centre-right Social Democratic Party. From 1985 to 1995 he served two terms as Prime Minister. The most recent opinion poll gave Cavaco Silva, aged 71, a comfortable lead over his nearest rivals, the ruling Socialist Party's Manuel Alegre, and Fernando Nobre, an independent.

Social togetherness “We are, without a doubt, a united region, a region which provides conditions so that everyday we are able to celebrate love, brotherhood, faith and the precious gift of life.” So said the Civil Governor of the Algarve, Isilda Gomes, in a Christmas message. Everyone living in the region - those who have come here to pursue their personal or professional goals, as well as those who were born here - are Algarvians, she said. In her New Year's message she spoke of “freedom, equality, brotherhood and social justice” for all. Well aware of the new austerity measures and worsening financial hardship, she emphasised the importance of “understanding, mutual help and voluntary sharing”. Bravo!

Speaking out Citizens are increasingly expressing opposition to things they believe are detrimental to society. Top of the non-violent protest agenda in the Algarve in the early part of the year will be a defiant 'no' to government plans to start imposing tolls on the region's east-west motorway in April. Users argue that tolls would further harm the economy and cause more fatal accidents by pushing more traffic on to the notoriously dangerous 125 main road. Popular national petitions include demands to cut food wastage, reduce the number of parliamentarians and abolish bullfights. All the major petitions can be viewed in English as well as Portuguese at

Renewable energy Portugal, a small country, has emerged as a giant in the field of alternative energy. The government intends to continue strongly supporting solar, hydro, wind and geothermal projects, while much bigger and supposedly more developed countries are still bogged down in polluting the planet with fossil fuels. The world's first commercial wave farm began operating off the northwest coast. The world's largest solar plant is located in the Alentejo,which gets more sunshine per square metre than anywhere else in Europe. Nearly half of the country's electricity now comes from renewable resources, a 28% increase over the past five years. The trend is set to be enthusiastically sustained through 2011 and beyond.

Electric driving As with renewable energy, Portugal is taking the lead in zero-pollution electric cars. The Nissan Leaf, the first completely electric car aimed at the mass market, will be given its European launch in Portugal this month. It has already been declared “European Car of the Year”. Nissan will soon be assembling batteries for the Leaf in Portugal and the government has promised to establish a nationwide network of charging points. The envisaged infrastructure will include 13,000 wind-powered charging stations, a swipe card access system and capacity for 750,000 vehicles by 2020. The plan is to make the network compatible with any make of electric car. The Portuguese government is working closely with private enterprise on all of this.

No water worries While homes in Northern Ireland, of all places, have been without water for days on end recently, and summer hose-pipe restrictions have become almost normal elsewhere in the sodden British Isles, no such problems are likely this year in southern Portugal, a Mediterranean climatic zone with a low annual rainfall restricted to the cooler months. So far this winter, in a repeat of last, it has been tipping it down. The reservoirs have never been fuller and gardens have never been greener. And we don't get freezing conditions that cause our pipes to leak.

Washed out Another reason why gardeners welcome lots of rain at this time of year is because it severely curtails the development of Processionary Moths, one of the Algarve's most wondrous creatures. The moths lay their eggs in pine trees. The caterpillars come down from their hairy nests among the pine needles in February and March and walk head-to-tail in lines of up to 300 individuals to find suitable soil in which to bury themselves, form cocoons and pupate so that the whole life cycle can start again. The caterpillars are so voracious that they can eat enough foliage to kill a mature pine tree. If disturbed, the marching caterpillars release minute toxic hairs that can cause extreme skin and eye irritations in humans and worse in inquisitive domestic animals.

Property prices The market can't get any worse in 2011, can it? Actually, the past twelve months haven't been as bad as the media has been suggesting, according to Stephen Anderson, managing director of the Portugal-based group of property investors, Infinito Real. His company found that while bargains existed in 2010, this was actually a small part of the property market and anything with a unique location still held its value. The latter half of the year saw an upturn in clients looking seriously, but they had to contend with an increase in mortgage rates and a tightening of the lending criteria. He doesn't expect things to change dramatically in 2011.“It’s likely we will see more of the same, albeit with less drastic price reductions, as those most hit by the economic crisis have either sold up or walked away.” 

Wine noises Portugal's wine producers have been strongly advised to become more assertive this year. This was one of the main messages to emerge last month from the country's first major international wine conference in Oporto. Four hundred and fifty of the world's leading authorities on wine seemed to agree with the UK wine critic and author on Portuguese wines, Charles Metcalfe, who pointed out that “in this noisy world, Portugal’s quiet message is overwhelmed by most of the others.” Metcalfe suggested that one of the ways to overcome this is for various Portuguese sectors - wine, gastronomy, sports, tourism and so on – to work together. Since most UK tourists think of Algarve golf and beaches when asked about Portugal, it was deemed a good idea to open tasting rooms in all popular tourism locations.

The secret's out After years of official dithering, there seems to be a growing insistence in tourism circles that something quite radical needs to be done to change the Algarve's image and make it more competitive in the international marketplace. Harking on with advertising slogans about this being Europe's 'best kept secret' or even its 'most famous secret' is not the way forward. Package holidays are a thing of the past and nowadays there is a lot more to the Algarve than 'sun and sea'. After successive years of decline, the region's number one economic activity desperately needs – and hopefully will get – a major shake-up in 2011 to the advantage of all involved.