Marés Vivas festival, which takes place every July in Gaia, Porto, has been moved for the first time to an area of land just 100m from the nature reserve of the Douro River Estuary.
The 150-acre reserve, which is protected under Portuguese law, is home to more than 220 species of birds, including eagles, kingfishers and cormorants, and is one of Europe’s most popular sites for birdwatching.
Local campaigners have written to John, who will headline Marés Vivas alongside other British singers James Bay and Tom Odell, asking him to take a stand against the “environmental damage”.
”More than your business and your art, please consider the environmental importance of the area. The reserve is very delicate, special and vulnerable... the area is very special to some species of birds for stopover and for nesting,” says the letter, which is signed by figures such as biologist Serafim Riem, Lucília Guedes, vice president of the Fund for the Protection of Wild Animals, and João Branco, director of Portuguese environmental group Quercus.
About 30,000 visitors a day are expected at the music festival, which was moved from its previous site after a dispute with the owners. Campaigners are concerned that crowds, noise and lights so close to the estuary will have a lasting impact on the nesting birds and wildlife.
The letter says “damaging” preparations for the festival had begun, including bulldozing and cutting down trees. It says the site of the show was home to the protected Iberian emerald lizard and that if the festival goes ahead “the whole area, including the nature park, is going to lose its state as a protected area”.
The campaigners, who quote the lyrics to John’s song Birds in the letter, said they were “pleading that you do not take part in this environmental nuisance of a music festival... Elton John, we strongly believe that if anyone is able to change the stubborn minds of the festival managers it is you.”
As well as the open letter to the singer, campaigners and Quercus have taken the case to court. Last week, a judge ruled that construction and bulldozing on the land be temporarily halted because it infringed on the ecologically protected area. Another case will be heard next week about the environmental impact of the festival on the thousands of birds.
Another signatory, Bernd Markowsky, who started the SOS Douro Estuary campaign, said the mayor of Vila Nova De Gaia, Eduardo Rodrigues, and the festival organisers “have no concern for the environment; they don’t want to know, they don’t care”.
He said: “We have photographs that show how many lizards have been killed in the short time they began bulldozing the land, but they have openly said it didn’t matter how many had been killed because there will still be thousands left. This area is protected by the law but that has not stopped them.”
However, Rodrigues denied it would have any environmental impact, and said he had commissioned a report which proved this.
“I’m very concerned about environmental issues. This report shows that there are no consequences, no impacts … there are no differences between the last location and this location,” he said.
“It shows also that we had paid attention to the law and to environmental impact. The question, for me, is another one: what’s the difference from the last nine years of the location near the reserve? My answer: politics, and the use of public panic to take political advantages … You must know that migratory birds pass for the reserve in September, not in July.”
Rodrigues condemned the letter to John and said he did not believe it would change anything.
“This is not a boycott, but terrorist behaviour that I believe will not have consequences on Elton John, who knows very well the distinction between a fair argument and a boycott,” he said.
But Branco said the mayor’s report was flawed and that the festival was in “clear violation of the law that protects the birds”, claiming: “There are so many spaces where this festival could be held, I don’t know why they are insisting here. They thought they could get away with this, but we are not giving up without a fight.”
Representatives for John did not respond to a request for comment.
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