Links of interest for

Portugal : Flores & San Miguel


The Azores archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean, about two hours flying time and 1500 km from Lisbon, has been an autonomous region of the Portuguese Republic since 1976. Its nine islands are divided into three groups: Eastern Group of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria; Central Group of Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial; and Western Group of Flores and Corvo. From east to west the archipelago extends for 600 km and forms an exclusive economic zone of nearly 1.1 million km2. The Azores is divided into 19 municipalities that are further divided into 156 parishes. About 250,000 inhabitants are living in this archipelago. The Presidency for the autonomous government sits in Ponta Delgada (S.Miguel), with the Supreme Court in Angra do Heroisma (Terceira) and the Legislative Assembly in Horta (Faial). Ponta Delgada is the largest city with about 55,000 inhabitants.

The islands were discovered in the 15th century by Portuguese navigators sent out from Prince Henry the Navigator's School in search of a route to the East Indies. The Atlantic archipelagos were the first discoveries of Henry's explorers, the Azores in 1427, eight years after Madeira. It is commonly said that the archipelago is named after the goshawk (Açor in Portuguese), because it was supposed to be a common bird at the time of the discovery of the island. However the goshawk never actually existed on the islands. Some historians say the islands were named after their colour seen from afar (azures means plural of blue). Most however, insist that the name is derived from the local subspecies of the buzzard that live on the islands. They think the first explorers erroneously identified these birds as goshawks.

Located on the intersection of the tectonic plates of Europe, Africa and America, the archipelago is set out in a long semi-circle along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Owing to this geographical position, it became a mandatory port of call for trading ships and later the American whaling vessels from New Bedford. The islands also served as a relay station and interchange point for submarine telegraphic cables; a stop-over for the first transatlantic flights; and since World War II have been an allied air base.

Geologically, it appears that the islands began to be formed between the Cretaceous and Cenozoic periods. Being of volcanic origin, the countryside is punctuated by conical peaks, ranging from small stacks to the mountain on Pico which standing 2.341m high, is the highest point on the archipelago and in Portugal as a whole. For the purposes of this case study we are going to concentrate on Sao Miguel and Flores. The former is the largest and most populated island of the Azores with a surface area of approximately 293 square miles and around 150,000 inhabitants. It has diverse scenery including the spectacular crater of Sete Cidades with its twin lakes of sapphire blue and emerald green. Flores has an area of about 55 square miles and a population of just less than 4000. The island has deep valleys and high peaks, lakes and impressive waterfalls.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

The Azores has an isolated autonomous energy system with limited prospects of inter-connection due to the large depth of the sea and the diversity of the territorial dimensions. At the present moment the energy system is largely dependent on imported fuels for the diesel/heavy oil engines, exposing the region to the economic burden of fluctuating global oil prices. At the moment, 40% of primary energy is used for electricity production and 47% for transportation and only 6% is used in industry.

There is significant renewable potential in the Azores and the contribution of renewable energy sources (RES) to the region's energy needs has experienced a large increase in the last few years. Currently, RES account for 12% of the primary energy supply and 28% of electricity production, mainly from geothermal (22%) and less from hydro (4%) and wind (2%). The situation is diverse from island to island: the small island of Flores has 54% of its electricity produced by renewable energy (hydro and wind) although it has reached 100% production several times in the recent past depending on the amount of rainfall and wind capacity. The biggest island, Sao Miguel, has 47% of electricity production by renewable energy due to geothermal. A paper (pp 43-48) in this report published in 2005 on the prospects of RES in the Azores gives a useful overview including a detailed history of power system development on Flores and Corvo.

San Miguel and Flores were chosen as the first participants in one of the world's largest experiments in viable energy systems powered by renewable sources. This Green Islands Project was the brainchild of engineers at INESC Porto, a nonprofit body affiliated with Portugal's University of Porto, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Stephen Connors, the director of MIT's Analysis Group for Regional Energy Alternatives and project manager for the Green Islands Project, says these two islands were selected because Sao Miguel generates about half of its electricity from two geothermal plants, and Flores has significant hydroelectric resources. But like much of the world, says Connors, "The principal design is they use oil for almost everything - cars, houses, electricity. In the Azores, the solutions to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change are identical to reducing the islands' dependency on imported oil."

As outlined in these presentations,   &  the objective of the Green Islands project is to design and implement a sustainable energy system that minimizes the dependence from fossil fuels and contributes to the economic and social development of the region. The initial stage of the project was to gather data and information on the real use of the islands’ resources. The next step was to develop a strategic plan and to implement part of that plan in order to turn these two islands into systems with a high degree of energy autonomy. In order to reach that goal, the project will be implemented on transportation systems, mainly public transportation and delivery companies’ vehicles, through the introduction of vehicle fleets run on electricity. At the same time, the project will intensively explore energy storage solutions, involving simultaneously the use of advanced management solutions and the control of each island’s electrical system. The increase in the level of energy autonomy will be obtained through the maximization of electric power production from renewable energy resources – mostly geothermal and wind energy – and through the increase in energy efficiency at the level of demand.

Berlin-based Younicos, a spin-off from German solar module manufacturing giant Solon, is managing a landmark project on Graciosa that will wire together 7MW of wind turbines, a 1MW PV solar farm and a six-unit 3MW storage facility made up of several sodium sulphur batteries to supply the island’s 4,600 residents, starting in 2012. It is currently finalising a power-purchase agreement with local utility EDA to switch Graciosa away from electricity generated at its 4.2MW diesel power plant, which needs up to four millions of fuel imported by tanker each year.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

Waste prevention and management is one of the pillars of the Azorean sustainable development strategy. It is essential for ensuring the protection of the environment and the health of those living and visiting this region. In the last decade recycling practices have increased and, at the moment, they are a Government priority, which has a strong Strategic Plan for Waste Management in the Azores till 2013. For example, a total of 5,400 tons of used tyres have been fragmented, containerised and removed from the entire archipelago since 2007 for recycling in mainland Portugal. Some initiatives, like Sociedade Ponto Verde and the regional network of Ecotecas - Environmental Awareness Raising Centres - promote recycling among Azorean Society and use environmental education at schools on themes about waste reduction, reuse and recycle. The colourful recycling bins 'Ecopontos' are widespread throughout the town and villages of the country and the 'EcoFreguesias' competition has recently been launched to reward good environmental performance. In January 2010, the Regional Director for the Environment announced that all metal, abandoned and identified waste on Santa Maria as well as on the Biosphere islands - Corvo, Graciosa and Flores - had been removed and the government was regularly exporting waste for recycling at rates higher than 10,000 tonnes per year, a value that was unthinkable until recently.

Water Management & Security

A main challenge associated to EU Water Framework Directive corresponds to groundwater monitoring, both quantitative and chemical. The need for monitoring was also stressed by the Azores Water Plan. Monitoring of the chemical status of groundwater in Azores started in 2003 as detailed in this paper and has been progressively enlarged to all islands, totalizing 72 springs and 32 wells. A large number of parameters are analysed biannually, as major, minor and trace elements, pesticides and total hydrocarbons, as well as microbial indicators.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

The Azorean countryside is intensively cultivated and almost always divided up into squares lined with dry-stone walls called corrals or pens, enclosures or pastures depending on their size. Up to about 300m in altitude, mixed farming is prevalent; from there upwards, pastures dominate which now, due to the development of cattle breeding, in many places stretch down to the coast. Where the soil is poor or unsuitable, timber producing forests or vineyards can be found if the recent lava (the so-called crust) level of exposure to the sun and microclimate of the area are favourable. A comprehensive Rural Development Programme & PRORURAL.pdf is currently running until 2013.

Cattle and dairy farming occupy about 35% of the working population. The cattle graze in lush fields and meadows, which remain green all year and most beef animals are exported. Many of the cattle destined for beef are finished, some indoors, with local maize and imported grain. Milk is processed into the most delicious cheeses, mostly for export, and other dairy products. Pasture management and animal health is to a high standard. Strip grazing using electric fences is frequently employed to manage fields. Many farmers use a portable unit for milking four to eight cows at a time. This can be moved in the field by tractor to follow the cattle rotation through an enclosure. The milk churns are then delivered to local collection points by horse, wagon or small truck.

The main crops statistically are fodder and grain maize, sugar beet, as well as early and late potatoes. Chicory, sweet potato, onion and yams are also produced in significant quantities but much less than the primary production group. A dry, white Verdelho wine is also produced, mostly from Pico. The vines are grown on imported rootstock, pruned and trained very low to the ground in small walled enclosures. This viticulture technique utilises the black volcanic soil for heat retention and appears to be very successful despite the strong winds. In response to new EU guidelines for wine production a few fields are now being opened up and enlarged with the vines trained taller in the more continental style. It remains to be seen if they will withstand the wind and produce in the quantities that the traditional methods do.

Tobacco was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century and both cigarettes and cigars are still made. It grows well on Sao Miguel and its production as a traditional crop ensures the continued use of the existing infrastructure, from curing barns to processing factory, and its resultant employment benefits. The commercial cultivation of tea began in the Azores around the 1870's using Chinese technical skills brought from Macau. It still continues today at two factories on Sao Miguel, Porto Formoso and Gorreana, almost as a museum crop and thus remains the only commercial production in Europe. Three types of tea, pekoe, green and grey, are produced with a fascinating collection of working British colonial era processing machinery.

The tropical passion fruit, which needs warm growing conditions and shelter, is turned into a local aromatic liqueur. It also exists as a garden plant near homes and there are traditional recipes for passion fruit cakes. At first the pineapple, originally from Jamaica, was grown just as an exotic curiosity, but in 1864 the first commercial hot house was built, stimulated by the demise of the orange crop due to an imported disease and a scale insect from Brazil. Within decades there were hundreds of glasshouses growing pineapples but production is now considerably reduced and linked more to tourism. It is now identified as part of the Azores experience and most tours of Sao Miguel include visiting a pineapple farm where liqueur tasting and packaged fresh fruit gifts are available. They are grown organically to very high standards on locally produced mulch. Heather turf is burned to heat the glasshouses and the smoke stimulates fruiting by the pineapple plant. In most other countries this is done chemically.

Bananas are planted behind 3m high hedges and stone walls to protect them from the strong winds. Once established the bananas provide further protection for planting of subtropical orchard and root crops as well as ornamental flowers like hibiscus and strelitzia. In reality, due to the changing patterns of labour, land ownership, transport and government/EU agriculture policy, only limited amounts of the banana and orchard crops exceed home consumption and reach the local market.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

In 2006 the National Geographic Traveler magazine voted the Azores second in an island sustainable destination survey. Although tourism pressure is still low the new Regional Tourism Plan intends to control the number of visitors, taking into account the carrying capacity of the island, and sets a maximum tourist load of 15,500 beds by 2015. There are very few towering hotel blocks, little blatant commercialism and for the most part the islands are completely unspoilt. The climate is mild throughout the year without great variations in annual temperature. It is not a 'sun, sea and sand' mass tourism destination and is not promoted as such. Instead, the Azores Tourism Association is taking advantage of new consumer motivation towards special interest holidays be it for walking, cycling, bird watching, whale watching, golfing, big game fishing, caving, diving or sailing. Faial is a famous meeting point for trans-Atlantic yachts whose colourful murals brighten up the fortified harbour walls of Horta. There is rural tourism association providing accommodation in traditional houses, a site on walking trails, a caving society the Montanheiros and various companies, and offering vacation packages to suit all tastes and pockets.

The Azoreans are justly proud of their heritage. They protect their finest architecture and Angra do Heroismo, the capital of Terceira, has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Built with the fabulous wealth brought back by the Portuguese from India and the New World, this lovely white town with its fine red-roofed buildings and parallel streets, is a prime example of Renaissance planning. Angra's magnificent cathedral, splendid palaces and beautiful churches, with their treasure troves of precious relics, priceless antiques, Indo-Portuguese and Flemish art, are being carefully restored to their former glory by local artisans with aid from Portugal and the international community.

The deep religious feelings of the people of the Azores are expressed in their festivals, which keep up the devotion and colour of the past. The most widespread of these are the festivals of Espirito Santo held in nearly every village, beginning in May and continuing through the summer. Other festivals mark the day of the village patron saint or renew vows made to God centuries ago after particularly disastrous earthquakes or volcanic eruptions on the islands. Associated with most festivals is an arraial, referring to the secular aspects of the events - food, music, dancing and traditional games. In San Miguel on the banks of Lagoa das Furnas natural kitchens can be found where sealed pots of the famous dish called cozido are buried in the ground and slowly cooked by steam from sulphurous springs.

Traditional handicraft reflects the folklore and activities of the Azores and include flowers made from fish scales, wickerwork, dresses, hats and clogs, delicate carvings made from fig pith, glazed earthenware, cane furniture, beautiful needlepoint lace and crochet work, rugs and wrought iron. There has been a recent revival in these handicrafts after it was recognised some of the old ways were in danger of being lost. Now there is a handicraft school in Terciera teaching young people the skills of plant dyeing, spinning, weaving and embroidery.

The close relationship between Azores and whaling began in 1765, during the time when American whalers were in search of new hunting grounds. Azoreans built lookout stations and quickly mastered the techniques of whaling using their traditional open boats and hand harpoons. The last hunted sperm whale was in 1987 and there are two different whaling museums on Pico using former boathouses and a factory to display tools and equipment used in whale hunting and a private museum created by Prof. Malcolm Clark entirely devoted to the biology of the sperm whale and its principal food, the deep sea squids. The "Peter" scrimshaw museum in Horta, Faial, has a world famous collection of carved and engraved pieces made from the bones and teeth of whales.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The first studies on the biodiversity in the Azores started with expeditions of European naturalists in the 18th century. Dalberto Teixeira Pombo was the most notable investigator of Azorean natural history during the last decades of the 20th century, collaborating with most of the scientists visiting these islands and contributing to the discovery of many new species of endemic arthropods. However, in the last 20 years several research groups from the University of the Azores contributed decisively to the knowledge of the evolutionary history and biodiversity of Azores. We now have available the first list of Azorean terrestrial biodiversity and a Web Portal dedicated to Azorean biodiversity and its distribution across the islands.

The most important research in marine biodiversity is conducted by Azorean scientists at the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries (Horta, Faial) and the Department of Biology (Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel). The leading groups in the study of terrestrial biodiversity are the Azorean Biodiversity Group who have produced this recent booklet and a Group for the study of the Ecology and Vegetation of the Azores - GEVA (both at the Department of Agrarian Sciences - CITA-Angra do Heroismo, Terceira) and the CIBIO-Azores group at Department of Biology (Ponta Delgada, São Miguel). The Azores is also a partner in the NET-BIOME project and Friends of the Azores Ecological Association is very active through different working groups.

Beginning at sea level, along the rocky coasts you will find Myrica faya, a tough evergreen shrub, which grows up to about 3m tall and also invades old inland lava flows. The feathery tamarisk often grows near the sea. Above 500m the natural vegetation should be dense dark green juniper-laurel-heath shrub forest and this is best seen on Pico, Terceira and San Miguel. The juniper, juniperus brevifolia, is endemic to the Azores and is a conifer with a rather flat crown. Most sizeable trees have long been cut down for their timber. The laurel, Laurus azorica, is an evergreen tree with very stout shoots, leathery leaves and greenish white flowers. Erica azorica is a shrub up to 6m tall with typical heath-like leaves and tiny rather insignificant flowers. Associated are many interesting shrubs like such as Ilex, Viburnum, Clethra, and a very handsome, tall bilberry, Vaccinium cylindraceum, with large pendulous dark pink flowers and red tinged young leaves.

The southern most peat bogs in Europe are found in Flores and Terceira. They are very rich in endemic species and are also under great pressure from grazing and could disappear in a few years. The Azorean flora has few species by family. There are 81 families for the 300 vascular plants and 41 have endemic species. More information and photos can be found at Flora dos Acores. Most of these species are living fossils, phylogenetically primitive, and related to the preglacial Terciarian flora of Europe. The ferns are an interesting group with 80 species and the bryophyte flora is rich compared to the vascular one. There are about 450 species with an endemism rate of 5% to the Azores and new species are found every year.

Some 36 bird species are reported to breed in the Azores, 7 of which have been introduced. Until relatively recently farmers killed many birds including chaffinch, canary, blackbird and blackcap because they viewed them as agricultural pests and the government paid compensation on the number of beaks presented. The Azores Bullfinch (locally called Priolo) was pursued as a pest of orchards, especially oranges, during the middle of the last century and so successful was the farmers' revenge that by the beginning of this century the bird had become very scarce. Today, it is only found on Sao Miguel, more specifically to the mountain complex of Sierra da Tronqueira situated to the east of this island. The estimated population is approximately 400 birds, limited to only a few fragments of remaining native laurel forest. It is the most threatened passerine bird in all of Europe, and it is listed with a 'critically endangered' status. As such, there is a LIFE Priolo project dedicated to its conservation.

The Azores are considered an important region for several species of seabirds (at least 10), some of which are included in Annex I of the EU Birds Directive and Annex 2 of Bern Convention and considered as Species of Conservation Concern in Europe. However, many populations are now confined to the steep cliffs or small islets due to, among other factors, the introduction of rats. The archipelago concentrates around 70% of the world population of the Cory's shearwater during the species' breeding season and for this reason, since 1995 the Region promotes a campaign for the protection of juveniles that abandon their nests for their first trans-oceanic flight. The Azores counts one endemic marine bird species only recently described: Monteiro's Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma monteiroi). Many of these seabirds are regularly recorded off Pico by Espaco Talassa and details about their movements, morphology, breeding, moult, diet and feeding have been researched by scientists from the local university.

Nine species of mammals are recorded from the islands and excluding the two bat species, all appear to have been introduced by humans. In terms of marine mammals, the region is a privileged location for regularly sighting up to 27 species of cetacean - 11 dolphins, 7 baleen whales, 3 toothed whales and 6 beaked whales - during the whale-watching season (May-October). Whale watching is regulated in the Azores. However, these regulations are not as strict as WWF, Greenpeace and others believe is necessary. In an effort to promote higher standards in this industry and as a contribution to the International Year of Ecotourism, the Coastal & Marine Union (EUCC) and the University of Amsterdam in 2002 launched an assessment of all European whale watch operators with regard to a list of 15 minimum guidelines. Visitors who want to avoid finding themselves in doubtful practices can now check the performance of various companies operating in the Azores on the Dolphin Fund website before booking. Some companies are engaged with scientific research projects like Espaco Talassa on beaked whales and Whale Watch Azores on sperm whales using photo-identification analysis to try and determine population size and migration.

The Azorean Protected Areas Network ppt.gif (1318 bytes) first established in the early 1980s is currently being reformulated according to IUCN criteria and integrates 15 Special Protection Areas, 25 Special Areas of Conservation and 2 Sites of Community Importance (the recently classified deep-sea Hydrothermal vents), which are part of the NATURA 2000 network of nature protection areas. These 40 areas were classified by proposal of the Government of the Azores under the Birds and Habitats Directives and they cover 16% of the total land territory, corresponding to the biodiversity hotspots in the Azores, which are important for the preservation of species and communities. Besides the creation of 9 Island Nature Parks, the Azores Marine Park will incorporate all classified marine areas that fall outside the territorial sea, therefore including areas currently classified under international instruments such as the OSPAR Convention (7 sites currently inscribed for the Azores, 1 proposed), as is the case of the Lucky Strike and Menez Gwen hydrothermal vent fields. The Azores also has a series of areas classified under UNESCO programmes with 12 Ramsar sites and 3 islands - Graciosa, Corvo and Flores - having been adopted as Biosphere Reserves. In progress is a transnational application of sites of outstanding natural value along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge for inscription in UNESCO's World Heritage List.

A new interactive spatial information viewer and database on the Natura 2000 network are already available to the public. These tools allow an easy access to information on the Natura 2000 Network in the European Union and are the result of a successful collaboration between the European Commission, the European Environment Agency and its European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity and the Member States that share a common vision about the need for transparency and the exchange of data.

Human pressures on the fragile ecosystems of the Azores Islands have been severe since the time of settlement. The native vegetation is under threat from expanding cattle pastures and invasive species. The hydrangeas introduced from Europe are used very successfully as a 3m hedge around fields, as is the Incenso tree from Australia used originally to protect the orange orchards. However, both have escaped outside of cultivation with the hydrangeas moving into areas that have been previously disturbed and the Incenso invading into the endemic lowland forest. The Hottentot fig, a creeping succulent with a large yellow flower, appears as a dominant natural plant of the Azores coast, but is in fact an introduced garden plant from South Africa and highly invasive. Among the many other ornamental plants introduced last century to enhance the large private gardens was a relation of the ginger from the Himalaya and a gunnera from South America. The ginger thrives in the constantly mild Azorean climate and has spread at an alarming rate smothering the native plants in the cloud forest. The gunnera, which looks like a giant form of rhubarb, is a more recent escape but threatens to be as great a problem as the ginger. The search is on to find a suitable herbicide to control these alien species.

Past exploitation of natural resources has left some species reduced to small populations or even individuals. Over the last 25 years it is estimated that 50% of the remaining natural areas have been converted to grazing land for dairy cows. The economic stimulus for this was entry into the EU and the availability of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies, grants and quotas. This has led to other environmental problems. For example, the Lagoa das Furnas on Sao Miguel has been suffering from eutrophication brought about by increased human pressure, the intensification of cattle raising and the uncontrolled application of chemicals. Scientists from the University of the Azores have been using a hydrological model and a Geographic Information System to define management criteria of the activities in the watershed in a bid to improve water quality. Despite these problems, Regional Director for the Environment reiterated in January 2010 that the Government was working to promote 'a perfect environment' in the Azores.

Integrated Development Planning

The Government Regional Secretariat for the Environment and Sea has recently developed this portal that aims to provide all citizens and entities, public or private, the ability to search, view and explore geographic information on the Azores. This initiative arises at a time when the Regional Spatial Planning of the Azores (PROTA) instrument has reached a significant level of development that it will become fundamental to the framework of the planning system in the archipelago. Approved by the Government in September 2009, the PROTA is a strategic tool that transposes the major goals of sustainable economic and social development in the areas of coastal occupation, water resources, tourism, transport networks, housing policy and energy issues, among others. Moreover, it also equates the measures to mitigate intra-regional disparities, taking into account the specificities of each island.

The now formed Azores RCE (Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development) mission is to support a network of organisations and individuals committed to education for sustainable regional development within and between the various islands of the archipelago, and aims to create mechanisms enabling the effective participation of civil society in this effort. The RCE supports projects that enable citizens to reflect on their relations with the natural and social environment and trying to disseminate their knowledge and experience of sustainability in all sectors of the population.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

The Government Regional Secretariat for the Environment and Sea has a Commission on Climate Change (ComCLIMA) that coordinate the National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change (ENAAC). This strategy identified two projects to help design policies to be followed in respect of weather changes that affect the country. Firstly, CLIMAAT - Climate and Meteorology of the Atlantic Archipelagos - coordinated by the Center for Study of Climate, Weather and Global Change, University of the Azores and secondly, SIAM - Scenarios, Impacts, Adaptation and Measures - at the University of Lisbon. According to ENAAC, all the scenarios and climate projections for the entire country, based on models produced by CLIMAAT and SIAM, point to a significant increase in the average temperature in all regions of Portugal until the end of the century. Thus, the ENACC suggests, for the period 2080-2100, an increase of the maximum temperature in summer on the mainland, between 3 C in the coastal zone and 7 C in the interior, accompanied by an increase in frequency and intensity of heat waves, higher risk of fire and implications on water resources. However, in Madeira and the Azores increases in the maximum temperature should be more moderate, between 2 C and 3 C in Madeira and only between 1 C and 2 C in the Azores.

At present, the Azores have not any serious problems with coastal erosion  because virtually all the perimeter of the islands is constituted by very hard basaltic cliffs that protect land against sea action. However, worsening meteorological conditions, like greater storms may have a future impact on some coastal towns and any new constructions should be avoided. The effects of sea level rise and climate change was one of the topics discussed at the 21st Salt Water Intrusion Meeting held in June 2010 at the Univ of Azores on Sao Miguel.