Monday, 18 April 2011


The single word, "Ajuda" ("help") dominated the front page of Público on sale in Funchal the morning after Portugal went to the European Union for a financial bail-out. (1)

I was reading Christopher Howse's Presswatch in "The Tablet", and was struck by the reporting on Madeira. The news he is reporting is not readily available in mainstream British news media, and yet it is a news story which is certainly of significance to Jersey, where there are close ties, both personal and political, to the community there.

Howse notes that Madeira has a singular relationship with Portugal, in that its people vote in elections for Portugal but also enjoy an autonomous government. This means that part of its economy is bound up with budgets and finance of the Portuguese government.

Since Portugal entered the European Union in 1985, Madeira and Azores were given funding to assist with the disadvantages and deficit of development of their peripheral location. (2)

While the floods last year were devastating, he notes that the newspapers are suggesting that will be a blip compared to the long term effects of the economic bailout and austerity measures which will be required as part of any package:

Now that Portugal has sunk under the economic waves, "80,000 Madeirans will receive less" predicted the front page of Diário de Notícias, the Madeiran daily. That means the third of the population who are pensioners or public employees. Already, since November, the number of Portuguese families receiving help from Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, had risen by 40 per cent, Público noted last week.

According to a report in Diário de Notícias, 34,000 Madeirans resorted to the Social Security Centre in Funchal last year, 15,000 of them receiving food aid. Now, its head, Bernadette Vieira, expects the middle classes to come her way.(1)

Part of the reason for the poverty is the success of Madeiran tourism which contributes 20% of the region's GDP. Ironically, as wealthy holiday makers have visited the Island, this has led to prices rising. The result is that that locals on the breadline have been increasingly priced out of the market, paying more for basic foodstuffs.

The "four pillars" of the Madeiran economy are farming, fishing, tourism and offshore financial services, and while there has been a migration of younger people to tourism and offshore, agriculture employs nearly 21% of the workforce (3). What is more, these are smaller farm holdings:

Agriculture has lost some of its economic importance, but is still an important activity to maintain rural life. Many people depend on subsistence agriculture and 65% of the people have at least some relationship with agriculture. Traditional farming methods are still used in the numerous terraces where mechanisation is extremely difficult. The small property size (the average farm size at 0.38 ha (INE, 2001) also contributes to the maintenance of traditional production methods.(5)

And as Howse notes:

It is not easy for British holidaymakers to gauge the island's poverty. They may see poor, drunk men in the Rua de Santa Maria in the old town of Funchal, but they do not see the poor, sober families dependent on agricultural smallholdings in the valleys of the countryside, over which leap concrete motorway bridges. These people gain nothing from tourism yet have to pay tourist prices for things that they cannot grow themselves.

Perhaps it is time for Jersey to look behind the more showy political trappings of twinning with Madeira, and look at the hidden hardships which are likely to predominate increasingly in the future, and which contact with the political rulers of the region may obscure. As one of the blogs says:

There are hundreds if not thousands of deals in Euros, but millions routed out the door to feed fat salaries and journalistic chronicles alleged to offend everyone, exalt a regional misrule and a political party without any sense with regard to democracy.

And as Howse notes, a priest is at the forefront of the task to make the distribution of wealth fairer, and see that funding is just not kept in the hands of the more privileged:

Closely identified with the regional government is the Jornal da Madeira, which carries photos of men in suits listening to other men  in suits at microphones. A local priest, José Luís Rodrigues, is dissatisfied. "Public subsidies for the Jornal da Madeira", he said on his blog, gleefully reported by Diário de Notícias, "are a scandal, an offence against the poor of our country." If so, there will soon be more to be offended.

(1)  Christopher Howse, Presswatch, The Tablet

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