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Environmental public policies and public awareness in Portugal: a scenario of contradictions

2009

Environmental issues in Portugal show historical traits distinctive from other post-war Western countries. These traits inherently belong to a society that maintained its rural status until the mid 1970s within the context political dictatorship. Thus, there was a prolonged absence of environmental public policies in the country. With the accession of Portugal to the EU (in the mid 1980s) changes were introduced through the creation of policies and legislation, mainly by transposing EU directives into national regulations. However, this process of implementation was in many cases ineffective. That is, it was enshrined in national policy frameworks, but with a low rate of enforcement. The State belatedly assumed its role and responsibilities in policy enforcement. This lack of commitment in enforcing environmental policies and measures is now apparent through the poor environmental indicators that the country shows in several areas. In addition, the process of socialization of the general public regarding environmental issues was flimsy. After more than two decades of the implementation of environmental policies, the social impact achieved is still weak: despite increasing public environmental awareness (apparent through public discourse and the population’s concerns), there is a lack of materialization of this awareness in both everyday practices and civic participation/mobilization. Compared with other European countries, Portugal is at the crossroads between northern and eastern European countries where democratic information and participation practices arrived much later. This paper discusses the persistent unsuccessful implementation of environmental policies, looking at two related problems: the weakness of environmental movements and the absence of information and communication strategies by the State. The paper’s empirical work is based on survey material produced by Observa (Observatory for Environment, Society and Public Opinion) over the last 10 years, taking into account some environmental problems/sectors as paradigmatic cases.