Illegal strawberry farms threaten the future of Spanish wetlands | Spain

Juan Romero shakes his head as he gazes across the lake at the wading spoonbills, the pipe-cleaner silhouettes of flamingos and the bright ibises flashing in the Andalusian sky.

“It’s an illusion,” says the ecologist, a retired teacher. The birds are real enough, of course, as are the bushy-eared Iberian lynxes that will sniff a rabbit breakfast in the quieter, wilder parts of Spain’s sprawling Doñana National Park. Spain.

The illusion is what the water level in the lake in front of it reveals about the health of the reserve. Although there is much less water in the Charco de la Boca than there should be at this time of year, it is doing better than many parts of the vast wetlands known as one green lungs of Europe.

The water supply of Doñana, whose marshes, forests and dunes cover nearly 130,000 hectares in the provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cádiz, has decreased significantly over the past 30 years due to climate change. , agriculture, mining pollution and marsh drainage. A new crisis is looming as regional authorities consider granting amnesty to farmers who illegally exploit its aquifer to supply the booming strawberry sector.

Strawberry farms in the province of Huelva. Photography: WWF Spain

Nine years after Unesco warned that the region’s World Heritage status was threatened by such illegal harvesting, the regional branch of the conservative People’s Party (PP), which has governed Andalusia for three years, has announced a proposal of regularize illegal farms and wells that extend over 1,460 hectares near the protected natural area. On Wednesday, the Andalusian parliament will vote on whether to start the legislative process.

The PP, whose candidacy is backed by both the far-right Vox party and the centre-right Citizens party, says the move would help “safeguard historic rights and a traditional activity”. [practised] since time immemorial “.

Opponents fear this could be another disaster for the local environment and point out that the region’s love affair with strawberries, locally known as “red gold”, began in the 1980s. Included between January and June of last year, exports of soft fruits from Huelva – nearly 20% of which in the UK – were worth €801.3m (£678m).

The campaign group Environmentalists in action describes Doñana as “hostage to agriculture” and claims that the aquifer is already stressed by irrigation demands. BirdLife referencingthe Spanish Society of Ornithology, considers the plan as “a new assault on the natural space of Doñana that favors a proliferation of irrigation and goes against regional, national, European and international legislation”.

Unesco, which declared the Doñana National Park a World Heritage Site in 1994asked the Spanish government for an urgent report on the matter “before decisions are made that may be difficult to reverse”.

The cited law comes eight months after the European Court of Justice ruled that Spain has not fulfilled its obligations on the prevention of illegal water extraction around Doñana and had failed to take the necessary measures to stop the “significant alterations” of its protected habitats. The European Commission says it is “deeply concerned” about the possible impacts of the proposed changes and does not rule out taking Spain to court again.

For Felipe Fuentelsaz of WWF Spain, the environmental importance of the region cannot be overstated. “Doñana is a unique place that lies between southern Europe and North Africa and it is the main migration route for all birds in Europe,” he says. “More than 6 million birds – and 200 or 300 different species – pass through it each year. It is mainly a wetland, but it also has a very significant coastal dune area and many surrounding forests. So there are three ecosystems in one place and it is the lungs of Europe.

Photography: Jorge Sierra-WWF

Romero, a spokesman for Ecologists in Action who has lived in the region all his life, dismisses the PP’s plan as a naked attempt to win the votes of legal and illegal farmers ahead of a possible early regional election. “If the people have not obeyed the law, then the People’s Party cannot come and tell them – for electoral gain – that they will [get their] legalized land,” he says. “It’s a trick and a ruse.”

The plain truth, he adds, is that Doñana simply cannot meet the water needs of other fruit farms.

Drive around the area, where huge white polytunnels break into plastic waves through a landscape of pine and prickly pear, and the sentiments of many local farmers are evident.

Not far from some of the many disused illegal wells – 420 have been closed in recent years but more are soon popping up elsewhere – are graffitied signs with a slogan demanding “more harassment” from the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation, a Spanish ecological protection agency. transitional ministry.

While the local small farmers’ union, UPA Huelva, backs the PP-led proposal, saying it will help those who missed their ‘historic rights’ under a 2014 moratorium which has banned any new cultivation or drilling of wells, he says he will “not defend those who have invaded forest areas to turn them into agricultural land without the proper authorization”.

Not all local farmers approve of the plan. At the end of January, 300 farmers from nearby Almonte have left a regional group that supports amnestycomplaining that this decision “would only serve the interests of a minority of irrigation users”.

A local fruit grower, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said the new plan was neither fair nor sensible.

“I think it’s just madness,” he said. “Doñana is something that we all love and respect. But there is a political party that offers something – supported by two other parties – that I simply cannot understand.

The farmer says the planned amnesty is fundamentally flawed and dangerously short-sighted.

“You have to start with the water and not with the land,” he says. “If you distribute the land, then everyone competes with each other, the aquifer suffers and terrible things happen. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. But that’s what they’re trying to do and it’s bad for everyone – bad for the park and bad for the farmers.

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