More than twenty years ago, scientists and environmentalists sounded the alarm over threats to Europe's most important wetlands in Doñana, south-western Andalucía.
The National Park, created in 1969, is vital for six million migratory birds on their African-European flightpath. It's also a haven for the most threatened feline on Earth, the Iberian lynx.
Back then, farmers in Huelva, where Doñana National Park is largely located, grew olives and crops suited to the dry environment surrounding the marshlands
But in the 1980s, strawberry cultivation took off, with farmers using much more water to irrigate thousands of hectares of polytunnels. Scientists' warnings about drawing groundwater from the same aquifer that the wetlands depend upon were ignored. Half of this intensive extraction is illegal with 1,000-2,000 unauthorised boreholes. Though some 400 wells have now been closed the authorities are adept at turning a blind eye while Huelva is producing three quarters of Spain's strawberries. Known as "red gold", the industry exported 350,677 tonnes of the fruit last year, worth 1.21 billion euros. In 2020, the aquifer was officially declared overexploited.
The marshlands have also seen surface water flows cut in half and their area reduced from 150,000 hectares to just 30,000 as naturally flooded land has been cultivated, with waters diverted.
Compounding the problems is the lack of rainfall in recent years. The last surviving permanent freshwater lagoon in the park dried up in early September. It's hard to think of a more ominous signal for a wetland habitat in extremis.
So one might think that local and national politicians might realise that intensive agriculture in the area is not sustainable.
Enter Vox with its recent bill to legalise 1,461 hectares of irrigated land near the Doñana National Park. This amnesty for illegal irrigation is practically identical to the bill lodged by the PP, with Ciudadanos and Vox, during the electoral campaign.
That drew more than raised eyebrows in Brussels. After a warning by Unesco, which awarded Doñana World Heritage Site status in 1994, the European Commission threatened to file a complaint before the European Court of Justice and impose economic sanctions. The same court ruled last year that Spain had failed in its duty to protect the wetlands, in part by allowing aquifer water to fuel the growth of nearby beach resort Matalascañas. The government faces a hefty fine unless it takes actions to preserve the ecosystem.
So, on 30 November, Teresa Ribera, the Minister for Ecological Transition announced a 356-million-euro investment for Doñana, which was broadly welcomed by environmental groups.
But essential measures such as recovering the fluvial dynamics of the wetlands where it meets the Atlantic and re-establishing water courses have not been addressed. Will those in power listen to the science now?
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