Strawberry farms threaten Spanish wetlands

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Standing in the middle of a stretch of land surrounded by dunes and pine forests, Juan Romero scans the cracked ground and then stares at the dusty horizon.

“It’s dry…really dry,” said the retired teacher at the sprawling Donana National Park in southern Spain, home to one of Europe’s largest wetlands , threatened by intensive agriculture.

“At this time of year, it should be covered in water and full of flamingos,” added Romero, a member of Save Donana, a group that has fought for years to protect the park.

The park’s water supply has drastically decreased due to climate change and over-extraction of water by nearby strawberry farms, often from illegal wells, scientists say.

The situation could soon get worse as the regional government of Andalusia, where Donana is located, has proposed extending irrigation rights for strawberry growers near the park.

It’s a battle pitting environmentalists against politicians and farmers, and the proposal to expand irrigation rights has drawn backlash from the EU, UN and major European grocery chains. .

The proposal would regularize nearly 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres) of bay farmland currently irrigated by illegal wells, said Juanjo Carmona of the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).

This photograph shows a view of Donana Natural Park in El Rocio, Huelva, on May 20, 2022.

“For Donana, it would be a disaster,” he added.

The park, whose diverse ecosystem of lagoons, marshes, forests and dunes extends over 100,000 hectares, is on the migratory route of millions of birds each year and is home to many rare species such as the Iberian lynx.

“Donana is a paradise for migratory birds. But this ecosystem is under threat,” Romero said.

The driving force behind the project to extend irrigation rights is the conservative People’s Party (PP), which governs the southern region of Andalusia with the support of the far-right Vox party.

The fate of the plan will be decided after a snap poll in Andalusia on June 19, but with both parties leading in the polls the controversial proposal looks set to go ahead.

Strawberry pickers are at work in a greenhouse in Ayamonte, Huelva, on May 20, 2022.

Strawberry pickers are at work in a greenhouse in Ayamonte, Huelva, on May 20, 2022.

‘Red gold

Advocates of the proposal say it will help those who unfairly missed out on a previous regularization of farms in the region introduced in 2014 under a socialist government.

About 9,000 hectares of farms have been regularized, but another 2,000 hectares that began to be cultivated after 2004 have been deemed illegal.

“This plan was badly done. It should have used 2014 as a deadline,” said Rafael Segovia, a Vox deputy in the outgoing regional parliament of Andalusia.

The proposed amnesty “presents no danger to Donana”, Segovia said, adding that people should consider “the economic importance of the sector”.

This photograph shows a view of the Donana Natural Park in Ayamonte, Huelva, on May 19, 2022.

This photograph shows a view of the Donana Natural Park in Ayamonte, Huelva, on May 19, 2022.

Huelva, the drought-prone province where the park is located, produces 300,000 tonnes of strawberries a year, or 90% of Spanish production.

Known locally as “red gold”, strawberry farming employs some 100,000 people and accounts for nearly eight percent of Andalusia’s economic output.

UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, has designated the park as one of its World Heritage Sites and called for the dismantling of illegal farms near Donana.

He warned that the regional government’s plan would have an impact that would be “difficult to reverse”.

The European Commission also weighed in.

He threatened to impose “heavy fines” if steps were taken to extract more water from Donana Park after a European court ruling last year reprimanded Spain for failing to protect its ecosystem.

And around 20 European supermarket chains, including Lidl, Aldi and Sainsbury’s, sent the regional government a letter urging it to drop the plan.

A seagull flies over the beach of Donana Natural Park in Matalascanas, Huelva, on May 19, 2022.

A seagull flies over the beach of Donana Natural Park in Matalascanas, Huelva, on May 19, 2022.

“Ruining Us”

Consumers may be under the impression that all strawberries in Huelva come from illegal farms, said Manuel Delgado, spokesman for an association that represents some 300 local farms.

“This situation is likely going to cause a major reputational issue,” he said.

The group, the Puerta de Donana Farmers Association, argues that the plan to extend irrigation rights would “only serve the interests of a minority”.

“Water resources are limited,” said Delgado, who fears farms may be forced to drastically reduce the amount of land they cultivate due to a lack of water.

“It would ruin us,” he said.

Proponents of the plan, including other major farmer associations, dismiss such concerns.

“There is no water problem in Huelva, that’s a lie,” said Segovia, the Vox lawmaker.

He said water could be diverted to farms in the province from the Guadiana River on the border with Portugal, a solution dismissed as “unsustainable” by the WWF.

“When there is no rain, there is no rain everywhere,” said WWF’s Carmona, adding that Spain should rethink its agricultural model instead.

The passions are at their peak. Romero said environmentalists who oppose the plan have received death threats.

“Without sweeping changes to curb the overexploitation of water resources, Donana will be a desert,” he said.

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