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Strawberry farms threaten Spanish wetlands

DONANA NATIONAL PARK, SPAIN (AFP) – Standing in the middle of a stretch of land surrounded by dunes and pine forest, Juan Romero examines the cracked ground then stares at the dusty horizon.

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

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

Water supplies to the park have declined dramatically due to climate change and the over-extraction of water by neighbouring strawberry farms, often through illegal wells, scientists say.

The situation could soon get worse as the regional government of Andalusia, where Donana is located, has proposed expanding irrigation rights for strawberry farmers near the park. It’s a battle pitting environmentalists against politicians and farmers, and the proposal to widen irrigation rights has drawn backlash from the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and major European grocery store chains.

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

Strawberry pickers at work in a greenhouse in Ayamonte, Huelva. PHOTO: AFP

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

The park, whose diverse ecosystem of lagoons, marshes, forests and dunes stretch across 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 migrating birds. But this ecosystem is threatened,” said Romero.

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

The plan’s fate will be decided after a snap poll in Andalusia on June 19 but with both parties riding high in the polls the controversial proposal looks set to go head.

Defenders of the proposal argue it will aid those who unfairly missed out during a previous regularisation of farms in the area put in place in 2014 under a Socialist government.

About 9,000 hectares of farms were regularised but another 2,000 hectares that started being farmed after 2004 were deemed illegal.

“This plan was badly done. It should have used 2014 as the cut-off date,” said Rafael Segovia, a lawmaker with Vox in Andalusia’s outgoing regional parliament.

The proposed amnesty “does not present any danger for Donana”, Segovia said, adding people should take into account the “economic importance of the sector”.

Huelva, the drought-prone province where the park is located, produces 300,000 tonnes of strawberries a year, 90 per cent of Spain’s output.

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

UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, has designated the park one of its World Heritage sites and has called for illegal farms near Donana to be dismantled.

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

The European Commission has also weighed in.

It has threatened to impose “hefty fines” if any steps were taken to extract more water from Donana park after a European court ruling last year scolded Spain for not protecting its ecosystem.