It’s an avowed tragedy: Spain’s famous Donana National Park, one of Europe’s largest wetlands, is threatened with drought. Large-scale cultivation of strawberries, which supply European stores in many countries, is the main driver of this disastrous scenario.
Hundreds of strawberry growers are illegally pumping groundwater into the national park area to irrigate their crops. Instead of taking action against this criminal practice, Andalusia’s conservative regional government wants to legalize illegal farming. The European Commission, international environmental associations and Spain’s progressive federal government speak of a scandal.
“The situation is critical,” says Eloy Revilla, director of the National Park’s Biological Research Station and best expert on this endangered piece of nature. Covering 1,200 square kilometers, Donana National Park is home to wild horses, imperial eagles, lynxes, turtles, and millions of migratory birds.
Revilla refers to a yellow-brown steppe surrounded by pine trees. According to him, there was a shallow lagoon where thousands of flamingos hunted for crabs, snails and insect larvae. Due to the low water table, this lake has turned into a dry mud desert.
The lake has become a symbol of the death of the national park. According to Rivella, about 60% of all the ponds in the park have already dried up. They are central to the species-rich life in the area. With them, many endangered species are disappearing for which this unique national reserve was a last resort.
surrounded by strawberries
Huge plantations extend over 100 square kilometers north and west of the park. Strawberries are grown in greenhouses to supply the European market. In addition to tourism, the berry trade – mainly strawberries, but also raspberries – is the most important economic sector in the province of Huelva, in southern Spain.
For decades, the number of strawberry plantations on the fringes of Doñana National Park has increased – mainly driven by consumption of the fruit in Europe. Spanish strawberries tend to be cheaper than those produced in northern and central European countries. Spanish politicians of all parties rejoiced at the boom and downplayed the massive water theft by farmers.
However, the pressure increased when, in 2021, Spain was found guilty by the European Court of Justice of stealing water and failing to protect the national park. The National Water Protection Agency has begun searching for thieves. The Environment Police cemented hundreds of illegal wells. The repression did not always have an effect, and some farmers returned to exploiting groundwater elsewhere.
More than 20 European retail chains have supported an appeal by the WWF to Spanish politicians and farmers to ensure sustainable farming so as not to damage the reputation of strawberries produced in the region.
There is also a war over water between farmers: between those with legal exploitation rights and those who irrigate their crops illegally. There are reports of threats to farmers who advocate sustainable agriculture and who want to take action against water thieves.
Water scarcity, which will only increase with global climate change, not only causes the park to dry up, but also affects strawberry cultivation. Regional Farmers Association Freshuelva estimates that this year’s harvest will be 30% lower than the 2021 crop.
The water emergency also affects producers acting within the law who increasingly need to stop growing fruit due to insufficient irrigation.
But that scenario doesn’t seem to bother the local government, which wants to legalize the 600 illegal farmers. The head of the Andalusian Junta, Juanma Moreno, claims it has nothing to do with the water shortage and blames the federal government for the crisis, claiming that it is not investing enough in the region and not providing enough water for gardeners and farmers. In response, Madrid said it would use all means to prevent Moreno’s rationing plans.
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