Strawberry farms threaten Spanish wetlands

Excessive water extraction by neighboring strawberry farms, often through illegal wells, has caused Doñana’s water supply to dwindle.

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

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

Water supplies to the park have been drastically reduced due to climate change and excessive water extraction by neighboring strawberry farms, often through illegal wells, scientists say.

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

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

“Doñana is a paradise for migratory birds. But this ecosystem is threatened,” Romero said.

The fate of the plan will be decided after an early poll in Andalusia on June 19, but with both parties at the top of the polls, the controversial proposal appears poised to go ahead.

Proponents of the proposal argue that it will help those who were unfairly lost during an earlier regularization of farms in the area implemented in 2014 under a socialist government.

“That plan was poorly done. It should have set 2014 as the cut-off date,” said Rafael Segovia, a Vox deputy in the outgoing Andalusian regional parliament.

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

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

The European Commission has also intervened.

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

Consumers may get the impression that all strawberries in Huelva come from illegal crops, said Manuel Delgado, spokesman for an association representing some 300 local farmers.

The group, the Puerta de Doñana farmers’ association, argues that the plan to extend irrigation rights “would only serve the interests of a minority.”

“That would bankrupt us,” he said.

“There is no water problem in Huelva, it is a lie,” said Segovia, the Vox deputy.

“When it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t rain everywhere,” said WWF’s Carmona, adding that Spain should rethink its agricultural model.

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

Originally published as Strawberry farms threaten Spanish wetlands

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