Doñana national park is one of Europe’s largest protected wetlands. The berries grown around the park make a definite contribution to the economy of the Spain’s Southern region. The regional government intends to legalize 1,416 hectares of farms with no access to water for irrigation which has raised the hackles of environmental organizations.

An overexploited aquifer
Doñana and part of the most profitable crops in the Andalusian province of Huelva, berries, are located above the overexploited aquifer 27. The struggle for a natural resource has so far been won by agriculture. Hundreds of lagoons in Doñana no longer exist, but the hectares of berries are growing.

The battle for water has never ceased in the Doñana area, but it is intensified by this Andalusian regional government’s initiative of legalizing 1,500 more hectares of berries. It is a war between political parties, between environmentalists and the Andalusian government, and also between the growers themselves.

Ten years ago, WWF Spain reported “the abusive and unsustainable extraction of water in the Doñana area for the intensive cultivation of strawberries and other berries, in the face of total inaction and repeated non-compliance by the Spanish authorities, the local town councils, the regional government and the national government” to the European Commission. The EC finally took Spain to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) in 2019. In June last year, the CJEU concluded that “disproportionate groundwater abstractions” in Doñana were in breach of the Water Framework and Habitats Directives and instructed Spain to implement measures to restore the situation.

Now the EC is threatening the Spanish authorities with a new complaint to the European Court of Justice and economic sanctions. This warning is included in a stern letter that the Commission’s Director for the Environment has sent to Spanish government.

A complex and sensitive issue
In mid-February, the Andalusian parliament accepted for discussion a proposal to “regularize” some crop land near the park. The parliamentary approval was achieved with the three proposing  right-wing parties voting in favor. The issue is so complex and sensitive for Huelva that the position of the socialists, who finally abstained in the vote, was kept secret until the very last moment. What is more, the rapprochement between the Andalusian socialist party and the right-wing initiative separates this party from the very critical position of the socialist-led coalition national government, which has written to the Andalusian president asking him to “desist from the proposal to extend irrigated lands”.

The three political groups which prepared the proposal put a lot of emphasis on explaining that the initiative “does not talk about water, but about land”. “It does not take away a cubic meter of water from Doñana. It legalizes irrigated lands, but then it will be the CHG that authorizes the use of water”. CHG stands for Conferedación Hidrográfica del Guadalquivir, the national agency responsible for water management in Doñana.

Not the only regularization in Doñana
The draft bill presented in the Andalusian Parliament proposes to modify the colloquially known as the “Strawberry Plan”, approved in 2014 by the then socialist government, in order to put a stop to the overexploitation of the aquifer with illegal wells. In 2014, 9,300 hectares were regularized and after that initiative, a good part of the 1,490 hectares that remained outside the plan have maintained their activity, giving rise to the current situation. This situation has been reported on numerous occasions by environmental groups, both for the use of illegal wells and for the permissiveness of public administrations.

The parties supporting the current regularization justify their proposal on the need to normalize the situation of farmers with “historical rights who have been dedicated to strawberry cultivation for decades”.

Previously, in 1988, a first plan regularized irrigated lands that not allowed by the 1978 Doñana Park Law. In 2004, another new plan wiped the slate clean, as happened in 2014 and is happening now in 2022.

The most optimistic calendar would allow the initiative to be approved within two months, before the Andalusian president dissolves the parliament to call elections in June, as is being considered. During the parliamentary procedure changes may occur as inter-party negotiating is possible.

The berry sector in Huelva
Huelva is one of the eight provinces of Andalusia and the one with the lowest GDP per inhabitant. The cultivation of strawberries and other berries represents 8.3% of its provincial GDP. In Andalusia, the agricultural sector represents 7.2% of the regional GDP and at national level it is 3%.

A former mayor of the area proposes the alternative of a desalination plant, as done in Almería, another intensive agriculture province. But, as WWF argues, the outflow of the brine outfall would be a serious ecological obstacle on the Doñana coast.

The new almost 1,500 hectares would have no water concession, as the CHG has cancelled new irrigated lands. But giving it the status of irrigable area is the first step towards achieving it one day. According to the bill, these hectares “affect some 650 farms, with a loss of production reaching an export market value of more than 100 million euros, as well as the loss of the corresponding jobs”. According to the sectoral organization Freshuelva, berries throughout the province represent a total of more than 1,000 million euros.

In addition to pressure from environmentalists to stop the new regularization, some British supermarkets, customers of Huelva strawberries, have censured this expansion of illegal irrigation. To allow more strawberry farms near the park, “could risk the reputation and the long-term development of the region”, they say in a letter sent to the Andalusian government.

Bird migration corridor
Adding more pressure to Doñana would, according to WWF, endanger the bird corridor that this wetland represents worldwide, as well as harming the forest mass and the agricultural sector itself, especially environmentally friendly farms.

Doñana had become the main wintering area in Europe for the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa), whereas traditionally it was Guinea. The degradation of natural wetlands in Africa had led to the use of human-managed wetlands as an alternative for this migratory bird when travelling south from the Netherlands.