The collusion and silence of the farmers around Doñana in the face of the plundering of the aquifer through illegal wells has been blown up. For decades, legal irrigators have looked the other way when their neighbors depleted the groundwater of the most emblematic protected area in Spain. Up to now. The aquifer has said enough, the reserves are dwindling and after declaring it “overexploited” by the Government, in the middle of an extraordinary drought and with the reservoirs at 28% capacity, now comes the water cuts to irrigate strawberries and peace is over: competition disloyal intensifies and economic survival is at stake.
Faced with the fines, the massive closure of wells by the river guards and the lawsuits lost in the Supreme Court, the farmers with clandestine water catchments managed to get the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox to announce a legal change in the Andalusian Parliament this week to transform into irrigated farms 1,460 hectares hitherto illegal. This initiative, in an election year, will give its owners free rein to demand legal water from the central government. And the cake, getting smaller, will have to be distributed among more diners.
Five irrigation communities of Almonte (Huelva) have opposed: “It represents an increase of almost 20% of irrigated area in the northern crown [terrenos aledaños a Doñana], and will further complicate the distribution of the transfer of 19.9 hectometers per year”, says the letter addressed to the political groups and to which this newspaper has had access. The tension is maximum and there have been death threats on social networks that the Civil Guard has declined to investigate due to the lack of complaints. There is fear and precedent for violent attacks, including on river guards in 2014 and 2018, by certain farmers.
“We have been here since the eighties and seeing that they are going to reduce our irrigation concession, how are they going to add more hectares? The confederation is already studying reducing the 4,500 cubic meters per hectare to only 3,000. Of course it is detrimental to those of us who are already here”, affirms a president of a signatory irrigation community, who demands anonymity. The communities are claiming from the political groups that the expansion of more irrigated farms is not processed as a matter of urgency and is backed by technical reports: in this case they will not oppose the expansion of irrigation. Meanwhile, the drought tightens and the cuts in supplies have already occurred very close, in Isla Mayor (Seville), in the middle of the natural park, where farmers had 53% less of their usual irrigation water last year.
The parties that govern the Board (PP and Ciudadanos) and the extreme right hoped to gain the support of the population of the Huelva county with this initiative, whose wealth depends largely on the economic success of the berries, but it could be a shot in the the foot. “Obviously, there are more of us who question the initiative and the right is looking for votes, but they are clumsy because they have never tested the farmers well. The amnesty benefits people who commit continuous crimes and harms those who were here in 1980. We have our legally constituted rights and an amnesty cannot be declared against our rights”, protests a leader of another community of irrigators who asks to preserve his identity.
Despite learning about the dissension among the farmers through the five letters, the general secretary of the Andalusian PP, Dolores López, said this Friday: “The Huelva society supports the initiative as a whole, there is unity for all.”
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Increasing irrigation and altering the plan set by the Board in 2014 to save the 2,409 square kilometer aquifer contradicts the recommendations of UNESCO, which has Doñana among its World Heritage Sites, as well as the ruling of the EU Court of Justice, who condemned Spain last June for not protecting its wetlands, which are almost completely dry. Apart from the Ministry of Ecological Transition and the environmentalists, the pressures on the Andalusian president, Juan Manuel Moreno, have occurred these days, for the moment in private, with the hope that he will regress. “There are many people moving to react from within”, trusts a senior official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Sustainable Development. The damage to the Doñana brand is evident and double: on the one hand environmental because it exacerbates the disappearance of the lagoons and the protected habitat, and on the other economic because exports account for 80% of production, and the bad news about Doñana follows one another in Europe.
Huelva’s red fruits are served in German and British supermarkets, the environmental awareness of its consumers is on the rise and the market penalizes the damage to biodiversity, even if it is thousands of kilometers away, in the Mar Menor or in Huelva. This weekend media like the British The Times Y the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have detailed the Andalusian plan that would damage Doñana. “A consumer in Germany does not know what Huelva or Doñana is, the news reaches them and they know that the fruit produced in Spain has legal problems, and that is a very important brand problem,” reflects Eloy Revilla, director of the Biological Station. of Doñana (CSIC).
However, the demands of the European consumer have already reached Spain and the ALDI supermarket chain announced this fall that it will stop selling fruit and vegetables without legal traceability of water. And the fight for the niche of the conscientious consumer, increasingly numerous, intensifies. “Clearly, supermarkets are working so that the certifications protect that there are no problems with suppliers on sustainability,” advances Ignacio Ortiz, general director of the Spanish Association of Distributors, Self-Services and Supermarkets (Asedas), which brings together 75% of the market.
Romualdo Macías, president of the Irrigation Platform of the County, demanded the measure from the three Andalusian political groups and now asks the central government for infrastructures to increase the transfer of surface water from the Tinto river basin: “The problem is not land, it is of water. Farmers are the first ones who want to close wells and have surface water”, he argues.
The war could break the County Irrigation Platform in two, which in theory represents all the farmers in the region. The irrigators of Almonte and Rociana feel harmed, and both municipalities represent 60% of the irrigable land in addition to adding 32,000 inhabitants, compared to 40% of the irrigation accumulated by Moguer, Luciana and Bonares, with 22,000 residents. On the possible rupture in the platform that he presides over, Macías alleges: “We should not enter into controversies.”
For the farmers of Almonte and Rociana, the two municipalities closest to the nature reserve, the initiative to add more hectares is just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The transfer of surface water from the Andévalo, with 20 cubic hectometers per year, was designed to replace the underground extractions next to the park, but it was finally used for irrigation in the three municipalities to the west. In parallel, the latest expansion of irrigation decided by the Board, with a thousand new hectares, benefited the farmers of Moguer. “In the end, the surface water that Doñana would save never arrives because something always hinders it along the way,” explain sources in the sector. There is a lot of money at stake: if the average price of a rainfed hectare is around 5,000 euros, the price of a red fruit hectare shoots up to 100,000 euros, with an average return of 30,000 euros per year.
“The Board’s plan is a direct attack and has broken social peace. It is going back to the trenches, to a media war, that the markets ask us and that UNESCO points the finger at us, ”criticizes Felipe Fuentelsaz, head of water and agriculture in the environmental organization WWF.
Of the total of 11,740 hectares covered by plastic in the Andalusian province, 1,460 remain illegal and the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation (CHG), belonging to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, has focused the inspections there. In the last three years, its six rangers in the area have sealed 555 collections without permission with a clear effect: the area under plastic and outside management has decreased from 1,202 hectares in 2019 to 766 in 2021, according to remote sensing reports from the Confederacy. Last Friday, a water carrier watered the strawberries under plastic in two greenhouses, one on each side of the A-486 road, where the graffiti is repeated: “CHG no more harassment.”
The Government: “It is nonsense”
If the plan outlined by the Andalusian center-right goes ahead, after the land is legalized, the farmers will have to knock on the door of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, which grants water through the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation. “It is nonsense, a deception of the farmers by pretending to please them instead of telling them that there are no water resources. The PP has managed to alert the international institutions and once again risk the quality seal of the area’s products”, criticizes the Secretary of State for the Environment, Hugo Morán.
The number two of the Ministry censures that PP, Cs and Vox have waited for the recent closure of the Guadalquivir Hydrological Plan 2022-2027 to “immediately after” try to reform the plan that protects the Doñana aquifer without technical reports from the Confederation and the Doñana Participation Council . While the central government plans to reduce the water for irrigation in the Guadalquivir by 5% by 2027, the Andalusian Parliament is going in the opposite direction and will increase the hectares of irrigated land next to Doñana if the parliamentary initiative goes ahead.
Morán’s forcefulness contrasts with the lukewarmness of the Andalusian PSOE, which also received the letter from the farmers opposed to the legal change, dated January 4. The Socialists are open to reviewing the plan and cast doubt on whether they will vote against the bill proposed in the regional Parliament. Juan Antonio García, secretary of Agriculture of the PSOE in Huelva and mayor of Bonares, explains: “The way to resolve the conflict does not seem correct to us. We will always be with the farmers, but also with the law, with social, economic and environmental balance. So that we can live together and maintain the jewel in the crown, Doñana”.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.