Juan Romero shakes his head as looks out across the lake at the wading spoonbills, the pipe-cleaner silhouettes of the flamingos and the glossy ibis that flash against the Andalucían sky.
“This is an illusion,” says the ecologist, a retired teacher. The birds are real enough, of course, and so too are the tufty-eared Iberian lynxes that will be sniffing out a breakfast of rabbit in the quieter, wilder reaches of the huge Doñana national park in southern Spain.
The illusion is what the water level in the lake before him says about the health of the reserve. Although there is far less water in the Charco de la Boca than there should be at this time of year, it is faring better than many parts of the sprawling wetlands known as one of Europe’s green lungs.
Water supplies to Doñana, whose marshes, forests and dunes extend across almost 130,000 hectares in the provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cádiz, have declined drastically over the past 30 years because of climate change, farming, mining pollution and marsh drainage. A fresh crisis now looms as regional authorities consider granting an amnesty to the farmers illegally tapping its aquifer to feed the booming strawberry sector.
Nine years after Unesco warned that the area’s world heritage status was being jeopardised by such illegal tapping, the regional branch of the conservative People’s party (PP), which has governed Andalucía for the past three years, has announced a proposal to regularise the illicit farms and wells that stretch across 1,460 hectares near the protected natural space. On Wednesday, the Andalucían parliament will vote on whether to begin the legislative process.
The PP, whose bid is backed by both the far-right Vox party and the centre-right Citizens party, claims the move would help “safeguard historic rights and a traditional activity [practised] since time immemorial”.
Opponents fear it will spell further disaster for the local environment, and point out that the area’s love affair with strawberries, known locally as “red gold”, began in the 1980s. Between January and June last year, Huelva’s exports of soft fruit – almost 20% of which are to the UK – were worth €801.3m (£678m).
The campaign group Ecologists in Action describes Doñana as “a hostage to agriculture” and says the aquifer is already being stressed by irrigation demands. SEO BirdLife, the Spanish Ornithological Society, sees the plan as “a new assault on the Doñana natural space that favours a proliferation of irrigation and runs contrary to regional, national, European and international legislation”.
Unesco, which declared the Doñana national park a world heritage site in 1994, has asked the Spanish government for an urgent report on the issue “before any decisions are taken that might be difficult to reverse”.
The mooted law comes eight months after the European court of justice ruled that Spain had not fulfilled its obligations on preventing illegal water extraction around Doñana and had failed to take the measures needed to stop “significant alterations” to its protected habitats. The European Commission says it is “deeply worried” at the possible impacts of the proposed changes and has not ruled out taking Spain to the court of justice once again.
For Felipe Fuentelsaz of WWF Spain, the environmental importance of the region cannot be overstated. “Doñana is a unique place that sits between the south of Europe and north Africa and it’s the main migration route for all the birds in Europe,” he says. “More than 6 million birds – and 200 or 300 different species – come through it each year. It’s mainly a wetland, but it also has a very important coastal dune zone and lots of surrounding forest. So it’s three ecosystems in just one place and it’s the lung of Europe.”
Romero, a spokesperson for Ecologists in Action who has lived in the area all his life, dismisses the PP’s plan as a naked attempt to win the votes of legal and illegal farmers before a possible early regional election. “If people haven’t been obeying the law, then the People’s party can’t come along and tell them – for electoral gain – that they’re going to [get their] land legalised,” he says. “It’s a trick and a ruse.”
The plain truth, he adds, is that Doñana simply cannot cope with the water demands of any more fruit farms.
Drive around the area, where huge white polytunnels break in plastic waves across a landscape of pine and prickly pear, and the feelings of many local farmers are plain to see.
Not far from some of the many decommissioned illegal wells – 420 have been shut down in recent years but others soon spring up elsewhere – are signs graffitied with a slogan that demands “no more harassment” from the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation, an agency of Spain’s ecological transition ministry.
While the local small farmers’ union, UPA Huelva, supports the PP-led proposal, arguing it will help those who missed out on their “historical rights” under a 2014 moratorium that banned any new cultivation or well-sinking, it says it will not “defend those who have invaded forest areas to turn them into agricultural lands without the correct authorisation”.
Not all the local farmers approve of the plan. At the end of January, 300 farmers from nearby Almonte walked away from a regional group that backs the amnesty, complaining that the move would “only serve the interests of a minority of irrigation users”.
One local fruit farmer, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, says the new plan is neither fair nor sensible.
“I think it’s just madness,” he says. “Doñana is something we all love and respect. But there’s a political party that are proposing something – supported by two other parties – that I simply can’t understand.”
The farmer says the planned amnesty is fundamentally flawed and dangerously short-sighted.
“You have to start with the water and not the land,” he says. “If you hand out the land, then everyone’s competing with each other, the aquifer’s suffering and awful things happen. We can’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But that’s what they’re trying to do and it’s bad for everyone – bad for the park and for the farmers.”