Bell tolls for Doñana: Amnesty for illegal farms would sound the death knell for Spain’s World Heritage wetland

Posted on March, 22 2023

New law threatens water supplies, legal strawberry industry and climate resilience

Just three months after Spain signed a historic global deal to reverse the loss of nature, the ruling party in Andalusia is rushing to enact a law that would provide an amnesty for illegal strawberry farms and doom one of the world’s greatest natural wonders – the internationally protected Doñana wetland.

Tabled in the regional parliament ahead of local elections in May, the legislation would drastically expand the area under legal cultivation, pardoning farmers whose looting of groundwater to irrigate their illegal fields is driving the destruction of Doñana.

“This is a cynical attempt to buy the votes of illegal farmers at the expense of Doñana – an irreplaceable ecosystem that sustains local communities, economies and globally important biodiversity,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead. “A healthy Doñana should be a priority for all political parties as it is central to restoring nature and building climate resilience in Spain.”

The unsustainable extraction of water is the gravest threat to Doñana - a dynamic estuary that supports a wealth of wildlife from the endangered Iberian lynx to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. But a healthy Doñana is also critical to the region’s water supplies, multi-billion Euro legal strawberry industry, and capacity to adapt to climate change.

In a strong letter to the Spanish government, the EU confirmed that the European Commission was monitoring the situation and would consider taking all necessary measures, including bringing further action before the Court of Justice requesting the imposition of financial penalties, if the law is adopted in its current terms. The Commission called for steps to be taken to ensure the proposed law will not have a detrimental impact on protected areas, and to accelerate actions to control and close all the illegal abstractions that are currently affecting Doñana.

“This dreadful law makes a complete mockery of the ruling of the European Court of Justice and the European Commission itself, since it rewards land grabbing and the looting of water resources. It is unjustifiable that for electoral reasons Doñana is endangered. The Andalucia region should withdraw this proposal and close all the illegal farms immediately,” said WWF-Spain CEO Juan Carlos del Olmo.

Protected since 1969, after the government and WWF jointly purchased the wetlands, Doñana’s importance is underlined by the fact that it is not only a National Park but also a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and a World Heritage Site.

Yet the ruling Popular Party appears determined to sign Doñana’s death sentence. The new law follows a similar amnesty bill that was shelved in 2021 after widespread opposition, including leading European fruit sector businesses, conservationists, scientists, UNESCO, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, IUCN and the Spanish government.

“Giving an amnesty to illegal farmers will sabotage efforts to develop sustainable agriculture around Doñana, undermining the local economy and the future of the region,” said Orr. “It beggars belief that the authorities would risk wrecking the lucrative legal strawberry business for the sake of the votes of some illegal farmers.”

The scale of the crisis facing Doñana was highlighted in September 2022 when all of its freshwater lagoons dried up. While severe drought played a part, excessive water extraction is the primary cause.

WWF has been collaborating with partners to secure the future of the Doñana wetlands ever since the organization was created in 1961. A key focus of WWF’s work has been on ending unsustainable and illegal farming practices, including contributing to the development of the 2014 Forest Crown Plan or "Strawberry Plan". Intended to tackle the growth of illegal farms, the plan has never been fully implemented and would be fatally undermined by this new law.

“We are calling on the authorities to do the exact opposite of this proposed law and focus instead on closing all the illegal farms and restoring Doñana, which will boost biodiversity and build climate resilience,” said Orr. “Doñana is part of our shared heritage. It is too important for people and nature to be sacrificed for some illegal strawberry farms.”
© Jorge Sierra/WWF-Spain
WWF campaigners calling for an end to illegal pumping of water in Donana
© WWF-Spain