Doñana, survives again?

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Doñana, survives again?

Written by José Bejarano

Doñana, in the south of Spain, is an extensive territory of special natural interest but threatened by numerous attacks. The drought caused by the climate emergency, or the management of the park by the Andalusian Government, has caused the area to be expelled from a prestigious international green list.

Any autumn day is a good day to look up in the sky and see flocks of birds flying in a strange V-shape. Firstly, that Europe is preparing for the cold days of winter. Second, that the birds are leaving the north in search of warmer climates and better food in the south. And thirdly, that this V-shaped migration allows them to conserve energy (the leading individual makes the greatest effort, opening a tunnel in the wind for the others) to cover the enormous distances to their destination, even though one in four may never arrive.

But this article is not about the interesting phenomenon of bird migration (ducks, cranes, sandpipers, bustards, storks…), but about the Doñana Nature Reserve, located in the extreme southwest of Europe, one of the destinations or resting places for hundreds of thousands of these birds on their long journey to southern Europe or northern Africa. Now the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has expelled the protected area from its green list due to the deterioration to which it has been subjected due to loss of biodiversity driven by climatic factors and the management of the Andalusian Government led by member of the PP, Juan Manuel Moreno Popular.

It is home to an enormous variety of indigenous animal and plant species, many of which are threatened with extinction, the Doñana Nature Reserve is considered one of the most important wetlands for the conservation of biodiversity on the planet. The problem is that Doñana, like other wetlands, has been suffering from a serious water shortage for years, due to drought and, above all, the misuse of water by farmers to irrigate their red fruit crops: strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

The excessive extraction of water from the park’s subsoil and the severe drought of recent years, which scientists attribute to climate change, have led to the complete disappearance of 60 percent of the 2,867 lagoons that existed in Doñana in 2014. Their cracked silt beds have been taken over by scrubland that is unlikely to allow them to flood again, even if it heavily rains one year. By 2023, there were just over 400 lagoons left, many of which had lost both flooded area and flood duration. This is even though Doñana sits on top of a huge aquifer covering 2,300 square kilometres, the largest in Andalusia. This aquifer is used by strawberry farmers (some 1,900 hectares of which are used illegally) and around 200,000 inhabitants of 14 towns in the area, as well as a large seaside resort called Matalascañas, which receives around 300,000 people in the summer.

Aerial image of humid areas of Doñana.

Economic development or nature preservation is the dilemma facing Doñana, like so many other areas of ecological interest. The economy has historically been associated with the destruction of natural habitats. Will Doñana be able to break with this tradition? So far, it has, but only at the cost of enormous damage and a great deal of money to prevent it from succumbing. The latest battle, the theft of water from its subsoil, seems to have been won with a pact for farmers in the north of the park to close their wells and turn their irrigated land into forests or groves of unirrigated almond trees. In return, they will receive 100,000 euros for ten years per hectare converted. This is the response of the Spanish and Andalusian governments to the stern warnings of the European Commission, which has threatened severe sanctions, UNESCO, and other international bodies for failing to guarantee the conservation of the Doñana. If the current trend is not reversed, the park will be placed on the list of endangered sites.

This is not the first time that international institutions have come to the rescue of Doñana in the face of threats from local economic interests. In fact, the creation of the protected area itself was the result of a European campaign launched in the 1960s by the scientist José Antonio Valverde to prevent the wetlands from being drained to make way for holiday homes, golf courses and intensive agriculture. Thousands of European schoolchildren in the 1960s raised part of the money used to buy the first 7,000 hectares in the heart of the area, the seeds of today’s park. This mobilisation to save Doñana led to the creation of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in London. Since then, the park has continued to grow to its current size of 128,386 hectares.

Doñana is now a vast area of special interest, home to 400 species of birds, 50 land and sea mammals, 25 reptiles, 11 amphibians, 70 fish, 1,300 vascular plants, the Iberian lynx, the black-headed turtle, the salinete, the imperial eagle… but it is threatened by numerous aggressions. The latest: water. Machines must deepen the zacallones (ponds) so that the cattle can drink, or so that the duckweed (Wolffia Arrhiza) and many other species of aquatic plants do not die out. The European pond turtle, once widespread throughout the park, has been reduced to small areas.

The transformation of Doñana’s habitat is happening at a rapid pace. The Imperial Eagle and the Iberian Lynx, the two most representative species of Doñana, are now spreading more outside the park than inside. The imperial eagle has gone from 15 to 6 pairs. The same goes for the short-toed eagle, the booted eagle, and the red kite. The half a million waterbirds that used to winter in Doñana have been reduced to less than half that number, and most of them feed in the surrounding rice fields. If there are any rice fields at all, only a few hectares have been sown in recent years because of the drought.

The director of the Doñana Biological Station (CSIC – Spanish National Research Council), Eloy Revilla, argues that “the loss of aquatic habitats has had a notable effect on dragonflies and damselflies (odonata). This group is an excellent indicator of the conservation status of aquatic environments. Doñana was considered a hotspot of odonata diversity, with a total of 43 species described since 1959. In the last decade, 26 species have been recorded. In 2022, there were only 12 species, 28 percent of the total”. In the highlands, 27 percent of the cork oaks are dead.

The exception to this decline is the Iberian lynx, a cat that was listed as critically endangered in the late 1990s. Fewer than 160 were left, spread between Doñana and Sierra Morena. For decades they had been persecuted by the inhabitants of the area and subjected to the scarcity of rabbits, their main food. It was also the warnings and European money that led to a defence and recovery plan that saved them. The number of rabbits has increased tenfold since 2000. In 2022, the census recorded 1,668 individuals in 14 breeding areas. There are six in Andalusia, four in Castile-La Mancha and four in Extremadura. However, this exponential growth of the species has not been recorded in Doñana, which, together with Aljarafe in Seville, has only 108 of the 627 recorded in Andalusia.

Matalascañas beach, in the area of ​​Doñana.

The aggressions of the environment have turned Doñana into a beleaguered park that, despite everything, continues to resist. The list of attacks is long, from the first projects to develop the beach, golf courses and crops, to the latest, which has left the park without the water it needs to survive, by way of a coastal road, the toxic waste from the Aznalcóllar mine, a pipeline to transport oil from the port of Huelva to a refinery in Badajoz, the massive use of pesticides in the surrounding rice fields… The extraction of water from the ground, combined with climate change, may not be the end of Doñana, but it is so much like the end of an era that it is frightening to look out over the cracked and silent bottoms of the lagoons, which only a few years ago were inhabited by a flock of geese, flamingos, herons, spoonbills, imperial eagles, moorhens, coots, little bustards, bustards, gallipatos (Pleurodeles waltl), newts, frogs, dragonflies and an infinite number of aquatic plants? All in constant motion. Perhaps, once again, the ecological sensitivity of the European population has saved Doñana. At least until the next battle.

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Doñana, survives again?

Written by José Bejarano

Doñana, in the south of Spain, is an extensive territory of special natural interest but threatened by numerous attacks. The drought caused by the climate emergency, or the management of the park by the Andalusian Government, has caused the area to be expelled from a prestigious international green list.

When autumn arrives, the sky fills with flocks of birds flying in V-formations, an image that tells us three important things: the arrival of winter in Europe, the migration of birds in search of warmer climates, and how this way of flying helps them to save energy on their long journeys. But beyond this natural spectacle, we are going to talk about Doñana, a crucial place for countless birds on their journey south and one of the most important wetlands for the diversity of life on our planet.

Doñana, located in south-western Europe, is an invaluable home to a wide variety of native plant and animal species, many of which are in danger of disappearing. Now the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has expelled the protected area from its green list due to the deterioration to which it has been subjected due to loss of biodiversity driven by climatic factors and the management of the Andalusian Government led by member of the right-wing party Juan Manuel Moreno. This nature reserve is a kind of sanctuary, a haven of biodiversity that contributes greatly to maintaining the natural balance of our world. Recently, however, Doñana has been suffering from a serious water shortage, due in part to drought and above all to the excessive use of this resource by farmers, especially for the cultivation of red fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

This over-extraction of groundwater, together with the prolonged drought, has led to the disappearance of 60% of the lagoons that were part of Doñana in 2014. Places that were once oases of life are now invaded by scrub, making it difficult for them to recover, even with the possibility of abundant rainfall. Even though Doñana sits on a huge aquifer of 2,300 square kilometres, the largest in Andalusia, this resource is used illegally by farmers and to supply around 200,000 people in 14 towns and a large coastal urbanisation called Matalascañas, which receives around 300,000 visitors during the summer.

Aerial image of humid areas of Doñana.

The disjuncture between economic development and the preservation of nature is a challenge facing Doñana today. Throughout its history, the economy has often been linked to the destruction of natural habitats, and Doñana is at a crossroads to change this trend. Despite efforts to protect it, the park has suffered considerable damage and requires significant investment to preserve its essence.

Recently, an agreement was reached to tackle excessive groundwater extraction. Farmers have been encouraged to close illegal wells and change their irrigation methods by offering financial compensation. For example, they will receive 100,000 euros per hectare for ten years if they convert their land to forests or rain-fed crops such as almond trees. The move comes in response to warnings from the European Commission, UNESCO, and other international bodies, which have threatened sanctions if the Doñana is not protected. If the current course is not reversed, the park could be placed on the list of endangered sites.

The protected area dates to a European campaign in the 1960s, led by the scientist José Antonio Valverde, which prevented the wetland from being desiccated to make way for housing, golf courses and intensive agriculture. The creation of Doñana was made possible by the fundraising efforts of thousands of European schoolchildren, who laid the foundations for the park as we know it today, which has grown to 128,386 hectares.

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