The European Commission threatens to fine Spain for the lack of protection of Doñana | Climate and Environment

The European Commission has warned Spain that it will pay dearly if it allows Doñana to dry up and does not remedy it, as ordered by the EU Court of Justice last June. Brussels has warned the Government by letter that if the initiative promoted by PP, Ciudadanos and Vox in the Andalusian Parliament to increase the irrigation of strawberry greenhouses near the reserve prospers, it will face million-dollar fines, as it does now for the lack of purification of sewage, which already amounts to 63 million.

The Commission’s warning to the Government uses a forceful and not at all subtle tone to urge it to prevent damage to the Doñana aquifer: “I feel obliged to warn you that, unless the set of necessary measures to fully comply with the ruling (…) the Commission could decide to go to the Court of Justice a second time, which would entail the request for the imposition of financial sanctions”, reads the letter from the European Director General for the Environment, Florika Fink , to the permanent ambassador of Spain to the EU, Marcos Alonso.

The pressure on the initiative rises one more degree with the threat of fines from Brussels, which adds to the demand of UNESCO to close the illegal farms that the Andalusian right wants to regularize and that add 1,461 new hectares of irrigated land a few kilometers from the reserve. The bill that will be debated in the Andalusian Chamber next week has had the response against environmental groups, the Andalusian opposition, researchers from the Doñana Biological Station, UNESCO and the European Commission, in addition to breaking the traditional unity of Huelva farmers, who see how there is less and less water and their economy is at risk.

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“It is disconcerting to say the least that the Kingdom of Spain is contemplating the adoption of measures that would aggravate the situation and seriously jeopardize compliance with the judgment of the Court of Justice, which raises questions regarding respect for the rule of law by the Spanish authorities”, warns Fink, who shows his perplexity at the Andalusian parliamentary initiative and gives the Government a month to reply.

Aerial view of strawberry greenhouses near Doñana.
Aerial view of strawberry greenhouses near Doñana.PACO BRIDGES

The warning from Brussels, dated last Monday, abounds on the effectiveness of the measures adopted to protect the wetlands, almost dry in Doñana but also in other areas of the country such as Las Tablas de Daimiel: “It is necessary for Spain to address the causes of deterioration of natural habitats, especially those whose conservation depends on the availability of groundwater”.

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In the conviction of the Luxembourg-based court, the judges marked the way for Spain to protect the Doñana aquifer, declared overexploited a year and a half ago. And the path taken has been the opposite, since while the Guadalquivir basin entered into extreme drought last November, the Board has avoided accelerating the plan to protect the underground reserve, and instead its actions are aimed at extracting more water for the intensive agriculture while wetlands dry up. It continues without rain continuously in the south of the peninsula and the reserves of the basin’s reservoirs remain at a meager 28%.

The letter is addressed to the Government and now the Ministry of Ecological Transition must make a move to demand a response from the Board as the Administration involved —which pronounces on Tuesday after its Governing Council— or attempt a dialogue on a thorny issue that for now is not it exists more than in the form of crude confrontation through the press. And time is running against him because the initiative has been registered by way of urgency and could be approved before the summer.

Status of the Santa Olalla lagoon in Doñana last October.
Status of the Santa Olalla lagoon in Doñana last October.Paco Bridges

Asked by the Ministry about the possibility of establishing a direct dialogue with the Board to avoid the fine of the Commission, sources from Ecological Transition do not clarify if the possibility is on the table. The Board could regularize the 1,460 hectares and incorporate them into irrigable agricultural land, but the Ministry of Ecological Transition is the one who grants or not the water rights through the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation. Hence, the legal farmers have faced the illegal ones, who would join if the initiative prospers to demand water rights, while the reserves decrease and their crops will necessarily decrease. The economy of the red fruit region depends on water, an increasingly valuable and scarce resource.

The ruling of the EU Court blamed the intensive agriculture of strawberries for the alarming deterioration of biodiversity in Doñana, but also the tourist center of Matalascañas, just 500 meters from some lagoons in the natural area. The Hydrographic Confederation has announced the transfer of two of the five underground extractions for human consumption, but at the moment it is only a plan pending completion.

The Andalusian right-wing argues to justify its expansion of irrigation that farmers — now fined for irrigating with illegal wells — have “historic rights” acquired by having maintained their greenhouses for decades. These supposed historical rights have no legal basis and the deputies of PP, Cs and Vox argue that the Board itself granted financial aid to reinforce these greenhouses. The mayors of the area support or are open to studying the modification of the plan, except for the Almonte City Council, which has opposed the initiative.

Sealing of an illegal well in Lucena del Puerto (Huelva), carried out by river guards.
Sealing of an illegal well in Lucena del Puerto (Huelva), carried out by river guards.

Both PP and Ciudadanos in Andalusia have refused to speak this Friday to questions from this newspaper in the face of Brussels’ warning about their plans in an election year in this community. The Andalusian Parliament has denied the request of the United We Can group to hold a conference next Monday in one of the Chamber’s offices with environmental organizations in defense of Doñana. This group requested in writing authorization on January 26 to use the multipurpose room, a permit that the president of the Chamber, Marta Bosquet (Citizens), conditioned on the reason for the meeting and the guests being informed, which that for the spokeswoman for United We Can, Inmaculada Nieto, is a “nonsense”, reports Lourdes Lucius.

According to this deputy’s version, Bosquet gave her verbal authorization last Wednesday. This Friday they expected a written communication to process the accreditation of the guests, but the “veto” has been maintained. In a telephone conversation, Bosquet has argued to Nieto that there has been an “agreement” of the Table through the WhatsApp group shared by its members. “It’s outrageous,” said the spokeswoman. Nieto, who has asked the senior lawyer of the Chamber for the document accrediting the agreement of the Parliament’s governing body wielded by its president.

Meanwhile, the Commission stressed the seriousness of the Andalusian Parliament’s plans: “I ask you to convey to your authorities our deep concern about the possible repercussions that, if it is processed successfully, said proposal would have for the correct application by the Kingdom of Spain of both the Water Framework Directive as well as the Habitats Directive”, reads the letter.

The environmental organization WWF denounced before the European Commission the plans of PP and Ciudadanos together with the extreme right to increase irrigation in the surroundings of Doñana. “It is truly reckless that Andalusian President Moreno Bonilla continues with the current bill to legalize illegal immigrants from Doñana and that they could even question the funds Next Generation for Andalusia”, WWF has denounced. Its general secretary, Juan Carlos del Olmo, has settled: “The European Commission is fed up with deception with Doñana and the PP’s bill is a real mockery of the European authorities.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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