BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — A plan to increase irrigation in an area adjoining one of Europe’s most prized wetlands is set to advance Wednesday with the approval of lawmakers in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia.
The proposal to rezone the lands goes against the advice of ecologists and repeated warnings from Spain’s central government and European Union officials.
The vote is expected to start the bill down the path toward becoming law. It is sponsored by the ruling conservative Popular Party, which holds an absolute majority in the regional parliament based in Seville. It also has the support of the far-right Vox party.
If the measure becomes law, some 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of land near the Doñana nature reserve will be declared irrigable. This would grant an amnesty to the many farms that already use illegal wells to tap into the aquifer underlying the wetlands to grow strawberries for export across Europe.
The Popular Party says its intention is to help farmers who are in a legal limbo regularize their livelihoods, and pledges that the plan will not hurt the wetlands.
The spokesman for Andalusia’s government, Ramón Fernández-Pacheco, said that his government is committed to protecting Doñana and that the proposed bill would analyze case-by-case the farmers who ask for water rights.
“I am worried that the EU is receiving a distorted image of what the bill says,” he said.
Ecologists and opposition parties, however, accuse the Popular Party of trying to win votes ahead of regional elections on May 28. The bill could be pushed through before the elections, although that is not guaranteed.
Florika Fink-Hooijer, the head of the EU’s Directorate General for the Environment, told Spain’s government last month that the EU would not tolerate Andalusia’s plan. In 2021, the European Court of Justice condemned Spain for neglecting the Doñana wetlands. Further neglect of the nature reserve could result in a hefty fine for Spain.
Spain’s central government, run by a left-wing coalition, and scientists who work in Doñana agree that the plan would only increase the strain on the aquifer, which is already under stress from an extended drought driven by climate change.
“This vote should not even take place,” Eloy Revilla, director of the Doñana Biological Station of the Spanish National Research Council, told The Associated Press by phone.
Revilla said it will send the wrong message: that those who use illegal wells can get away with it.
“It will not solve the problems of Doñana or the farmers. It will only further complicate a situation that is already complex,” he said.
The situation is “critical” for the lagoons and marshes that make Doñana a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, according to Revilla.
“The ecosystems in Doñana that depend on subterranean water are in critical condition,” he said. “And it will only get worse if we consider that last year was very dry and this year promises to be drier still.”
Other farmers who use legal wells on already irrigable land are also against the move, fearing it will damage the reputation of the berries that they market as being grown near the pristine conditions of Doñana.
An almost identical bill was presented by the Popular Party last year, but did not make it to a final vote due to a snap election in the region.
The Doñana reserve covers 74,000 hectares (182,000 acres) on an estuary where the Guadalquivir River meets the Atlantic Ocean on Spain’s southern coast. It is a wintering site for a half-million waterfowl and a stopover spot for millions more birds that migrate from Africa to northern Europe. It is also home to five threatened bird species, including the endangered Spanish imperial eagle.
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