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Bleeding Doñana dry

Por: | 13 de enero de 2014

Doñana conservation
April 24 1998 will long be remembered as the day Spain suffered one of its biggest environmental disasters.
A holding dam burst at the Los Frailes mine, near Aznalcóllar in Sevilla, releasing up to five million cubic metres of acidic mine tailings.
The toxic sludge entered the Guadiamar river, the main water source for Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s biggest wetlands.
The subsequent effect of the disaster was devastating.
Soil in the surrounding area was heavily contaminated with deadly substances including arsenic, while 37 tons of dead fish were recovered from the river.
The pollution quickly entered the food chain and tests on wildlife in the region found many species had ‘sub-lethal quantities of heavy metals in liver and muscle tissue’.
It has since been blamed for a legacy of beak deformities in the region’s white stork population.
Efforts to clean up the spillage took three years and cost around €240 million - although the effects of the spill could last for decades to come.
The disaster threatened to wipe out much of the progress made by conservationists based in the area.
In 1963 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had acquired 6,794 hectares of marshland in order to establish what is now Doñana National Park.
But recent celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the deal have been overshadowed by a fresh threat from the controversial mine.
The Andalucian government is pushing through plans to reopen the site and last month brought it closer to reality by issuing an executive order.
WWF officials describe the plan as a ‘terrible mistake’ and fear there could be a repeat of the 1998 disaster if proper safeguards are not put in place.
And while acknowledging that the region is in need of economic growth, the organisation argues that the proposal is environmentally unsustainable.
“We are concerned about the speed at which the Junta has worked on this issue and the hastiness of the decision to issue the decree,” said Felipe Fuentelsaz, the WWF’s project coordinator in Doñana.
“Everyone can remember the accident in 1998 and the problems associated with the restoration of the Guadiamar.
“We are concerned that the Junta is trying to turn the river into a drainage system for the mine.”
The ongoing threat posed by the site is not the first time the fragile ecosystem has faced the possibility of being destroyed.
In the 1950s, plans were in place to drain the marshland, as it was viewed by some as a source of disease.
The proposal would have condemned the region to the same fate as several other Spanish wetlands before it.
But thanks largely to the efforts of conservationist Luc Hoffmann and Spanish biologist José Antonio Valverde, a deal was struck on December 30 1963 for the WWF to buy the land.
In 1965, it became the first biological reserve in Spain, and gained national park status in 1969.
In 1994, the park was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site by the United Nations, seemingly safeguarding Doñana from future environmental threats.
These positive steps towards preserving the park have allowed it to establish its status as a final stronghold of the endangered Iberian lynx.
It is also home to species including the Spanish imperial eagle and is an important stop-off for thousands of migratory birds traveling between Europe and Africa.
But the WWF and other conservation groups associated with the park are fighting an ongoing battle on several fronts.
Besides the mine, Doñana is at risk from plans for underground gas storage and the dredging of the nearby Guadalquivir river.
Arguably the biggest threat of all is the use of illegal boreholes to irrigate the intensive agricultural operations around the perimeter of the park.
Farmers producing strawberries destined for supermarkets across Europe, including the UK, are accused of draining water from the park’s underground aquifers.
These aquifers are crucial for maintaining the park’s ecosystem and the vast number of species which live within it.
Plastic sheeting and pesticides entering the water supply are among the side effects associated with these agricultural activities.

The problem is so serious that last year Unesco threatened to remove Doñana from its list of world heritage sites if the Spanish government failed to address the issue.

“The World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) remain concerned about the cumulative impacts of a number of threats to the outstanding universal value of the property, in particular the issue of over-extraction of the Doñana aquifer,” read a Unesco statement.

“If these issues are not addressed the property could meet the conditions for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger in the near future.”

Spain must respond by submitting a report to the UN by February 1, outlining the steps it is taking to regulate water usage for agriculture.

The report is expected to include the details of a plan to declare an amnesty on the use of illegal wells by farmers in Sevilla and Huelva.

The Junta had failed to meet an earlier deadline set by the UN to implement a special management plan of irrigation zones around Doñana.

While the future of Spain’s biggest wetland remains unclear, one thing that can be relied upon is the tireless efforts of conservationists working for its protection.

“Thanks to visionaries like Hoffmann and Valverde, the marshes of Doñana escaped desiccation,” said Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretary general of WWF España.

“But 50 years later, our flagship wetland is surrounded by multiple threats that compromise its future.

“We still have much to do so that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty of Doñana.”


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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:

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