Amnesty granted to illegal Spanish strawberry farmers despite protests over damage to wetlands


Rightwing MPs in southern Spain have ignored protests from the central government, the EU, Unesco and several ecological groups by voting to grant an amnesty to illegal strawberry farmers who have been tapping water from the aquifer that feeds one of Europe’s largest protected wetlands.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Andalucían regional parliament approved the proposal, which will “regularise” 1,461 hectares (3610 acres) of land near the Doñana national park, thereby allowing farmers who have sunk illegal wells and built illicit plantations on the land to legitimise their operations.

The controversial proposal was brought by the conservative People’s party (PP), which governs the region, and backed by the centre-right Citizens party and the far-right Vox party. The regional branch of Spain’s ruling Socialist Workers’ party abstained, while its national coalition partner, Unidas Podemos, opposed the move.

The regional president, Juan Manuel Moreno of the PP, has defended the planned legislation, claiming it would allow the authorities to more closely monitor the tapping that has been going on for years.

“No one should think that we’re going to erode our natural jewels by as much as a millimetre,” Moreno said last month. “We’re going to protect it because that’s what the law tells us to do, and because that’s what we want to do.”

Such comments, however, have done little to convince opponents of the plan.

SEO BirdLife, the Spanish ornithological society, described Wednesday’s vote as “another step towards Doñana’s extinction”, while WWF Spain said it would use all the resources at its disposal to fight “this mortal blow to the already over-exploited aquifer that gives Doñana life”.

On Tuesday, Spain’s minister for the ecological transition, Teresa Ribera, wrote to Moreno, saying the mooted amnesty risked damaging Spain’s international image, undermining efforts to tackle the climate emergency, and could result in the EU taking costly legal action.

“Given the enormous harm, both economic and environmental – not to mention the damage to Spain’s image abroad – I … call on you to abandon this process before the Andalucían parliament, which could prove so damaging for Spain,” wrote Ribera.

Water supplies to Doñana, where marshes, forests and dunes extend across almost 130,000 hectares in the provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cádiz, have declined drastically over the past 30 years because of climate change, farming, mining pollution and marsh drainage. Doñana is visited by millions of migrating birds each year and is also home to a major population of endangered Iberian lynxes.

In 2013, Unesco – which declared the national park a world heritage site in 1994 – said that treasured status could be lost if efforts were not made to crack down on illegal water extraction to feed strawberry farms. The UN agency has already asked the Spanish government for an urgent report on the amnesty “before any decisions are taken that might be difficult to reverse”.

Soft fruit farms play a huge role in the local economy. Between January and June last year, Huelva’s exports of soft fruit – almost 20% of which are to the UK – were worth €801.3m (£678m).