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Aid Soggy habitat dries up: Why Aldi and Lidl want to save a Spanish natural paradise

Encircling the Coto de Doñana national park in southwest Spain, an intense struggle has erupted: On one hand, the Spanish government has been striving for years to safeguard the water supplies in the nature reserve. On the other hand, large international corporations and farmers are contending for the development of the region.

Struggle for water in Spanish nature park

For years, there has been a battle for dominance in the Spanish nature reserve near Seville. The Coto de Doñana is Spain’s largest wetland and an important haven for migratory birds that take respite there during their journey to Africa. Endangered and critically endangered mammals such as the Iberian Lynx also inhabit the area.

Back in the 1960s, there were plans to drain the Coto de Doñana for agriculture. However, conservationists, including the newly established WWF, campaigned to gradually transform the entire area into a nature reserve over the following decades. The current area covers approximately 130,000 hectares.

Yet, the debate on agricultural use was far from over: Despite its protected status, there has been increased and largely illegal extraction of water in recent years – resulting in the park drying up completely in early 2022. The recovery of the wetlands and the associated animal population from this remains uncertain. According to an investigation by the Spanish daily newspaper “El Pais,” the largest lakes in the park have had too low water levels since 2013. The European Union has even removed the area from its green list of protected areas because the necessary conditions are no longer met. 

Even Lidl & Co. protested against Andalusia’s proposal

In this context, the Spanish government agreed to invest 1.4 billion euros in the protection of the park. However, local farmers are also set to benefit, as the Coto de Doñana has become one of the largest berry cultivation areas in recent years – fruits that are primarily exported within Europe, including to Germany. Berries worth a total of 800 million euros are exported annually. The farmers are to receive money to cultivate less water-intensive plants and reforest the arable land. The government aims to make them less dependent on strawberry cultivation as well.

The government granted the farmers a twelve-month amnesty to cease illegal water extraction and find alternative solutions. So, it’s a form of amnesty. The pressure from the government poses a significant problem for local agriculture. Just before that, the Andalusian government had proposed to make more land available for irrigation and establish a large strawberry farm – a proposal that even major supermarket chains such as Lidl and Aldi protested against. Together with other British supermarket chains like Tesco, the corporations warned the Andalusian government about damaging the reputation and long-term development of the Coto de Doñana.

Spanish Environment Minister warns of Yellow Vest trap

The fact that even major supermarket chains, which actually benefit from the region’s agricultural produce, are rallying against the proposal speaks volumes. There were already vigorous protests as early as 2022.opposed to a planned strawberry farm – and not just by the EU or environmentalists, but also by supermarkets.

So are the farmers there really mistaken? It’s not that simple, considering that the business there has been supported for decades, and the authorities have also not decisively acted against illegal water extraction. Spanish Environment Minister Teresa Ribera is also aware of this. Speaking to the British “Guardian” on Wednesday, she emphasized the need to find solutions together. The local farmers are also under economic pressure.

Ribera: 2024 European elections crucial for environmental protection

Ribera cautioned against simply implementing regulations to protect wetlands without involving the local people. According to Ribera, this ultimately leads to protest movements like the Yellow Vests in France or the farmers in the Netherlands, who vehemently oppose new rules to protect the soil.

Projects like the 1.4 billion euro deal are intended to help make farmers more independent and transition to a more sustainable, less water-intensive cultivation. For Minister Ribera, the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in June are the most important elections. It will determine how much momentum remains for the protection of nature reserves such as the Coto de Doñana.

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