Nature Ramble

Nature Ramble isn’t always about animals and birds, discoveries or threatened with extinction. It can also be about habitats, often these habitats are generally unknown by the majority, or are themselves under threat. Such is the case today.

One thinks of Spain, great wines, Basques and Catalonians vying for independence, failing economics and great beaches. But you rarely hear about the nature in Spain like you do about Africa or the Amazon.

Spain’s wetlands wonder is under threat for a second time in 16 years

Doñana national park, a haven filled with rare birds and wildlife, survived a toxic flood. Now tourism, an oil pipeline, demand for water and the return of mining have left it on a knife edge

Evening in Donana national park. Huelva province, Andalucia. Photograph: Alamy

The view from the visitors’ centre at the southern edge of Doñana national park is striking, to say the least. From its plate-glass windows, you gaze – over a small lake ringed with bulrushes – at a group of tamarisk bushes covered with squawking, screeching birdlife. Cattle egrets, night herons, purple herons and glossy ibis have made their homes here, while in the foreground flamingos and spoonbills wade gracefully through the shallow, reed-filled water.

This an ornithologist’s dream: 200,000 hectares of salt marsh of unrivalled importance to the birdlife of western Europe. Dozens of Britain’s most loved migratory birds, including house martins, swallows, cuckoos and warblers, find precious rest here on their annual migrations from Africa.For good measure, Doñana, a UN World Heritage Site, is home to some of Europe’s rarest birds, including the Spanish imperial eagle, while its mammalian inhabitants include the highly endangered Iberian lynx.

It is a glorious, vibrant landscape. Yet it exists on a knife-edge, a point brought home dramatically 16 years ago last week when almost two billion gallons of contaminated, highly acidic water, mixed with arsenic, cadmium and other waste metals, surged into the park from a dam that had burst its bank at Los Frailes mine 45km to the north, near the little town of Aznalcóllar. A toxic tsunami of mine tailings poured down the Guadiamar river and over its banks, leaving a thick crust of metallic crud over a vast stretch of parkland.

More than 25,000 kilos of dead fish were collected in the aftermath and nearly 2,000 adult birds, chicks, eggs and nests killed or destroyed. Even worse, the contamination persisted and many birds gave birth to deformed or dead chicks for several years.

It was Spain’s worst environmental disaster and the clean-up cost €90m (£74m). Suddenly aware of Doñana’s status as the nation’s most important natural site, Spain decided to spend a further €360m, some of it EU money, on restoring the landscape which, in the 1950s and 60s, had been drained in places to create rice and cotton fields. Some of this farmland is now being returned to its original wetland state.

It has been a costly but encouraging process. Yet the fate of Doñana still hangs in the balance thanks to the increasing pressures of modern life. An example is provided by local farms which, in a bid to provide western Europe with out-of-season fruit, have laid out endless ribbons of plastic arches in which they grow strawberries all year round. Strawberries drink a lot, however, and that has led farmers to pump up ground water – in many cases, illegally – and so lower the park’s critically important water table.

In addition, plans have been outlined to build an oil pipeline through Doñana, while other developers have announced proposals to expand local tourist resorts whose new hotels and golf courses would demand water supplies that would further erode the local table. Silt washed from nearby farms is also choking the channels that crisscross Doñana. The wetlands of Doñana are under threat of a death by drought.

However, the real body blow for conservationists has been the recent decision of the Andalucían government to reopen the Frailes mine which so very nearly destroyed Doñana in 1998. “This is Europe’s most precious bird sanctuary, both in terms of indigenous species and also as a resting place for birds that migrate between Africa and Britain and other parts of north-west Europe,” says Laurence Rose, of the RSPB. “Doñana already faces a great number of threats, but now they want to bring back the very cause of its near-undoing 16 years ago. It is extremely worrying.”

Having spent so much restoring Doñana to its past glories, it might seem strange that the local government should choose to announce that it wants mining companies to tender bids to rework Los Frailes. However, a brief examination of the state of the local economy provides an explanation. The crash of Spain’s banks five years ago hit the region catastrophically and unemployment in some parts of Andalucía is now more then 30%. Reopening the mine would provide more than 1,000 precious jobs.

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