Huelva, Spain – On a sweltering July morning, Carlos Dávila surveys the parched earth stretching out in front of him. Summers are typically dry in Doñana National Park, but this year was exceptional.
“Look at the last time it rained here properly,” he says, shaking his head. “When was it?”
Following a dry autumn, a dry winter and a spring with little rain, a summer of record heatwaves and drought engulfed Spain.
By August’s end, Doñana’s last permanent pond – which once sheltered thousands of migratory birds and harboured unique plants, fish, amphibians and insects – disappeared.
Doñana, one of Europe’s most important wetlands, is a critical wintering spot and stopover point for birds migrating between Africa and Europe.
Its mosaic of ecosystems – marshes, ponds, forests and dunes – also provides refuge for an array of aquatic, mammal and plant species, several of which are rare and threatened.
While drought and climate change have played a part in Doñana drying up, the unsustainable exploitation of the aquifer feeding the park sounded its death knell.
For decades, Doñana – a UNESCO world heritage and Ramsar site – has been forced to compete for water with the increasingly thirsty berry industry in Huelva, a province in Spain’s southern Andalusia region.
Pushed to its ecological limits despite repeated warnings, Doñana’s days as a wildlife paradise are over.
Without urgent measures, scientists caution, much of its biodiversity will vanish for good.
“We’re reaching, we believe, a point of no return,” says Dávila, coordinator of the Doñana technical office of environmental organisation SEO/Birdlife.
The rise of red gold
Before berries, farmers in Huelva grew olives, grapes and wheat, rain-fed crops well-adapted to the dryland environment.
In the 1980s, strawberry cultivation took off, with farmers cashing in on the higher profits earned from exporting what became known as “red gold” to Europe.
Support from EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies provided another incentive to grow berries.
“Irrigated crops receive more CAP subsidies than dryland crops that aren’t irrigated,” explained Celsa Peiteado, coordinator for WWF Spain’s food programme.
Millions of euros of agricultural subsidies along with the region’s mild climate, the conversion of thousands of hectares of land and ample groundwater transformed Huelva into a centre of intensive berry production.
It made Spain the world’s largest exporter and the second-largest producer of strawberries and a leading exporter of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, with 2021 exports estimated above 1.7 billion euros ($1.6bn).
Of the half-million tonnes of berries produced in Spain last year, mostly grown in Huelva, up to 90 percent were exported to Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands, among other northern European countries.
Many have considered the dizzying growth of Huelva’s berry industry an indisputable success. Others have argued an area with a high risk of water stress is hardly a place to produce berries for Europe.
‘Excessive extraction of groundwater’
To irrigate the 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres) of berry polytunnels blanketing Huelva’s undulating hills, producers withdraw groundwater from the same aquifer feeding Doñana National Park.
Scientists first issued warnings in the late 1980s about the risks groundwater over-extraction posed to Doñana, but as Huelva’s economy became more intertwined with berries, their concerns went unheeded.
In 2020, the aquifer was officially declared overexploited.
For Carmen Díaz Paniagua, a researcher at the Doñana Biological Station, it was a rare, if much-delayed, step forward.
“If extractions aren’t reduced, it’s impossible to preserve Doñana,” she said.
Making the situation particularly scandalous, a substantial amount of groundwater being extracted to grow berries is via wells lacking legal authority and permissions.
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has documented more than 1,000 illegal wells contributing to the aquifer’s depletion.
“At the moment, there’s not any regulation, no rules, nothing, that ensures a farm is legal from the point of view of water,” said Felipe Fuentelsaz, WWF Spain’s agriculture and water coordinator for Doñana.
Unless supermarkets implement their own measure to guarantee producers use water legally, Fuentelsaz said it is impossible for European consumers to know whether berries have been produced legally or not.
In June 2021, the EU Court of Justice ruled that Spain, the EU country with the most infringements of environmental laws, was at fault for the degradation of Doñana, and that “excessive extraction of groundwater” in the Doñana area violates EU law.
Earlier this year, the Andalusian regional parliament voted to support a plan to legalise more than 1,400 hectares (3,459 acres) of land near Doñana, which would allow producers who dug illegal wells and established illicit berry plantations to legitimise their operations.
To date, nearly 230 illegal wells have been closed by the water authorities.
“The slowness of the administration is a big problem,” said Fuentelsaz.
Massive water transfer
To relieve pressure on the aquifer and help it recharge, the berry industry is banking on a massive water transfer from the Tinto-Odiel-Piedras basin approved in 2018, but since stalled.
“We know not a drop more can be extracted from the Doñana aquifer … and it’s necessary to bring surface water. With this action, the debate of choosing between Doñana and growers would be closed,” said Sergio Arjona, deputy regional minister of the Andalusian Ministry of Sustainability, Environment and Blue Economy.
According to environmentalists, a transfer would perpetuate the unsustainable use of water, while further stressing areas already subject to extreme levels of water scarcity.
Among berry producers, many agreed another water source is needed to relieve pressure on the aquifer – and Doñana.
But they fear the transfer will benefit those who have been operating illegally, while leaving insufficient water for those who have been operating legally, explained Manuel Delgado, spokesperson of AAPD, an association of berry producers near Doñana.
Consequently, many berry producers, including the AAPD, have not supported the proposal to legalise the illegally irrigated land.
Environment vs economy
Pitted against one of Huelva’s economic engines, the conservation of Doñana has always come in behind, lamented Díaz Paniagua.
The lack of regulation and governance allowing unsustainable, and often illegal, groundwater extraction to continue for so long has made the situation intractable.
“It’s difficult to change to a production model if it’s not as profitable,” admitted Fuentelsaz.
Freshuelva and Interfresa, Huelva’s largest berry industry associations, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on how a balance could be achieved between the economy and the environment.
While the berry industry has argued it provided much-needed jobs to a province with few other economic opportunities, migrant and human rights organisations counter the industry enriches few, while exploiting many.
Every season, tens of thousands of migrant workers are hired to pick berries, and often suffer abuse, violations of rights and exploitive work conditions.
Locals overwhelmingly support the berry industry because of their otherwise-limited prospects.
“I can’t imagine Huelva without the berry industry,” said David, a 30-year-old from the village of Almonte. “It would be a dark future.”
Over the years, the simmering social conflict has erupted into threats and intimidation towards those defending the environment, and physical violence towards authorities tasked with closing illegal wells.
The proposed legalisation, which intensified national and international scrutiny of Huelva’s berry industry, has further heightened tensions and distrust.
“This is not Doñana … the land is ours,” a man from the village of Lucena del Puerto, where the most illegal wells are located, shouted angrily when asked how competing demands for water can be balanced.
Encapsulating the general sentiment, locals from several berry villages interviewed by Al Jazeera expressed unanimous belief that the berry industry, as is, can coexist with Doñana.
Scientific evidence has said otherwise.
Biodiversity in freefall
The overexploited aquifer, coupled with too many consecutive dry years, has sent Doñana’s biodiversity into a freefall.
Once a sanctuary for millions of birds, numbers have plummeted from 470,000 recorded in the area in 2021, to only 87,500 this year – the worst data in more than 40 years, confirmed Dávila.
Other species are not faring any better. This year, Díaz Paniagua recorded alarming drops in dragonfly species, while rare amphibians and aquatic plants are unable to survive the lack of water.
Even if water levels were to recover, biodiversity is another matter.
“You can return water, but if you’ve lost species, it’s impossible to restore [them]. And many species are very threatened,” said Díaz Paniagua.
Any solution, if not imminent, will likely come too late for much of Doñana’s biodiversity, said Dávila. “The Doñana we know is disappearing,” he said.
This project was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu.