El Guadiana, "biodiversity oasis", magnet to attract tourism

Mertola (Portugal), Feb 18 (EFE / Lusa) .- Winding from Spain to Portugal, the Guadiana reflects centuries of history of the transboundary territories, lived in time with the freshwater stream. Today, we try to preserve and give value to the river, an "oasis of biodiversity", boosting tourism.

Leaning on the right bank of the Guadiana, the Portuguese town of Mértola, next to the border and in the Beja district, emerges as an "epicenter" of the Valagua project: Environmental Improvement and Integrated Water and Habitat Management in the Lower Guadiana Transboundary, ongoing since mid-2017 and co-financed with European funds through the Interreg VA Spain-Portugal cross-border cooperation program (POCTEP).

With a total investment of around one million euros, the initiative involves five municipalities in Portugal and ten in Spain. Coordination is in charge of the Mértola Heritage Defense Association (ADPM).


"This body of water is extremely important for the development of this territory, in its different uses," says ADPM President Jorge Revez, who stressed the need for a constant articulation of those involved in the watershed in Portugal and Spain, including political decision makers.

While a flock of sheep travels along the left bank of the river, a fisherman prepares the bait in a small boat and a young man rides a canoe. It is with this scenario, in the upper part of the town, that Jorge Revez explains the problems inherent in this immense watercourse: pollution caused by nitrates of agricultural origin and the decrease in flow due to intensive use in some crops, little adjusted to environmental conditions

Thus, after warning about the "complex" environmental problems in biodiversity conservation, the president of ADPM indicates that the answer is to put in consensus the technical data of universities with decisions of a more political nature. "This project has the effect of constantly bringing together the different actors involved in the river at the same table," he says.

With intervention in eight natural spaces classified at European level, within the Natura 2000 Network, of which five in Spain and three in Portugal, including the Valle del Guadiana Natural Park, Valagua intends that the body of water between Mértola and Vila Real de Santo António, which is navigable, can serve as a "springboard for an interior development process", in the Lower Alentejo and in the Algarve, in the case of Portugal.

About 25 kilometers from the historic center of Mértola, but still in the same municipality, in the parish of Corte do Pinto, the Alcaides ravine was one of the points of intervention of the project, in collaboration with the Institute for the Conservation of the Nature and the Forests, to safeguard the saramugo, one of the most threatened freshwater fish in Europe.


"The saramugo is like a kind of emblem for the conservation of riverine ecosystems," says Ana Cristina Cardoso, a biologist at the institute. One of the threats has to do with the access of livestock to water, since it is limited to one area and exerts "greater pressure on the water resource that crosses the delimited area", rather than what happened in the past, when It was exploited more extensively.

Before the Valagua project, around 400 head of cattle passed and grazed every day during the summer season in this ravine. Today, in the context of raising awareness among agricultural operators, there was a pastor who made himself available to change his behavior for the benefit of nature conservation. It was a surplus value, but the challenge now is to overcome other people's resistance to change.

“We are not talking about the cattle going to drink and then come back. We are talking about the presence of continuous cattle, which is a general problem in the Guadiana basin, ”says the biologist.

With the river requalification of the Alcaides ravine, an attempt was made to "demonstrate that it is possible to reconcile the two things, it is possible that people develop their livestock exploitation, but taking into account the preservation of the waterline and the riverine ecosystem, all that is behind".

To accelerate the recovery of the ecosystem, the Institute for Nature Conservation placed a fence on both banks of the ravine and made plantations with species of riparian vegetation, with willow and ash stakes. The results are already visible, "we can see that, in terms of shrubs, there is a coverage of reeds that now cover the ground and the margin, something that did not happen before."

The idea is to provide shade, so that evaporation is reduced, the body of water is maintained and the water temperature is stabilized, which is important for the quality and for the living beings present in these habitats, "in that Noah's Ark , in that oasis of biodiversity, "the biologist points out. The recovery of the vegetation will create greater ecological niches and a greater possibility for the development of more macroinvertebrates, which is the feeding of the fish.

The Alcaides ravine, where a picnic park and an information panel were installed to raise public awareness about this two-kilometer intervention, benefits "all the biodiversity in this water pool", from freshwater clams to dragonflies.

"Either at the level of macroinvertebrates or at the level of dragonflies, there are species identified as bioindicators of the good quality of the riverbanks and the fact that they appear indicates that we are working in a good direction," says Ana Cristina Cardoso.

Leaving Alentejo behind, heading south of Portugal, on a route of about 40 kilometers, in which the mountain takes the place of the plain, Alcoutim (Faro district) stands out for having the Guadiana, nicknamed the "big river del sur ", as a border with Spain.


This administrative barrier is easily overcome in less than five minutes by boat, in a kind of taxi that floats in fresh water. From Alcoutim you can reach Sanlúcar de Guadiana, a Spanish border town in the province of Huelva, Andalusia. In other times, this crossing was used to smuggle products between the two countries.

Partner of the Valagua project, the Provincial Council of Huelva has developed different interventions throughout the Lower Guadiana area, including the highest point of Sanlúcar de Guadiana. Preserving two old mills, in this space a viewpoint with views of Alcoutim emerged, which allows you to contemplate the river, as well as observe the stars, through a celestial planisphere, in one of the points with Starlight certification.

There is also a viewpoint in San Silvestre de Guzmán. Other interventions in the province were two visitor centers, one in Puebla de Guzmán, with an exhibition on water, and the other in Puerto de La Laja.

For an integrated river management, the universities of Huelva and the Algarve conducted studies on the quality and condition of the waters of the entire Lower Guadiana, as well as "an inventory of all tourist resources" and the most relevant natural habitats.

“We were very aware of what water is, because it has been the engine and the axis of the project, but also tourism. This explains the creation of these spaces and the endowment of these teams, ”says Rocío García Mora, a technician from Valagua in the province of Huelva.

Among the white houses, the small town of Sanlucar de Guadiana, with around 400 inhabitants, half foreigners, wants to stop being "an area that is often unknown" and become a refuge capable of attracting visitors without neglecting the environment .

On the way back, we leave for Castro Marim, also in the district of Faro, on a 40-kilometer road trip, to visit the Natural Reserve of the Sapal de Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António, another place that goes to intervene.

On behalf of Odiana: Association for the Development of Bajo Guadiana, Filomena Sintra praises the reserve as the "largest biological asset" in the Algarve, where resources were rehabilitated, with new information panels and new signage.

A RIVER THAT UNECES overlooking the salt marshes of Castro Marim, Sapal de Venta Moinhos is one of the main routes, which depends on the "great gold that is water." Among the available routes, it is planned to install bird observatories; After all, "this is one of the country's reserves that has more birds, in number and in kind," with an increasing number of visits.

“Portugal has seen the river, for centuries, as a border, but this river is what distinguishes us, it is what unites us on the other side of Spain. Nature does not have these administrative barriers and we should have learned, long ago, to value and focus our development towards the river, ”says Filomena Sintra.

Rejecting mass tourism, this nature reserve wants to provide a different experience, with the visitor as the "guardian" of the territory.

"We want people who appreciate, value and help us contribute to the maintenance of this asset, which has been here for millennia and we want to leave it for other millennia," emphasizes the representative.

Accompanying the trip to the various intervention points, Rogério Cangarato, of ADPM, insists on assessing the water-biodiversity binomial, natural values ​​that can "contribute to regional and local development, at various levels."

“Currently, there is evidence that the resource is scarce, therefore, as any scarce resource must be managed sustainably, so that the various uses are viable: for urban populations and for the various sectors of the economy, such as agriculture or tourism, which is essential for the development of this region, ”he says.

With a total of more than 860 kilometers, from the lagoons of Ruidera, in Spain, the Guadiana begins to see its mouth from Castro Marim, between Vila Real de Santo António and Ayamonte, with the Atlantic already with open arms waiting for the old man " Ouadiana. "

Sónia Miguel


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