In addition to illegal is famous. It has been a decade illustrating stories about water theft in the surroundings of Doñana. And, despite the countless times in which he has appeared in the national and international press as symbol of an expolio, there follows the illegal raft, in a public forest in Lucena del Puerto (Huelva), with its 14 pipes pouring stolen water into the park day and night.
From the Almonte-Marisma aquifer – a 2,400 square kilometer underground water body – lives the most emblematic protected space in Spain, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. But that water reserve is at its limit due to overexploitation and illegal deposits from the park's margins. This plunder continued for more than a decade has served in part to feed a profitable agricultural industry that developed haphazardly from the eighties and that managed to make a land that is almost beach sand sprout a red treasure: strawberries. In the area legal farmers -who have permits to extract water- coexist with the illegal ones – who steal it and cultivate it in forbidden areas-.
The most frustrating thing for those who know and report this problem is that to that limit of what is acceptable for the aquifer it arrived too many years ago. "The time to do scientific studies on the situation has already happened, now is the time to do things to fix it or, simply, to document how we are losing what we had", summarizes Jordi Figuerola, Deputy Director of Research of the Doñana Biological Station, of the CSIC. "This is the day of the marmot", he points out about the continuous public denunciations that scientists, ecologists and institutions have been throwing for decades. The last warning has come from Brussels: the Commission has denounced Spain judicially for not preventing the theft of water.
Doñana is home to emblematic species such as the Iberian lynx or the imperial eagle. And its marshes and lagoons – which are hit by the uncontrolled extractions of the aquifer – are also a mandatory stop for tens of thousands of migratory birds. SEO / BirdLife has warned this week of the decrease in the number of threatened birds that take refuge there.
The sound of the jets of the famous raft runs through the pine forests. It is a constant reminder of impunity. The raft is at the foot of a road; it is not hidden, nor are the almost 80 illegal wells that, in just one and a half square kilometers, were built a decade ago by the pirate farmers who still use them today.
So the water flows there: the wells – none of this forest land in Lucena del Puerto has permits from the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation – they tap the aquifer, remove the liquid and take it to the rafts. From there it is transported to the greenhouses. Under the ground there is a complete network – also illegal – of pipes and plastic pipes.
WATER THEFT IN DOÑANA
Illegal wells detected by the agents of the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation only in this area of the Huelva municipalities of Lucena del Puerto and Moguer.
This area, with 80 wells and several rafts – among them, the already famous one – is the golden mile of illegality. But WWF, an NGO that has been denouncing the pillaging since the beginning of the century, figures in a thousand illegal wells around Doñana. "It is unthinkable that in the middle of a forest we find illegal withdrawals like this," says Felipe Fuentelsaz of WWF at the foot of one of them. "We need administrations that accelerate the files much more, many more resources to be able to legally address the closure of these wells and much more political will."
When asked why this raft is still there, the environmental agents of the Confederation shrug their shoulders and look at the ground. This body is in charge of ensuring the health of the aquifer and has already denounced the raft and the 80 wells in 2013. A tortuous judicial process was then initiated that has not yet ended. The Seprona of the Civil Guard has also denounced the case: the raft, for example, has a booth and a fence that can not be raised on a forest land either. But there everything goes. "We are in a guarantor country," answers the president of the Guadalquivir Hydrographic Confederation, Joaquín Páez, when referring to the delay in closing the wells. But there is something more than a system with judicial guarantees.
While Páez attended the media on Tuesday next to the raft and announced that the Doñana aquifer is going to be declared over-exploited, a huge SUV appeared on the scene. A large guy dressed in blue overalls got out of the car and approached the group of environmental agents. With a laugh he responded when he was reminded that the raft has appeared a thousand and one times in the newspapers. And with an "is mine" answered when he was questioned by the owner.
-But it's illegal …
– I have all the permits of the City Council. I pay my taxes.
The Consistories can authorize agricultural or forest uses in public forests, like this one in Lucena. But never grant a permit for a well or a regulation raft, because it is a Confederation competence. However, those two phrases of the farmer summarize an important part of the problem.
"The City Council has delayed the closure of the wells with judicial resources", points out the president of the Confederation on the case of the almost 80 captures of Lucena. Páez says that now he is in the final stretch to close them. And, if the City Council does not appeal to the courts again, in two months the closure can be executed, says optimist.
"There is a very strong social pressure", explains Emilio Custodio, industrial engineer and professor emeritus of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. "There are people who live and speculate with water," adds Custodio, one of the first to study the damage to the aquifer due to overexploitation related to agriculture.
It is difficult not to find the mayors of Moguer, Lucena and Bonares, all of the PSOE, in the demonstrations of irrigators in recent years. The PP also supports some farmers who refuse to have their taps cut off. The protests take place since in 2014, after seven years of delays, the Junta de Andalucía approved a management plan for the forest crown of Doñana, which included removing some 1,500 illegal hectares of greenhouses raised in forest areas, streams. .. "Not one illegal hectare has been eliminated", laments Fuentelsaz.
That plan contains a paradox: it admits the existence of more than 9,000 hectares of legal irrigated crops, although it recognizes that there is not enough water for everyone. Agriculture and greenhouses are vital in the five municipalities surrounding Doñana. For example, almost half of Lucena's workers are employed in that sector. And only in the area surrounding Doñana, 60% of Huelva strawberry is produced, which in turn accounts for 85% of national production.
Fuentelsaz laments the environmental damage caused by the illegal deposits. But it also warns of the negative impact for the sector: "It is a tremendous unfair competition because the fruit of a legal farmer and that of an illegal one go to the same market and the legal one has to pay much more for his land and water than the that is stealing that resource. "
"The lagoons of Doñana are undergoing a gradual drying process," warned the Biological Station in 2017 in a report requested by the Andalusian Ombudsman. "In the environment of Doñana there are unsustainable uses of groundwater," added the letter, which recalled that in 1992 a commission of experts already recommended reducing extractions. Almost three decades later, the Commission has denounced Spain before the Court of Justice of the EU.
Páez says to be calm before this denunciation. It defends the measures that the Administration is taking, such as the closure of "300 illegal wells" in 2017 and 2018 or the next declaration as overfished of the aquifer, a historical claim. But he admits its shortcomings, such as the evident lack of personnel in the Confederation. "The opening of a single file requires a month of work," he explains. And for the entire red zone of the Doñana wells the Confederation has two full-time agents. Since September one of them is out of work after being harassed by a group of farmers during an inspection in Lucena.
"In Doñana there is a lack of important governance for decades. The current Administration has a different mood, but they have a complex inheritance, "explains Fuentelsaz. "Fortunately, Doñana is a World Heritage Site and Europe has already pointed its finger at us, Unesco has pointed its finger at us, European supermarkets have pointed the finger at us, consumers point the finger at us, because fortunately Doñana is from everyone. Hopefully that will end the theft of water, "he concludes.
The inaction before the thefts of water can finish in a sentence against two ex-alcaldes of Almonte, one of the Huelva towns of the surroundings of the protected space of Doñana. The prosecutor in the case, Alfredo Flores, accuses them of a crime against natural resources or, alternatively, for a crime of water seizure. This is the exregidores Francisco Bella (PSOE) and José Antonio Domínguez (PP). Seven farmers are also accused in this case. After being tried, everyone is already waiting for the trial to be held against them.
This case started after a complaint from the Civil Guard, who has toured the area on several occasions in search of illegal wells. Specifically, it refers to the area of Matalagrana, in Almonte. That farm was formed by public lands that farmers exploited thanks to an agreement signed with the City Council, which in turn had received the cession of these soils by the Board. And the farmers who had leased the land carried out illegal extraction of water for years without being prevented by the City Council of Almonte.