The most productive habitat on the planet, in danger of extinction | I think, then I act


Jordi Sargatal (Figueres, Girona, 1957) tells that former miners used to carry a cage with a canary. If, when he went down to the mine, the little bird died, "they all came out, beating." It was the rudimentary indicator that clearly warned that this place was harmful to living beings. Taking into account that scientific studies calculate that 150 species are extinguished every day, the ornithologist makes the moral obvious: "That species are lost means that humans are making the planet less habitable, for them and for us." Its extinction reflects ours but, unlike those miners, we cannot run away.

It is no accident that Sargatal chooses a bird to explain the dystopia of extinction. He has been wearing binoculars around his neck for more than 40 years; a life "dedicated to following the path of birds." At age six he escaped from the maternity clinic where his mother was going to give birth to his brother in search of a stork that never appeared. They found him hours later, looking disappointedly at the treetops. Decades later he managed to compensate himself: he has managed to spot all the stork species on the planet because, when something gets in his head, there is no stopping him. It is the warning of his friends: "Beware of Jordi's dreams because they come true." And besides, they are contagious.

The man and the wetlands

Behind him, the flamingos dance on the water and the cranes fly over our heads. We are touring your home: the wet areas of the Aiguamolls de l'Empordà, in Girona. His ear picks up a new sound, a fluttering approach. The world stops as he hunts the presence of new birds. A heron, a bird, a kestrel ...

Sargatal, crossing part of the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Empordà.


Sargatal, crossing part of the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Empordà.

Without realizing it, we are fascinated, seduced by the environment, while our host reminds us that "we must be clear that wetlands are the most productive habitat on the planet, which with the same surface is capable of synthesizing more living matter." We only wake up from hypnosis when you receive a call. From its phone the unmistakable melody of The man and the earth. Observing it, we think that Sargatal could well star in his own adaptation of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente's program. In your case, it would be titled The man and the wetlands and, in the cast, birds would predominate.

He was 14 when a white bird magically landed next to him while fishing with his grandfather near this same place, at the mouth of the Muga River. In search of a name with which to identify that winged being, he ran to the library. He discovered that it was a common egret and, upon arriving home, found a treasure map that pointed to the Eden of the birds in his own neighborhood. Since then, he spent every afternoon of his youth watching birds from a dilapidated shed, with the mice with whom he shared the sandwich as the only company. He felt "a scientist discovering a paradise" but, in 1976, something was about to change: "They told me that this would be an urbanization." From anger and innocence, the stakes that marked the territory began to tear away, but the project seemed to be already underway: "My dear lagoons between the Muga and Fluvià rivers would all disappear."

The catchy beat of activism

Even today, his expression changes when he remembers the destiny that awaited his beloved birds: "Imagine that one of us has to direct an excursion and is a bus driver with 60 people." The journey is long, the fuel is limited and we bring water and food for just hours. What would happen if we did not find a single place to stop the march? It is the situation that migratory birds experience on a daily basis: “If humid, breeding or hibernating areas disappear, or simply those used for refuel during the trip, these birds will not be able to live anywhere: they will become extinct ”. If it were not for Sargatal, the landscape that surrounds us today would have been buried under an urbanization for more than 60,000 people.

Sargatal, during demonstrations to save the Aiguamolls.


Sargatal, during demonstrations to save the Aiguamolls.

The Aiguamolls were going to swell the extensive list of wetlands destroyed at the hands of man. Since the 18th century we have lost 87% of the wetlands that existed on the planet and the pace is increasing. In the last decades alone, between 1970 and 2015, approximately 35% of the remaining ones have disappeared. The most productive habitat on the planet is disappearing three times faster than forests and, with it, not only birds, but an entire ecosystem considered vital for human survival due to its oxygen supply, water supply and its role in climate change mitigation.

"I wish all the ornithologists of all the countries of the world get their governments to protect those areas that they estimate, before it is too late." Sargatal ran into this quote from naturalist Peter Jackson on the back cover of the magazine Wildlife and the words eventually lit the fuse of his activism. In his eyes, it was possible: "You had to raise public opinion and seek legal methods to stop it." He was only 18 years old, but he didn't hesitate to get going to save what he wanted most.

Jordi and his inseparable binoculars, with which he watches over the welfare of the park's birds.


Jordi and his inseparable binoculars, with which he watches over the welfare of the park's birds.

Remember that the most dramatic moment of his life came "when he saw eight large trucks pulling gravel on top of the Aiguamolls", but it did not cost him to convince 14 friends to literally stop the works: "We stood in front of the trucks to stop them" . He had written an article to inform the neighbors of the area the value of what was about to be lost and, without having turned 19, he planted in Belgium to lecture in French in front of the 400 most prestigious ornithologists of the world. That enthusiastic kid who spoke fervently about the wetlands of Girona got the 400 experts to sign a petition for the government to prevent the works. After endless white nights, days of struggle and the union of a multitude of convinced souls, we finally "got it after a seven-year war."

The David who beat Goliath recognizes that, when the Catalan Parliament unanimously approved the creation of the Aiguamolls Park, he felt that it was the happiest day of his life. It was the victory of the purest environmental activism, but he would never stop fighting. Become a reference, Sargatal directed for 14 years the Parc dels Aiguamolls to be later appointed director of the Territory and Landscape Foundation and the Global Nature Foundation in Spain. Even Salvador Dalí himself asked for advice to protect the landscape of the Costa Brava and, together with his ornithologist colleague Josep del Hoyo, he proposed to edit an encyclopedia illustrated with all the birds in the world: they carry 16 volumes with 12,000 species.

As director of the Association of Friends of the Aiguamolls, he continues to believe firmly in his purpose: "May the new generations be seduced by the environment and have the fighting spirit we had." His son, who encouraged him to raise nine orphaned hawks in his own home, teaches children today to make nests, and every day a new person experiences in his own flesh the environmental seduction between the wetlands. And we know it because it happened to us. After saying goodbye, we surprise ourselves by searching the sky with an attentive gaze, trying to name the flying beings in the hope of being able to continue seeing them for a long, long time. For his part, Jordi says that he will never abandon the common thread that the birds gave him to travel his own life: "I always follow his flight and I hope to follow him until the end of my days."

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Content adapted from Jordi's video

00:00

In Spain, 68% of the freshwater lagoons have disappeared. Jordi Sargatal prevented the construction of an urbanization for more than 60,000 people in the Aiguamolls de l'Empordà. He has been fighting for 40 years for the conservation of wetlands and dedicated to ornithological dissemination.

00:23

I was born in Figueres, in Empordà. My life surely changed the day that, fishing with my grandfather, next to us a white bird landed. Seeing that amazed me. I discovered the birds and all my life I have dedicated it to continue its flight.

00:39

Aiguamolls would be the Spanish translation of the humid zone. It is the most productive habitat on the planet, which with the same surface is able to synthesize more living matter. In the year 74 it was approved to convert 500 hectares of lagoons into a residential marine urbanization, of which you go with your yacht to the door of the house, and one afternoon I see that there are strange things. From afar with binoculars I see that there are eight large trucks throwing gravel to build a large road that passed through the middle of the lagoons.

01:11

I felt helpless. I thought: "What can be done?" Every year, millions of water birds travel from northern Europe to Africa, looking for wet areas to raise or hibernate. If wet breeding or hibernate areas disappear, these birds will not be able to live anywhere and will become extinct.

01:32

I tried to denounce it but I saw that the only possible way to stop it was to stop it physically, so I convinced some friends and we stood in front of the trucks to stop them. And, although I was 18, from day one I didn't doubt that we would get it. Public opinion had to be raised and legal methods sought to stop it.

01:56

There were older people who said: "But you don't see that you are going to crash, that this is impossible?" And I said: "Do you not see it impossible to do nothing?" We started a defense campaign that lasted seven years until we managed to save the Aiguamolls.

02:08

We began to recover lagoons, that the water returned to recover its old dominions, and the birds, grateful, also returned to occupy their old habitats. We saw that we could make an Association of Friends of the Aiguamolls Park and this torch of the spirit of the defense campaign is carried by the Friends of the Aiguamolls.

02:31

I would like everyone, in one way or another, to be sensitive to natural issues. Life would be uglier and more boring without this wonderful biodiversity.

This content has been prepared by Yoigo.

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