“It’s dry… Really dry.” Standing in the middle of a stretch of land surrounded by dunes and pine forests, Juan Romero examines the cracked ground and then the dusty horizon. “At this time of year, it should be covered with water and full of flamingos,” he says, annoyed.

Member of the Save Doñana platform, this retiree has been fighting for years for the defense of this park in southern Spain, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is home to several thousand animal and plant species on 100,000 hectares of lagoons. , swamps and forests.

“Doñana is a paradise for migratory birds. But this ecosystem is threatened”, explains in a rocky voice the sexagenarian, denouncing the impact of “global warming” and the “overexploitation” of groundwater to irrigate the immense fields of strawberries located a few kilometers further north.

According to environmentalists, this phenomenon could worsen in the near future. In question: a bill intended to increase irrigation rights in the region, defended by the People’s Party (right), in power in Andalusia, with the support of the far-right Vox party.

“According to our calculations”, this initiative “could lead to the regularization of nearly 1,900 hectares” of red fruit crops, currently irrigated “by clandestine wells”, denounces Juanjo Carmona, of the environmental NGO WWF. “For Doñana, it would be a disaster!”

– “Or rouge” – 

This project – which is opposed by the central government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez – is currently suspended, due to the calling of early elections in Andalusia on June 19.

But the People’s Party, leading in the polls, and Vox, booming in Spain, have promised to revive it if they win.

This regularization “presents no danger to Doñana. The only goal is to repair an injustice” towards farmers “left behind” by a previous division of agricultural areas, says Rafael Segovia, head of Vox in the region.

In 2014, the Andalusian government – then led by the left – wanted to restore order in the cultivation of red fruits, after years of anarchic development favored by the multiplication of clandestine irrigation boreholes.

In this context, 9,000 hectares had been regularized. But 2,000 others, cultivated after 2004, had been classified as illegal. “This plan was poorly made. We should have chosen 2014 as the deadline”, annoys Rafael Segovia, insisting on “the economic importance of the sector”.

First exporting region of red fruits in Europe, the Andalusian province of Huelva, where Doñana is located, produces year after year 300,000 tons of strawberries, or 90% of Spanish production. This “red gold” employs up to 100,000 people and generates nearly 8% of regional GDP, according to the Freshuelva federation.

– “Ruin” –

In this standoff, environmentalists can count on significant support, such as that of Unesco: the organization, which has been calling for the dismantling of illegal exploitations for two years, has warned against a regularization whose impact would be “difficult to reverse”.

Same concern on the side of Brussels, which in early February brandished the threat of financial sanctions against Spain – already pinned down a year ago by European justice for not having fulfilled its obligations in terms of water management in the region by Donana.

Rarer still: around twenty European supermarket chains, including Lidl, Aldi or Sainsbury’s, major buyers of Spanish strawberries, have called on the Andalusian government to abandon its project, saying they “share the concern” of environmental activists.

A mobilization that bothers the sector. “This situation is likely to cause a major reputational problem” by leading consumers to believe “that all the strawberries grown” in Huelva “are illegal”, deplores Manuel Delgado, spokesman for the farmers’ association Puerta de Donana.

This association, which brings together 300 farms, has decided to dissociate itself from other farmers and to oppose the regularization of illegal farms wanted by Vox and the PP, accused of serving “the particular interests of a minority”.

“Water resources are limited,” adds Mr. Delgado, who fears that legal farms will be forced to drastically reduce their area for lack of sufficient water resources. “For us, that would be ruin,” he insists.

– Death threats –

Faced with this avalanche of criticism, the promoters of the project evoke “unfounded fears”. “There is no water problem in Huelva, it’s a lie”, slice Rafael Segovia, for whom it would be enough to bring water from the Guadiana river, on the border of Portugal, to solve farmers’ problems.

A solution deemed unviable by WWF. “This type of solution is not sustainable: when the rain is lacking, it is lacking everywhere”, recalls Juanjo Carmona, who considers it necessary to “rethink the agricultural model”, while this region of Spain has been hit for years by a chronic drought.

What will be the final decision of the Andalusian regional authorities? Asked by AFP, neither the People’s Party nor the association of farmers in favor of the project wished to speak.

“The situation is currently very conflictual” between defenders and destroyers of the project, confides Juan Romero, who reports “death threats” received by environmental activists.

In front of him, a heron approaches in gliding flight before disappearing behind the dunes. “Without radical changes to curb the overuse of water resources, we can already say: Doñana will be a desert,” he sighs.