Drying out | Earth Island Journal

Greenhouses near Portugal's Alentejo coastline

Europe’s growing appetite for berries is sucking up Iberia’s water.

AUTUMN IN DOÑANA NATIONAL Park was once a spectacle of abundance. First the rains would arrive. Then, the birds. Journeying from Northern Europe, millions of migratory birds would descend on the wetland complex in southern Spain, heralding the start of the new season. Northern shovelers, pintails, whistling ducks, and other waterfowl came to pass winter in southern Europe’s gentler climate. Dozens of other species — from bee-eaters, to willow warblers, to booted eagles — stopped off to feed, breed, or rest in the park’s marshlands, ponds, dunes, and forests before continuing on to Africa.

Now, the dawn cacophony of birdsong has been replaced by silence. Throughout much of the park, only the wind can be heard whistling over the parched, cracked earth. Following a year of precious little precipitation and record heatwaves and drought, Doñana’s last remaining permanent pond dried up last summer. Come autumn, the arrival of the rains should have brought some relief, flooding the park’s marshlands and temporary ponds and partially recharging the aquifer sustaining Doñana. But last year the rains arrived late, in early winter, leading to several more months of drought without respite.

Pushed to its ecological limits by a severe and prolonged water shortage, the refuge is reaching a point of no return. “We’re in the worst decade of the last 50 years,” says Carlos Dávila, coordinator of the Doñana office of the Spanish Ornithological Society. “This is being felt … in the availability of food and in the capacity of Doñana to support biodiversity, because the structures and functionality of ecosystems are collapsing.”

While a lack of rainfall, worsened by climate change, has contributed to Doñana’s desiccation, the even bigger culprit is unsustainable exploitation of groundwater. For decades, Doñana — a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Ramsar Wetland of International Importance — has been forced to compete for water with the booming berry industry in Huelva, a province in Spain’s Andalusia region that borders Portugal and within which most of the park lies.

Many defend Iberia’s berry industry as a lifeline in impoverished regions with few other economic opportunities.

It is not just Doñana that is at risk. Enticed by growing market demand, lucrative profits, and European Union (EU) subsidies, berry cultivation has skyrocketed in the Iberian peninsula — the southwestern region of Europe comprised of Spain and Portugal — making the region Europe’s main producer of the crops, whose demand for water outstrips local availability. Across much of southern Iberia, plastic polytunnels now stretch as far as the eye can see, blanketing undulating hills, displacing forests, squeezing between roadways, and jutting up against the coast. The berries they shelter are sucking local aquifers and reservoirs dry.

Many defend Iberia’s berry industry as a lifeline in impoverished regions with few other economic opportunities. Others question why one of the continent’s driest and most climate-vulnerable areas — already prone to water stress and at risk of becoming a desert before the end of the century — is feeding Europe’s growing appetite for berries, with devastating consequences for biodiversity.

BEFORE BERRIES, IBERIAN farmers grew dryland crops well-adapted to the region’s semi-arid climate, rain-fed varieties like olives, grapes, and wheat. In the 1980s, strawberry cultivation took off, first in Huelva, Spain, as farmers realized they could earn greater returns exporting what became known as “red gold” to other parts of Europe. Within just a few decades, Spain became the world’s largest exporter of strawberries and a leading exporter of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, with exports generating over 1 billion euros ($1.04b) in 2022. Most of the berries were grown across 11,000 hectares (27,182 acres) in Huelva, including on land surrounding Doñana National Park.

In the early 2000s, big agribusinesses began to expand into southern Portugal as well, attracted by the temperate climate, the availability of land, cheap water, and agricultural subsidies. The American company Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry producer, set up shop in southwestern Alentejo in 2004, and other investors soon followed suit. The sector generated an estimated 250 million euros ($257m) in revenue in 2020, and is expected to continue growing in the coming years.

“The conditions here are great. The climate is usually quite mild, so I can produce blackberries and raspberries almost all year round,” says Joannes de Winter, the Dutch owner of the berry company Fruta Divina, which operates in Alentejo. While the summer of 2022 was particularly hot and dry, winters are generally very mild, he says, and production in the region is “cheap.”

Many consider the berry industry’s growth a success that is bringing investment to some of Iberia’s poorest areas. Nearly 39 percent of the population in Spain’s Andalusia and 15 percent of the population in Portugal’s Alentejo is at risk of poverty. In Huelva, locals are overwhelmingly in support of the industry, citing the lack of other opportunities. David, a 30-year-old from the village of Almonte, a hub of berry production, says he cannot imagine Huelva without the berry industry. “It would be a dark future,” he says. David, who was sensitive about the growing scrutiny the industry has been facing from environmental and human rights activists and journalists, declined to give his last name. Many others refused to talk with us.

But in Alentejo, the industry faces opposition from local communities who say it is destroying the region’s unique natural values and benefitting only a few. In both countries, the wealth generated is concentrated in the hands of landowners and businessmen like de Winter, who in the high season hires between 300 to 400 workers from South Asia to pick berries by hand. Agribusinesses depend on migrant workers who live precariously and are routinely underpaid and overworked.

Celsa Peiteado, coordinator for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Spain’s food program, says that the Iberian berry boom is consumer-driven. “We all want berries, and we all want berries year-round,” she says. “The market is the main reason why berry production is increasing, because they sell very well [and] they’re in high demand.”

Subsidies from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) — which supports berry growers through payments via producers, as well as with market and rural development measures — provide another incentive. Last year alone, the 10 largest berry-producing CAP subsidy recipients in Huelva collected over 20 million euros ($20.8m) collectively in aid.

“The CAP in Spain is designed to favor irrigated crops much more than rainfed crops, which encourages people to use water and leads to situations such as those we’re now experiencing in Doñana,” Peiteado says. It’s not just the berry industry that has benefited: The CAP has helped drive the proliferation of irrigated cropland dedicated to growing everything from avocados to olives to tobacco in the Iberian Peninsula.

SCIENTISTS LIKE CARMENT DÍAZ Paniagua have been raising the alarm about unsustainable groundwater extraction for decades. “Why did it reach this situation? We were talking about [this] problem … 30 years ago,” she says.

Díaz Paniagua, a biology researcher in the department of wetland ecology at the Doñana Biological Station, is particularly concerned about the toll intensive agriculture is taking on Mediterranean temporary ponds, which she studies in the park. These understated water features, which constitute a significant part of the park’s habitat, are defined by their isolation from permanent waterbodies like lakes and rivers, and by their seasonal nature — fed by rainwater, runoff, and/or groundwater, they flood in the winter and dry up in the summer. Often only a few centimeters deep, they play an important ecosystem role, offering essential habitat to an array of plant and animal species. Though distributed throughout much of Southern Europe, by total area, about 80 percent of Europe’s temporary ponds are located in Spain and Portugal. They are considered a priority habitat by the European Union’s Natura 2000 network, meaning they have a unique significance to a diverse range of species.

In certain areas, water withdrawals — mainly to produce berries — from the aquifer the park shares with a larger area beyond its borders have exceeded recharge rates for years, causing groundwater levels to fall. Combined with decreased rainfall due to climate change, the extractions are causing the park to dry up: So far, some 60 percent of the park’s 3,000 documented ponds have disappeared. This, in turn, has led to a freefall in the park’s biodiversity, and an official “overexploited” declaration for the park’s aquifer in 2020.

The impact on wildlife has been drastic. Over the winter of 2021 to 22, the number of birds recorded in the park plummeted to 87,500, less than one-fifth of the previous year’s 470,000. Dávila, from the Spanish Ornithological Society, expects the breeding data, yet to be compiled, will be even worse. “We’re talking about zeros that have never happened before,” he says. The crested coot, an endangered species that once reliably bred in the park, hasn’t reproduced in Doñana for three years. The marbled duck, on the verge of extirpation with only 14 pairs recorded in Doñana in 2021, couldn’t reproduce in the park that year because it was too dry, and the white-headed duck, which is endemic, didn’t breed during the 2021 season either. “These are species heading directly towards extinction,” Dávila says.

Without sufficient water resources, amphibians, reptiles, and plants too are struggling to survive and complete their reproduction and germination cycles. To illustrate the losses, Díaz Paniagua points to dragonflies, a good indicator of aquatic ecosystem health. There were once 42 species recorded in the park, but by 2022, no more than 12 species were spotted. As shrubs and trees colonize the dry ground where ponds once flourished, a shift in ecosystems is unfolding that will be difficult to reverse even if water levels eventually rise again, she says.

The little surface water that still flows into the park is also in a poor state. Research has found that agrochemical use has contaminated entry streams and edges of the marshland. Eutrophication has accelerated over recent decades, with concentrations of nitrites, ammonia, and other nutrients used in fertilizers often above toxic thresholds for aquatic life.

“It’s really serious,” Díaz Paniagua says. “This is one of the most protected areas in Spain. If it’s happening here, you can imagine what’s happening in non-protected areas.”

(Freshuelva and Interfresa, Huelva’s largest berry producer associations, did not respond to requests for comment on the impact of berry farming on Doñana.)

Watchdog groups say the EU and local governments are effectively subsidizing environmental disaster in the region.

Across the border in Portugal, the situation is much the same. There, too, berry farms are drawing on dwindling water resources and encroaching on essential habitats.

With long stretches of pristine beaches and white-washed villages at the edge of cork oak and olive groves, wheat fields and vineyards, Alentejo is often described as the last unspoiled stretch of Atlantic coast. To preserve the region’s unique biodiversity (it is home to several endemic species and bird nesting sites), a coastal stretch of about 60 miles was classified as protected landscape and turned into the Southwestern Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park in 1995. It was also included in Europe’s Natura 2000 network of protected areas for rare and threatened habitats. But due to lack of regulation and monitoring, the plastic sheeting of greenhouses now covers more than 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of the park.

“This area is unique; it has very important conservation values and priority habitats,” says Carla Pinto-Cruz, a professor of biology at the University of Évora who has studied Alentejo’s plant species and temporary ponds. “But there is no effective planning, no plans for a balanced and sustainable use of the territory,” she says. “There is a legal void that allows the establishment of tunnels and greenhouses that are not permanent structures but involve land razing and drainage, which cause irreversible damage.”

Over the past few decades, almost half of the region’s 220 unique ponds have been destroyed to make way for intensive agriculture inside the natural park.

“The destruction of the ponds is permanent and irreversible,” adds Rita Alcazar, a biologist working with LPN, a local environmental group that recently filed a criminal complaint against a British company accused of destroying five protected ponds in 2019. She hopes the lawsuit will end the lack of accountability and sense of impunity that facilitate environmental harm in the region. “Once the land is razed, life and biodiversity are lost.”

Yet, data from Portugal’s Institute for Financing Agriculture and Fishing shows that the year the company destroyed the ponds it received 50,000 euros ($51,870) in EU subsidies and more than 55,000 euros ($57,058) in tax benefits. Watchdog groups say the EU and local governments are effectively subsidizing environmental disaster in the region.

SCIENTISTS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS insist agricultural practices in southern Iberia need to change in order to save sensitive habitats. In theory, they have the legal tools to help drive this shift, particularly where it comes to agriculture within and around protected areas: Doñana National Park is protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, and both Doñana and Southwestern Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park are protected under national laws as national parks, as well as under the EU Natura 2000 network as Special Protection Areas and under the EU’s Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive, which protect rare plants, animals, habitat types, and waterbodies.

But such a change won’t be easy. In Spain, for instance, rather than reining the berry industry in, the government has taken a permissive approach, allowing unsustainable — and often illegal — groundwater extraction to continue. In particular, it has for years turned a blind eye to withdrawals from over a thousand illegal wells documented by WWF that have hastened the depletion of the aquifer feeding Doñana. To date, only a quarter of the wells — which are operated by berry growers — have been closed.

In 2021, the EU Court of Justice ruled that the country — which has more infringements of environmental laws than any other EU nation — had failed to comply with its obligations under the EU Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive when it came to Doñana’s protected habitats. The following year, instead of heeding calls to prevent further damage, the Andalusian regional parliament proposed to legalize 1,400 hectares (3,459 acres) of illegally cultivated land near the park, which would allow producers who dug illegal wells and established illicit berry plantations there to regularize their operations. Following widespread condemnation from scientists, retailers, the Spanish government, and the EU, among others, the Andalusian parliament is drafting a new bill concerning the illegally irrigated land that is expected to be presented soon.

The Portuguese government, too, is facilitating agribusiness expansion, bestowing companies with tax benefits and praising foreign investment in greenhouses in Alentejo. In 2019, it approved a resolution to allow the area in which greenhouses can be established inside the park to reach 40 percent, enabling greenhouse-covered areas to nearly triple to 4,800 hectares (11,861 acres).

As Portugal and Spain suffer the driest climate for at least 1,200 years, water scarcity is becoming a critical issue. Water levels in the Santa Clara dam, which supplies southwestern Alentejo, dropped from 96 percent in July 2010 to an alarming 36 percent last July, with agricultural companies consuming an estimated 90 percent of the water.“The demand for water is much higher than the supply,” says Afonso do Ó, an independent water management expert. But instead of adapting to reduced rainfall and rising temperatures, he says, the expansion of water-intensive agriculture with EU and governmental support is making the situation even worse. “When water-intensive crops fail because of the lack of water, these companies will seek compensation, and it will be again our taxes paying for [them].”

A lot of the companies receiving subsidies have headquarters elsewhere, in the Netherlands and other tax havens.

In 2021, the private association managing the Santa Clara reservoir, which was built with public funds, sent letters to more than 100 small farmers telling them they would have to find alternative irrigation sources, and restricted agribusinesses’ water consumption to 3,500 cubic meters of water per hectare. While big companies have simply turned to water pumping, increasing the risks of groundwater depletion, those who can’t afford to drill wells face the prospect of running out of water.

“If [the company] cuts my water supply I will probably have to quit farming,” says António Rosa, who grows peanuts and sweet potatoes on a small plot of land in Alentejo. “Intensive agriculture is completely disconnected from the climate and the region. A lot of the companies receiving subsidies have headquarters elsewhere, in the Netherlands and other tax havens. The money they are making doesn’t benefit the region,” he adds.

“Small farmers are the guardians of local seeds and biodiversity, they are the ones preserving rainfed crops adapted to the region,” says Rosa. “These multinational companies are destroying our diversity and our livelihoods. They raze the land, contaminate the water, impoverish the soil.”

Which is why Rosa and others like him are pushing back. While locals in Spain’s Huelva province continue to support the berry industry, in 2019 Alentejo residents formed the organization Juntos pelo Sudoeste (“Together for the Southwest”) to defend the area. They have organized protests, written petitions, and vowed to take the government to court over its failure to protect the Southwestern Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park.

“These companies are depleting our water and eroding our soil to benefit only a few,” says Laura Cunha, a member of the group, adding that when the companies are done exploiting the region’s resources they will leave, and local communities will be left with a desert.

Last January, after years of neglect from local authorities, Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests carried out inspections and found dozens of infractions, including illegal wells, the cutting down of protected cork oak trees, and the improper storage of agrochemicals. But for the activists who have been campaigning for accountability and regulations for years, it’s not enough to just issue fines for these violations.

“We need a different model that is sustainable and adapted to local conditions,” says Diogo Coutinho, who, in 2021, founded another organization, SOS Rio Mira, to advocate for the sustainable management of local water resources in Alentejo.

That model might be inspired by the past. Older generations still remember a time before plastic greenhouses covered the landscape, a time when local farmers grew crops adapted to the dry region, and livestock rotated among olive and cork trees in a patchwork of woods, cereal fields, and grassland.

As temperatures rise and drought becomes more frequent and more intense, many believe a different way of doing things is not only possible — it is urgently needed. “We will continue defending the natural park, and defending our natural wealth,” says Cunha. In her view, it’s a fight for survival.

This story was originally published in Earth Island Journal’s Spring 2023 issue. It can be read online here. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from journalismfund.eu.