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Strawberries and the impact on a Spanish national park

One of Europe’s most important national parks is under threat from strawberries, says Simon Birch

For the past three years, Ethical Consumer has been campaigning against the exploitation of farm workers in southern Spain who are crucial for the supply of soft fruit and vegetables to supermarkets across Europe and the UK.

However, it’s not just the farm workers who are paying the price for our demand for year-round fruit and veg as the environment is picking up the tab too.

South west Spain is now the epicentre for the booming strawberry sector and is the biggest supplier of strawberries in Europe, accounting for around 20% of the strawberries bought in the UK.

The problem is that many strawberry farms have been built illegally on former forested land and, with southern Spain increasingly experiencing severe droughts, many of these illegal farms are also illegally pumping groundwater to irrigate their strawberries.

The bad news is that many of these farms have sprung up next door to Doñana National Park, one of the most important wetland refuges for wildlife in Europe and a crucial refuelling point for millions of migratory birds between Europe and Africa.

With strawberry production now booming, the underground water supplies that sustain Doñana are being over-exploited with catastrophic results. Despite being the most protected national park in Europe, as well as being a UN World Heritage site, Doñana is now being pumped dry and its future is under threat.

Local legislation may not help protect the national park

Earlier this year the right-wing regional government proposed to grant an amnesty to all the illegal farms and their wells, a move that was condemned by Spain’s central government, the EU and wildlife campaigners:

WWF believes that nature and agriculture can co-exist around Doñana as long as forested land is not converted and overall water use is kept at a sustainable level,” says a WWF spokesperson.

“The amnesty proposed by the Andalusian regional government will make it virtually impossible to get water use back to a sustainable level and WWF will continue to fight to prevent the proposed law from being enacted.”

Punnets of strawberries

So should consumers boycott Spanish strawberries in protest?

Well actually no, says Roberto Gonzalez Garcia from SEO, Spain’s leading bird conservation group:

“The region where the strawberries are grown, like many areas of Spain has very few employment opportunities which has led to high levels of unemployment,” says Garcia.

“The only option is farming but because there’s so little available land for cultivation many people have had to turn to farming on illegal land.”

Alex Crumbie a researcher at Ethical Consumer agrees with Roberto Gonzalez Garcia:

“While boycotts can be an effective campaign tool, they can also have negative, unintended consequences such as job losses. We’ve been supporting migrant workers and trade unions in southern Spain for several years and we would only consider supporting a boycott of Spanish goods if it was called for by them.”

What can consumers do?

So what should consumers do if they’re concerned about Doñana’s future?

“If you wish to address the negative environmental impact of strawberry production in Spain, we recommend you write to supermarkets and ask them what they are doing about this issue,” advises Crumbie.

The good news is that many of the biggest supermarkets in Europe and the UK are now well aware of the issues surrounding Spanish strawberries.

Over half of them including ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose have recently written to the Andalusian regional government calling on it to abandon its plans to give an amnesty to the illegal strawberry farms.

“Major European retailers have made it clear,” says Stuart Orr from WWF. “This amnesty must not become law because it threatens the future of the irreplaceable Doñana as well as the legal fruit industry that drives the local economy.”