A key natural attraction of Andalucia, and one of the most important natural areas in Spain - indeed, it is said to be the most important wetland in the whole of Europe - is Doñana Park, a unique ecosystem of tidal marshlands. Doñana is made up of pinewoods, dunes and wetlands, and is home to five threatened bird species, as well as the most endangered wildcat in the world, the Iberian lynx. Such are the efforts to protect these beautiful spotted, pointy-eared felines, that special bridges and tunnels have been built to stop them from being run over by passing cars as they cross the road.
Now, the park is at risk - and not just from traffic. Three major (man-made) factors are threatening its fragile ecosystem, to the extent that UNESCO has said that its World Heritage status could be in peril.
A group of UNESCO representatives visited the park in January, and have now published their findings, asking for the situation to be reviewed in 2013. If the three proposed schemes go ahead, Doñana will be put on the "Danger List", and its special status could be revoked.
So what are these schemes which are putting the wetland paradise into such peril?
The first is an oil pipeline, from the Balboa refinery, which will link Huelva city (capital of the province where Doñana is located) and Extremadura - Huelva is a busy industrial port with oil refineries which supply southern Spain. This would mean doubling the amount of tankers which arrive at Huelva port, raising the risk of potential oil spills to one of the last unspoilt areas of coastline in Spain. The UNESCO reps recommended that if the pipeline is not cancelled, it should at least be "substantially modified".
The second is a project to dredge the Guadalquivir, part of the plan to improve maritime access to the port of Seville, allowing larger cruise ships to dock at the newly refurbished Muelle de Nueva York.
In fact, the WWF has demanded that the dredging stopped immediately, due to lack of prior scientific consultation as to potential environmental damage. A 2010 report by CSIC, Spain's main scientific research body, said that the plan could have serious consequences for the Guadalquivir estuary, Doñana and the coast, and for this reason shouldn't be carried out. Economic forces are winning this particular battle so far; let's see what happens.
The third risk element is the pressure being exerted on the area's natural water sources by illegal farming (mostly of strawberries, which are the area's main produce) along the edges of the park. The WWF estimates that 1000 irrigation wells have been drilled without permission in Doñana, and that there are 6,000 hectares of agricultural land being farmed without planning or authorisation.
This means that only 20% of the water which should reach the wetlands from its aquifer does so. WWF head Juan Carlos del Olmo, said that the park's borders "are being constantly attacked by three threats that might destroy the future of this iconic protected area". Olmo stated that responsibility lies with the government, to save Doñana: "It's the government's decision now to make sure Doñana is safe and protected from these three unacceptable and dangerous projects."
On a more positive note, the UNESCO report acknowledges "the excellent progress achieved in the programme for the conservation of the Iberian Lynx".
It's hard to tell people to limit their economic potential in the current climate; but at the same time, more plastic tunnels full of strawberry plants, and more huge cruise ships bringing tourist euros up the Guadalquivir to Seville, have their own environmental impact. Let's hope we can find a balance which is acceptable to everyone, but at the end of the day we need to ensure that Doñana will be remain safe and protected for generations to come.