Plans to dredge a new shipping channel in southern Spain have enraged locals and conservationists. By Malcolm Smith (The Guardian, 2 June 2004).
At 70, and a lifelong sea fisherman, Manuel Nuñez is not a typical environmental activist. But, along with the hundreds of Spanish fishermen he represents as president of the fishermen's association at Sanlucar de Barrameda, he is ready to blockade the port of Seville by barring the entrance to the mighty Guadalquivir River with fishing boats.
Nuñez is part of an alliance of fishermen, rice growers and conservationists determined to stop the Andalucian and Spanish governments' scheme to dredge a deeper channel along the 90km of the Guadalquivir from the Bay of Cadiz to Seville.
According to Jose Luis Fernandez, of the Seville Port Authority, the port needs enlarging to remain competitive. Dredging the depth and width of the river channel will allow more and larger ships to use it and will reduce the time it takes - currently almost a day in each direction - for ships to travel between port and sea. The re-development will increase traffic from four to six ships a day.
The authorities do not accept dredging will cause the damage the protesters claim.
Dredging allows sea water to flow upriver, increasing the salinity of the wildlife-rich marshes, reedbeds and shallow waters around it that form the internationally renowned Coto Doñana,
which is protected by almost every conservation designation ever invented.
At peak times, half a million waterbirds gather in this aquatic wilderness. About 125 species breed there, including several of global conservation concern. Convert the waters from fresh or brackish to saline and the breeding rates of many of these species will plummet.
These warm, shallow waters are also breeding grounds for many of the fish caught at sea, and the rice paddies on the river's east bank are in jeopardy too.
"Up to 35,000 hectares of rice growing will be affected," says Manolo Cano, the head of the Seville Rice Farmers' Federation. "It will become too salty for rice. It's already at the limit. If it increases any more, we have no future. Over a thousand farmers would be affected."
The sea fishermen are equally concerned. "In the past, whenever there's been dredging in the river or the estuary, our fishing goes down," says Nuñez. "Dredging stirs up sediment into the water and some of these old sediments have pollutants in them from long ago. It could really damage the fishing, possibly forever. I have 500 fishermen in this federation.
 
They are all worried. That is why we will blockade the river and stop ships getting to Seville".
Eva Hernandez, Doñana Project coordinator for WWF Spain, believes that the whole scheme is unnecessary. "It's a stupid proposal," she says. "There are two large ports, Cadiz and Huelva, on this coast. Both are very accessible for shipping. Yet our government wants to jeopardise one of the richest wetlands in the world with all its supposed protection - and thousands of jobs in fishing and rice farming - to increase the number of ships navigating upriver from four to six a day. It's nonsense".
The dredging also renders unworkable a plan to "re-connect" the Guadalquivir with the marshes it historically flooded more regularly. If the water was to become more salty this would not be a viable plan.