Europe and Central Asia
27 Apr 2018

Remembering Aznacóllar: 20 years after the mining disaster

Doñana after the mining spill © SEO/BirdLife
Doñana after the mining spill © SEO/BirdLife
By Laurence Rose

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Aznalcóllar disaster in Spain, when the dumping of toxic sludge from a mining raft reached Doñana National Park, thereby threatening one of the most important biodiversity areas in all of Europe. Laurence Rose from RSPB (BirdLife UK), who worked closely with SEO/BirdLife Spain to help coordinate the international response remembers Aznacóllar.

On San Blas day 2016 I arrived on the peninsula from Ceuta, and made my way to the Dehesa de Abajo in Doñana. I was at the start of a kind of pilgrimage, from Africa to the Arctic. I was tracking the arrival of Spring through Europe, for my book The Long Spring.  I saw the storks, of course, and many more reliable signs that the seasons were changing in this corner of the continent. 

Doñana in 1998 © SEO/BirdLife

The next day I stood on the Puente del Ajolí where a group of small poplars and maritime junipers form a kind of wooded island in a wide sand track.  There I saw something I could not have seen ten years earlier – a diminutive woodpecker, a lesser-spotted.  It gave me a special satisfaction, for there is only one way this newly-colonising species could have arrived in Doñana.  A tiny bird, it is an unnoticed by-product of a disaster that occurred twenty years ago, one that I remember as if it were yesterday.

I have known Doñana since 1988, when I was appointed to lead the RSPB’s European Programme.  My first task was to work with SEO (as it was then) to support their campaign against Costa Doñana, a scheme to double the size of the resort at Matalascañas.  It was a battle that took five years to win, but eventually we celebrated the birth of an alternative concept – the EU-funded Plan de Desarrollo Sostenible de Doñana.

Doñana in 1998 © SEO/BirdLife

As I say in The Long Spring, ten years later my relationship with Doñana had become personal:

“On the night of 26 April 1998, in a hotel in Slovenia, where I was chairing a conference, I could not sleep.  I had tuned in to the BBC World Service at the tail end of a news story about an environmental disaster in Spain.  I had missed the details, but instinct told me to fear for Doñana.  “Twelve years on to the day,” said the BBC’s Frank Smith, “inevitably this morning’s headlines all scream ‘El Chernobyl Español.’”  At one in the morning, midnight in Spain, I called friends.  A reservoir containing waste from the Los Frailes pyrite mine at Aznalcóllar … had collapsed, spilling five million cubic metres of lead, arsenic and cadmium-laden mud and acid water.  A tsunami of poison flowed into the River Guadiamar, one of the main sources of water into Doñana.  The wave of mud and acid killed everything in the river, and spread over 12,000 acres of farmland, which will never again produce food.  It flooded some of the most important wildlife habitat, killing all aquatic life and contaminating soils.  Plants absorbed the heavy metals, becoming toxic to anything that fed on them.”

Immediately after the conference I flew to Spain, taking with me Debbie Pain, at the time an RSPB scientist, and Andy Meharg of the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology.  SEO colleagues focussed on supporting recovery efforts and pushing for long-term solutions while the Government’s clean-up was under way.  I helped coordinate international support, while Debbie and Andy worked with the Doñana Biological Station to understand and monitor the direct impact on wildlife.  More EU investment was dedicated to a new initiative, Doñana 2005.  

Doñana in 1998  © SEO/BirdLife

In 2014 I was asked to make a programme for the BBC radio series Costing the Earth reporting on how Doñana had fared since the disaster.  As SEO’s Carlos Dávila and I stood on the banks of the Guadiamar, close to where the wave of toxic waste had flowed sixteen years earlier, we could see poplars and willows had thrived in the humidity of the river and the warmth of Andalucía.   The contaminated farmland has been allowed to rewild and has become a green corridor linking Doñana with the Sierra Morena to the north.  This must have been the route by which the lesser spotted woodpeckers had arrived, and may one day be a vital link to connect the scattered fragments of Iberian lynx population.   

Portrait of a Wilderness is an earlier book by a British author, the advertising executive and amateur ornithologist Guy Mountfort (1905-2003).  He describes how in 1952, 1956 and 1957, he led a series of expeditions enabling international experts to focus systematically on cataloguing Doñana’s huge natural wealth.  Spanish participants, including towering figures like Francisco Bernis and José Antonio Valverde, were among the founders of SEO in 1953.  By the time of the 1968 edition of Mountfort’s book, the Doñana National Park was becoming reality thanks in part to discussions held in London:

“…Around 1960 rumours were heard that international speculators, who had already ‘developed’ most of the once unspoilt Mediterranean coasts, had their eyes on the southern tip of Spain …. Max Nicholson, Peter Scott and I gathered together distinguished people, each prominent in one or other aspect of the natural sciences or the conservation of wildlife.  …. At this meeting in London, in May 1961, plans were drafted for a world-wide funding organization which, in collaboration with existing bodies, would bring massive support to the conservation movement.  Thus came into being a new Noah’s Ark – the World Wildlife Fund.”

My own book was taking shape in the weeks either side of the UK Brexit referendum:

None of this has prevented a perennial sense of foreboding over the future of Doñana.  Illegal water abstraction for the intensive strawberry farms that start at the northern edge of El Rocío continues to exacerbate the ever more frequent droughts.  At the beginning of this year [2016], the government finally started cracking down on water use, following yet another campaign and a warning from Brussels.  If the Espacio Natural de Doñana had its origins in a British-led European initiative, then the Doñana of today is a product of the European Union.”

Laurence Rose is a British conservationist and writer.  He has worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) since 1983, and in 1988 started to become involved in supporting conservation efforts in Spain, working with SEO/BirdLife on the Costa Doñana case.  He helped coordinate the international response to the Aznalcóllar disaster in 1998, before moving on to become the RSPB’s Director for Northern England.  He has maintained close links with Doñana, including as part of a Council of Europe Experts’ Mission following Aznalcóllar, and assessing options for reducing sedimentation caused by unsustainable agriculture.  In 2014 he made a BBC Radio programme reporting on the state of Doñana 16 years after the disaster.  He is now working on a major UK species recovery programme involving 8 different organisations collaborating across the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

Laurence’s book The Long Spring was published in March 2018.  It tells of his journeys during spring 2016 from Ceuta to the north coast of Arctic Norway, tracking the arrival of spring through Europe.  Over 60 pages are devoted to Spain, including another visit to Doñana in which he reflects on the wildlife, culture and history of the place, documenting over 130 years of British-Spanish collaboration.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.