The silence is so complete it is easy to forget you are only a few minutes’ drive from the centre of Barcelona. Just the sough of the willows in the sea breeze, the splash of a fish surfacing and a heron’s cry – until the serenity is obliterated by a plane taking off.
The Delta del Llobregat, one of the most important wetlands in the western Mediterranean, is being eroded on one side by the sea and on the other by the city’s land-hungry airport. As travel to Spain is still restricted, there are few flights and it is possible to revel in the delta’s almost mesmeric tranquillity. But before the pandemic there were already close to 90 flights an hour and, if the airport authority has its way, this will increase still further.
The delta covers 920 hectares (2,280 acres) and has 14 distinct ecosystems, ranging from coastal, marshland and lagoons to pine forests and farmland. As well as being home to a colony of turtles, there are more than 1,000 plant species, including 22 varieties of orchids.
Until now, in the decades-long war of flamingos versus frequent flyers, the flamingos have lost every round. But the European commission has weighed in, accusing the Spanish and Catalan governments of failing to protect the wetlands and warning against a proposed expansion of the airport.
In giving notice that it was sending the letter, the commission noted: “Despite being one of the most densely populated regions on the Iberian Peninsula, the fragile lentic ecosystems of the Llobregat Delta hosts an outstanding biodiversity and plays a crucial role in the migratory routes of many European bird species.”
In the ensuing letter, it complained that “the adoption and implementation of a special plan for the protection of the natural areas and landscape of Llobregat delta, and an extension of the special protected area to protect the most suitable territories for the conservation of birds, have not been followed up sufficiently”.
The commission added that the Catalan and Spanish governments have not complied with their obligation to compensate for land lost to the airport, for example by digging up and renaturalising a vast and abandoned parking area for taxis that was built on protected land.
The letter was sent in response to a formal complaint first filed in 2012 by Depana, a Catalan conservation group, whose vice-president, Jose Garcia, grew up in the delta and has witnessed the slow decimation of an area that is home to more than 350 species of birds and a key resting place on north-south migration routes.