Words by Justin Woolford for the MAVA Foundation

In the third of a new series of five stories offering insight and inspiration for contemporary conservation, we visit Doñana in southern Spain – an iconic wetland whose future depends on finding ways to sustain its life-giving waters and meet the needs of people and wildlife.

Into the woods

Legend has it that five hundred years ago, Doña Ana, wife of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, fled the Andalusian court and took refuge in a magical pine forest on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River south of Seville.

Set in the heart of the Marismas – wild coastal marshes created five millennia since by a retreating Atlantic – the place became known as ‘Doñana Woods’, or simply, Doñana.

Today, this vast estuarine wetland is a dazzling natural paradise bustling with wildlife, a unique mosaic of marshes, lagoons, scrubland pine, dunes and beaches. The Iberian eagle graces its skies, the illusive Iberian lynx roams its expanse, and six million migratory birds seek sustenance and shelter in its wilderness en route between Europe and West Africa.

And supplying the agricultural, port and tourism sectors with water, the wetland is just as vital for the local economy.

For people and wildlife, Doñana, quite simply, means life.

Paradise won

Long favoured by hunters and pilgrims, Doñana has been shaped by people for centuries but in the early 1950s, Spain’s ruler, General Franco, made plans for ‘improvement’ on a grand scale, setting up one of conservation’s most epic and enduring battles.

Its first exchanges are a fascinating story, a confluence of science, politics, history and heroes that proved a crucible for the birth of WWF and the modern conservation movement.

Becoming aware of proposals for vast eucalyptus plantations, rice paddies and coastal tourism infrastructure that threatened to bleed the wetland dry, Spanish naturalist, José Antonio Valverde, began a two-decade odyssey of expeditions, advocacy and fundraising.

“Sitting in a hide at dawn, surrounded by immense golden dunes, waiting for the arrival of the geese, just listening, is a magic you never forget”, says Juan Carlos del Olmo, Secretary General of WWF Spain. “Valverde’s mission was to awaken the world to Doñana.”

Visiting the Tour du Valat in the late 1950s to study in the Camargue, Valverde met Luc Hoffmann, MAVA’s founder. Seeing his success in saving the Provençal wetland, he appealed for help to save Doñana.

At the same time, two English naturalists, Peter Scott and Max Nicholson, propositioned Luc with the idea of a global fund to save wildlife, suggesting Doñana as its first campaign.

In a prototype ‘crowdfund’ led by Luc, WWF and the Spanish government, and supported by the BBC film, Wild Spain, the ensuing call for funds to help buy land for a reserve in the heart of Doñana, made individual donors out of thousands of bird lovers across Europe.

And when WWF’s first president, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, wrote to Franco asking for Doñana’s protection, the General saw the opportunity to end Spain’s isolation, and officially proclaimed the creation of Doñana National Park on August 14th 1969.

In the footsteps of giants

Having studied water planning and engineering, Rafael ‘Rafa’ Seiz began his professional life as a technician, working at civil engineering consultancy TYPSA – but joining WWF in 2014 and learning about Valverde’s heroic efforts awakened something else within him.

“Valverde’s love for Doñana and his dedication to protecting it blew me away”, says Rafa. “I’m not a typical NGO activist – but when I got involved in Doñana, it changed my life. All the injustices, the abuse of nature, they fired me up and gave me new purpose.”

Part of a diverse team engaged on Doñana’s conservation and sustainability in the wider Guadalquivir River basin, Rafa is responsible for ensuring Spain’s water policies and governance structures support an economy respectful of natural values.

“I’m always astonished by the beauty and peace in Doñana”, says Rafa. “I know a guide there, the daughter of a ranger, one of the last people to grow up inside the park. Her stories of childhood encounters with wildlife are extraordinary – so different to my own in Madrid!”

Following in the footsteps of conservation giants like Valverde and Hoffmann, Rafa is not alone in having fallen in love with Doña Ana’s hideaway and joined the fight for the Marismas. Doñana demands devotion from everyone who encounters its magic. Embodying our troubled relationship with nature, its story has become a myth that has shaped the soul of WWF, a lodestone affecting everyone in the organisation, a beacon both of hope and of warning.

“Doñana is an icon in danger, showing just how our species has impacted the planet” says Rafa. “It’s crying out for changes in how we interact with nature. How well the park is doing signals how well we’re doing, not just in protecting nature but at safeguarding our own future.”

Paradise lost

Despite becoming a Wetland of International Importance, a World Heritage Site, and part of the Man and Biosphere Programme, Doñana is still at risk.

For WWF, as its principal protector, it’s been a struggle of shifting priorities, from buying land and protecting Europe’s most endangered cat, to fighting illegal wells and preparing for climate change – an ebb and flow of losses and gains, problems and solutions.

Participating in conservation campaigns since he was a child, and now Secretary General of WWF Spain, Juan Carlos del Olmo has been a champion for Doñana since the 1990s.

“For more than 50 years, we’ve been fighting to protect Doñana from countless threats”, says Juan Carlos. “Despite its protection, proposals to reclaim land and syphon off water for agricultural expansion are perennial challenges requiring constant advocacy.”

Spain is the world’s largest strawberry exporter, and 95% of all the country’s strawberries are produced in thousands of greenhouses around Doñana. Generating €400 million annually, the industry is an important economic sector – but every year, nearly twice the amount of water naturally occurring in the park is used in agriculture.

Add to that the unquenchable thirst of hundreds of hotels and holiday homes in the neighbouring Matalascañas resort, and little by little, the park is drying up. Ponds once permanent disappear over summer. Doñana is running on empty.

Fighting back

Satisfying water demand in a country known as ‘Europe’s orchard’, is a challenging task – but all is not lost.

Partnering with supermarket chains on sustainable sourcing, and encouraging better practice amongst farmers, WWF has sought to reconcile Doñana’s protection with competing demands on its resources.

Solutions include a land use plan for strawberry growing which is shaping a development model less dependent on water, and also creating new business opportunities in innovative drip irrigation to reduce water consumption.

And more recently, after years of campaigning and legal action, the police have begun to shut down some of the 1,000 or more illegal wells being used by fruit farmers around the park.

“We’ve had success because we’ve been on the ground for years and know the people – the farmers, the businesses, the administrators – and because we’ve had exceptional and continuous support from MAVA”, says Juan Carlos. “Are we winning? Doñana is still very fragile. We need to remain vigilant and persevere, knowing we can always do better.”


On 25th April 1998, 40km upstream from Doñana, a holding dam burst at the Los Frailes pyrite mine near Aznalcóllar releasing a flood of toxic sludge into the Guadiamar River.

Reaching the edge of the park before being diverted via the Guadalquivir to the sea, the catastrophic spill, labelled by the media as ‘El Chernobyl Español’, was a pivotal moment. Doñana’s vulnerability was evident, and together with the EU, the government launched the Doñana 2005 initiative. Reflooding of desiccated marshlands across the Guadalquivir estuary followed, and Doñana was restored close to its original splendour.

“It was the first time the Andalusian authorities and wider society became conscious of the threats to Doñana. I remember seeing it on TV as a teenager”, says Rafa. “The horror of contamination and the heroic efforts of the people doing the clean-up shocked people. There was a sense that we couldn’t let this happen again. And in the years following the disaster, WWF did as much as possible to push the authorities to conserve Doñana.”

Another game-changer has been the EU Water Framework Directive. An innovative law agreed in 2000, it compels Member States to keep rivers, aquifers and wetlands in good health so that they provide good quality water in sufficient quantities.

Requiring translation into national law, WWF has used it to pressure the authorities to do things differently, and through its Living Rivers campaign, won measures on dam removal and maintaining ‘ecological flows’ – the minimum amount of water a living river needs.

WWF also challenged dredging of the Guadalquivir River for a larger shipping channel, and in 2019, after 15 years of legal wrangling, the courts ruled that protection must come first – a precedent-setting result applicable to other rivers and aquifers feeding Doñana.

And on the basis of WWF evidence, the European Commission has now taken Spain to court for failing to properly protect Doñana. While the European Court’s final decision is pending, it should oblige Spain to enact further restoration.

Yet with the Water Framework Directive itself under review, and Members States and the European Parliament due to agree its future in June 2020, the stakes remain high.

“We’ve fought really hard to make sure the Directive isn’t weakened, including securing support from hundreds of scientists and 375,000 people across Europe”, says Rafa. “Some Members States want to change the law, so we’re still campaigning. It’s vital we win – and not just because it’s been my life for the last three years!

Vigilance and innovation

Despite the WWF’s successes, projects of various kinds continue to threaten the park, most notably a surreal speculative scheme to import low cost liquid gas from North Africa, inject it underground in Doñana, and wait for the commodity price to increase.

“The idea is to use old extraction infrastructure for storage”, says Juan Carlos. “But Doñana is located on the Gulf of Cadiz, at the junction of the European and Atlantic marine plates, an area of high seismic activity, so such a project is very risky.”

Some threats to Doñana are chronic, others acute, seeming to come from nowhere. All demand vigilance, adaptability and tailored solutions. And all must accommodate the competing needs of people and nature.

Keeping Doñana alive has taken the full conservation arsenal – a heady mix of politics, diplomacy and persuasion, ownership, enterprise and economy, and regulation, litigation and enforcement.

Against the odds, Doñana’s inception as the first national park in Spain was ground-breaking, rejecting the paradigm of unlimited resource exploitation in favour of protecting nature for the greater good.

And ever since the establishment of the Doñana Biological Station in 1964, Doñana has been showing how the interests of people, communities, economies and natural systems might all be reconciled.

“Doñana is a living conservation laboratory”, says Juan Carlos. “From public campaigning, purchasing land and zoning, to creating alliances with fishermen, farmers and retailers on sustainable sourcing, and collaborating with the authorities on infrastructure planning, good governance and restoration, we’ve been constantly innovating, trialling and refining solutions, and connecting practice and policy.”

Alongside those from Tour du Valat and the Camargue – with which Doñana is twinned – lessons learnt in protecting the Marismas and the Guadalquivir basin have shaped best practice in wetland conservation and water management across Europe.

Not least is the development of the EU Water Framework Directive, a regulatory child of Doñana, which has in turn sent its call for care home to Andalusia and required, if not inspired, better stewardship.

Reconciling nature and people

Doñana’s struggle for survival embodies the evolution and challenge of contemporary conservation – from a battle between the exploitation and preservation of nature, to the search for balance and harmony.

“Without people, Doñana doesn’t make sense”, says Juan Carlos. “For better or worse, it’s been shaped by people, and trying to change that was never a solution. And it can never be an isolated island for wildlife because everything that happens in the surrounding watershed has an impact. Beyond legal protection, it’s about monitoring progress, building alliances, using resources sustainably, and anticipating threats.”

In the 1950s, many believed nature must be protected from people – but Luc’s vision was recognising that people, society and nature are interdependent. Protection is necessary but not enough. It is how the wider river basin is managed that will determine whether Doñana becomes a desert or remains a wetland paradise, part of a healthy system able to feed strawberry fields forever.

MAVA’s long involvement with WWF and Doñana has shown us that working with people across the landscape to integrate conservation and development, is paramount. Doñana’s greatest lesson is that the best solutions are both nature-based and beneficial for people.

Conservation Lesson #3 – Nature-Based Solutions

Saving life on Earth relies on all relevant stakeholders jointly developing nature-based solutions that deliver prosperity and well-being for people while respecting and maintaining the integrity of healthy natural systems.

From risk to security

Water scarcity is a growing risk for humanity. Once more, water crises featured amongst the top five risks in this year’s Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum, and research shows investment in water resources is a priority for tackling climate change.

In Spain, water management has focused on satisfying demand at the expense of the health of rivers, aquifers and wetlands. Little has been done to manage and reduce demand and put in place a development model less dependent on water.

“Our biggest challenge is changing mindsets”, says Rafa. “The public’s perception in Spain is that water is free. Water is a public good but it’s finite. We must value it properly and put a price on it that reflects its scarcity and benefits, and that allows us to manage it properly.”

Addressing today’s complex and inter-related crises, and achieving water security and climate resilience, requires a basin-wide, landscape approach and scaled-up investment in nature-based solutions, healthy watersheds, living rivers and natural infrastructure.

Business must take collective responsibility for shared water resources, finance institutions invest in sustainable water projects, and governments value and protect wetlands, rivers and aquifers, and ensure everyone’s right to enough clean water.

“Changes in how we produce and consume don’t mean a lower quality of life but a different, truer relationship with nature”, says Juan Carlos. “Communities, organisations, scientists, businesses and local governments are finally coming together and sharing solutions. The world we leave our children is a matter of choice – and Doñana shows us it’s possible to work together with nature rather than against it.”

An oasis that has given us so much, Doñana’s bounty is neither limitless, nor beyond failure. A bellwether of our relationship with nature, the choices we make today will determine its future and the fate of the natural world upon which we all depend.


Icons & Insights

Read the individual stories about MAVA’s iconic sites:

Conservation Lesson #1  from the Camargue – Science & Advocacy

Do good science and make sure it addresses real-world challenges. And for real impact, add advocacy with partners, informed by practical solutions and evidence of nature’s value.

Conservation Lesson #2  from the Bijagós – Biocultural Approach

Acknowledge, respect and safeguard the unique values, culture, practices and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and how their cultural and spiritual traditions integrate conservation, enabling them to manage territories and resources in ways that benefit people and nature.

Conservation Lesson #3  from Doñana – Nature-Based Solutions

Saving life on Earth relies on all relevant stakeholders jointly developing nature-based solutions that deliver prosperity and well-being for people while respecting and maintaining the integrity of healthy natural systems.

Conservation Lesson #4  from Prespa – Transboundary Collaboration

Conservation beyond borders relies on sustained collaboration at all levels between many different actors. For success, recognise realities on the ground, listen deeply, enable local people to take the lead, deliver benefits, and commit to the long-term.

Conservation Lesson #5  from the Banc d’Arguin– Sustainable Financing

As the twin crises of nature loss and climate breakdown converge, conservation organisations should pursue a variety of innovative financing mechanisms that secure and scale investment from the public and private sectors, unlocking additional funds and sustainable financing for conservation and development.