The silence is so complete that it is easy to forget that you are only a short drive from the center of Barcelona. Just the sound of willows in the sea breeze, the splash of a fish on the surface and the cry of a heron – until the serenity is washed away by a plane taking off.
The Llobregat Delta, 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 limited, there are few flights and it is possible to revel in the almost haunting tranquility of the delta. But before the pandemic, there were already nearly 90 flights per hour and, if the airport authority succeeds, that will increase further.
The delta covers 920 hectares (2,280 acres) and has 14 distinct ecosystems, ranging from coastlines, marshes and lagoons to pine forests and farmland. In addition to sheltering a colony of turtles, there are more than 1,000 plant species, including 22 varieties of orchids.
So far in the decades-long war of the flamingos against frequent flyers, the flamingos have lost every round. But the European Commission intervened, accusing the Spanish and Catalan governments of failing to protect the wetlands and warning against plans to expand the airport.
By giving notice that he was sending the letter, the committee noted: “Although it is one of the most densely populated regions of the Iberian Peninsula, the fragile lentic ecosystems of the Llobregat Delta are home to exceptional biodiversity and play a crucial role in the migratory routes of many species of European birds.
In the letter that followed, he complained that “the adoption and implementation of a special plan for the protection of natural areas and the landscape of the Llobregat delta, and an extension of the special protected area to protect them. territories most conducive to bird conservation, have not been sufficiently monitored ”.
The commission added that the Catalan and Spanish governments have failed to meet their obligation to make up for lost land for the airport, for example by digging and renaturalizing a large abandoned parking lot for taxis that has been 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, José García, 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 the north-south migratory routes.
For years, Depana fought against national and regional governments as well as Aena, the airport authority, to save the delta.
“What is new is that we are at the start of a judicial process,” García says. “The areas in which the airport wants to expand are part of the EU’s Nature 2000 bird protection network and to do so it needs permission from the European Commission, and the committee has made it clear that the authorization would not be granted. “
Barcelona airport is the sixth busiest in Europe. It developed rapidly for the 1992 Olympics and again in 2009, when a new terminal was built near the existing one, which is now virtually abandoned. Now Aena is pushing a € 1.7bn (£ 1.4bn) expansion that would tear apart the heart of what’s left of the Delta.
“The airport must become an international hub and we cannot miss this new opportunity to put Barcelona on the map,” said Josep Sánchez Llibre, president of Foment de Treball, the Catalan trade association.
Under the plan, which would extend the runway into wetlands and involve the construction of another terminal, the number of passengers would increase from 55 to 70 million per year.
Barcelona city council, which has no jurisdiction over the airport, dismissed the plan as “a bacchanal of sectors blocked in the past”.
“We are still in favor of investments, but not of 20th century proposals that have no future,” says Janet Sanz, deputy mayor. The council wants journeys of less than 2.5 hours to be made by train.
Construction and major projects are, however, a driving force of the Spanish economy. The main players – the Spanish and Catalan governments and Aena, a private entity in which the state holds 51% of the capital – have a common vision for the airport extension project.
“Aena’s interests prevail over those of the Catalan or Spanish governments, which always give in to Aena’s demands,” said Cristina Sánchez, Catalan delegate of the Spanish Ornithological Society. “Aena has more bargaining power, she can offer to create jobs and other benefits for Barcelona, and those are very interesting financial benefits for other players.
“This letter from the European Commission can change everything, but so far the Catalan government has never defended or managed this area against the interests of the airport.”
While the airport is the responsibility of Aena and the Spanish government, the regional government is responsible for the environment and complies with wildlife protection guidelines.
Ferran Miralles, a Catalan government spokesperson for the environment, said the administration would comply with EU requests to create a special protected area designated by the EU Directive on the conservation of wild birds and reclaiming some of the land that has been lost due to construction, but is unable to say where or when the work will be carried out.
“We are working on it. You can’t go any faster, ”says Miralles.
Prior to the 2008 financial crash, Spain’s national and regional governments wasted millions on pharaonic projects designed less to meet a social need than to enhance the prestige of politicians. These included at least three airports that were never used or abandoned, unfinished cultural centers, high-speed rail links with almost no passengers, and a state-of-the-art film studio that did not produce of film since 2012.
Money has been tight, but with Brussels offering billions in post-pandemic aid, there are fears Spain will revert to its bad habits.
“We want to make sure that if there is funding from Europe to protect the delta, it won’t be used for anything else,” García explains.
“Beyond commercial interests, it is about competition between Madrid and Barcelona. If Madrid have X, we must have the double X.