Guadalhorce Natural Park

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A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK.
Historical notes on the Mouth of the Guadalhorce River. By David Plata.

It is fascinating to explore the complexity of the impact Nature can have on our world, understanding the extent of its power is something intangible. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to observe its strength, but no matter how much it shows us, it will never lose its ability to astonish us.

It was this characteristic of Nature that led me, at the end of 2018, to embark on a “knowledge journey” of the mouth of Guadalhorce River that culminates, in 2022, in a feature-length documentary film about this precious place: its history, its nature and its current delicate situation. In this article, some historical facts are presented that will help to understand the uniqueness of this island full of life.

Documentary film El Paraje, by David Plata The documentary “El Paraje” features the presence of Eduardo Alba, Saturnino Moreno, Antonio Tamayo, Antonio Roman Muñoz and Juan Ramirez, illustrious birdwatchers who tell us the history and current situation of this wetland. The film, subtitled in english, can be viewed on TV.FESTHOME.COM.

More info on INSTAGRAM: @elparaje.2022

El Paraje (Mouth of Guadalhorce Natural Site) is one of those surprising places because, despite all the aggressions suffered since the 1970s, it is still a place where many birds can develop their lives. For many other birds, places like this one are of vital importance to complete their migratory journeys.

Currently, anyone could imagine that next to these lagoons (of artificial origin) there would also be some holes in a dense lawn with magnificent temperatures to practice golf throughout the year. Fortunately for nature lovers, and especially for bird lovers, this is not the case, and against all odds, today in Malaga we are lucky enough to enjoy one of the places where most species of birds can be observed in Spain. Its isolated location, surrounded by the city of Malaga, does not allow it to reach its full potential, but despite this, it continues to have a great ornithological value in a declining global birdlife scenario.

On ebird.org the mouth of the Guadalhorce is in 2nd place in the ranking of bird species in Spain with 309 bird species observed.

Photography: Eduardo Alba

A very long time ago, in the year 570 BC, the first Phoenician settlers in the province of Malaga had to abandon their settlement on an islet in the estuary at the mouth of the Guadalhorce River, approximately two centuries after their establishment. After suffering a tragic flood, they were forced to move to a safer place, where the floods caused by the river and the sea were not a serious threat. The city of Malaga eventually flourished in the bay, the location we all know today, which offered a safer environment.

Since then, the different cultures that passed through Malaga used the land near the mouth of the Guadalhorce River for cultivation, livestock breeding and various industries such as ceramics and fish salting, among others. Many centuries went by during which the only and scarce human inhabitants, of these fertile and dangerous lands, were those who worked the land. The scarce population of the wet meadow settled in prominent places, where they were safe from the great floods of water, which is a chronic and intrinsic phenomenon of the rivers of the Mediterranean basin. Throughout this period, until the second half of the 20th century, land use was always limited by the natural dynamics of the river. Marshes, meadows for livestock and crops dominated these flat lands until the arrival of technological progress, which led us to abandon respect for the environment in favour of trying to dominate it. Adapting to the environment or recreating it at our whim according to the idea of an advanced society.

The tourist boom on the Costa del Sol in the 1960s meant that the city and the coastline had to be transformed quickly and improvised. The shoreline ceased to be a somewhat marginal place and became the ideal place to spend a holiday. The roads began to improve, just as the coastal line lost its essence, with the urban expansion of a province that had many small coastal wetlands. Today, only one remains. At this point, one might ask, how could El Paraje survive the urban development of the Costa del Sol?

Mouth of Guadalhorce, 1969. Photography: Delegación Territorial de sostenibilidad, medio ambiente y economía azul en Málaga

After being practically uninhabited for some 2,500 years, in the 1960s, houses began to be built on the marshes of El Carmen. The dynamics of the marshes had already been greatly diminished for decades by the construction of the Guadalhorce reservoir (1914-1921), which retains a large part of the river’s flow. But as mentioned above, torrential rains in the Mediterranean basins are chronic, we know it will happen again, but we do not know when. The construction of the Guadalmar neighbourhood in the discharge areas of the river would, a few years later, have drastic consequences for El Paraje.

In November 1989, there were severe floods in Malaga due to the overflow of the Guadalhorce river. As a preventive measure against future floods, a river channeling project was developed, which took a few years to start and was executed from 1997 to 2003. A new arm of large dimensions was created in the eastern area, which had radical consequences for El Paraje. The most notable was that this mostly fresh wetland became mostly brackish, with the only exception of the Laguna Escondida, which maintains a relatively low salinity. This transformation shook this ecosystem negatively, affecting the diversity of flora and fauna on the island. However, not everything was negative. At the end of the 90s, although the reasons are unknown, white-headed ducks reappeared after several decades of absence. In 2003, the year the work ended, the white-headed duck began to breed in El Paraje and still continues to do so today, although fewer chicks are born than a few years ago.

The decline. In the 1970s, this place was known as “Finca La Isla,” referring to the land between the meandering arm of Rio Viejo and the arm of Guadalmar, the two natural courses of the river. This land was mainly used for crops, mostly sugar cane, and pasture for cows. Temporary ponds would form in the clay areas near the beach, attracting many birds when they could not be hunted, although poachers could appear at any time of the year. The river suffered a high fish mortality rate due to uncontrolled and extremely harmful industrial waste such as that from the ammonia factory, but also from other industries such as sugar or oil, among others, as well as the sewage from the villages in the Guadalhorce valley.

In October 1977, the last owner of Finca La Isla obtained a permit to extract sand that was used for construction in the urban explosion of the Malaga coastline. This way, crops were disappearing and being replaced by other more economically interesting activities. Sand extraction exceeded the groundwater level of the aquifer, and along with the action of rain, the river, and the sea, pools and lagoons began to form where birds found food that the river could no longer offer due to high pollution. This was the situation of a place that had lived in harmony between human and nature for many centuries. Close to its disappearance in those years with the denaturation of La Isla and the appearance of luxury urbanization projects, with a golf course and marina for this privileged enclave. In this context, Malaga society began taking its first steps in the fight for the conservation of this wonderful place.

Photography: Eduardo Alba, 1983

Eduardo Alba and Manuel Garrido were two of the people who best knew La Isla in those years. They belonged to the Malaka ringers’ group and gathered weekly to count and ring birds. In their articles published by the Jábega magazine, as early as 1980, they denounced the critical situation that was looming over El Paraje and highlighted the natural and ornithic values of the place, offering censuses and some very surprising observations such as that of the Allen’s gallinule (Porphyrio alleni), Little golden plover (Pluvialis dominica), Richard’s pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae), or Great snipe (Gallinago Media). Their commitment was to the public of Malaga that had to be made aware of the reality of their river and its possible consequent loss, in the face of that scenario. In 1980, the SILVEMA association was created to protect wildlife in the province of Malaga. This association brought together both scientists and people who, although not specialists, knew the importance of conserving such a unique space as this. In the words of one of its co-founders, Saturnino Moreno, it became a priority for SILVEMA.

Photography: Eduardo Alba, 1985

The extraction permit granted to the owner of the farm was valid from October 1977 to October 1979, but in the spring of 1982 the quarrying was still going on. This fact was denounced by SILVEMA.  Despite the sanction imposed by the town council, the owner of the estate continued to ignore the invalidity of the permit and continued to denature the wetland. Malaga was undergoing unprecedented urban growth. The city was expanding as water does when a river overflows, there was a lot of construction and a lot of rubble to dump. As Eduardo Alba told me in the interview for the documentary, “the trucks that brought rubble, in agreement with the owner of the estate, and all the debris from Malaga would come here to cover up the lagoons”. The local police even guarded the entrance to the estate to prevent trucks from dumping rubble there and leaving with sand, but at the slightest carelessness, the lorries would return to unload rubble, of which there are still remains in the lagoons. A few weeks later, SILVEMA once again denounced the owner of the estate, this time for levelling the land, with groundworks that eliminated the relief of the small dunes formed near the coast and blinded the lagoons. Social pressure managed to involve political sectors, and in August 1982, the General Urban Development Plan (PGOU) declared the approximately 100 hectares of La Isla to be undevelopable land. A fantastic and key achievement for the conservation of the wetland.

This was a period of demonstrations, complaints, press articles and green marches that reached another milestone in 1984 with the declaration of Natural Park by Malaga City Council.

It must also be mentioned that, altruistically, many people watched over the mouth of the river, to control the passage of lorries and other mischief, sometimes with some danger when smugglers or poachers appeared, because although there was a specific prohibition, hunting continued despite the protection. It was not until the 1990s that hunting disappeared from the site.

The last quarter of the 20th century brought political and social changes, following an inventory of wetland losses. The international Ramsar Convention, to which Spain acceded in 1982, created a context for the legislation on natural areas to change in this country. In 1989, with the push of a society that increasingly demanded the protection of our natural heritage, the Junta de Andalucía declared this green island as Desembocadura del Guadalhorce Natural Site.

Flamingos in Laguna Grande. Photography: David Plata

I have no doubt that we are very lucky to have preserved such a unique area as El Paraje. I also do not doubt that it was thanks to all those people who, especially in the 1980s, fought to prevent it from disappearing. Manuel Garrido and Eduardo Alba made an inventory of the actions carried out, until the declaration of Natural Site, in an article in issue nº 98 of the Jábega magazine: 109 articles in local and national newspapers; 32 “letters to the editor”; 180 complaints to national, regional, provincial and local administrations; 2 complaints in courts; 9 articles in scientific magazines; conferences, round tables, demonstrations and 2 green marches…  “Achieving the protection of the mouth of the Guadalhorce river was certainly not days of wine and roses”.

Article: David Plata
Photos: Credited in the article

Article first appeared in ‘Birds of Andalucía’ April 2023 magazine.

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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