Greenpeace occupies hotel being built on protected coast

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Greenpeace activists have seized a vast hotel under construction on a protected shoreline near Almeria in southern Spain, saying the project was illegal and should be demolished.

The occupation, mounted before dawn yesterday by about 30 activists, was the most dramatic action so far in a fierce campaign to halt urbanisation along one of Spain's few remaining stretches of untouched Mediterranean coastline.

"This is one of the worst urbanistic scandals of the Spanish shoreline," a Greenpeace spokesman said. He accused Spanish authorities of conniving to allow illegal building work. "The project is made possible by the connivance of all the relevant authorities: the town hall, the Andalusian regional government and the environment ministry."

The skeleton of the hotel reaches down bare volcanic rock to a beach of spectacular beauty in the protected area of Cabo de Gata. The 20-storey building, when complete, is planned to have 411 rooms, and will form the nucleus of a tourist complex of eight hotels, 1,500 apartments and a golf course.

Renowned for the savage magnificence of its terrain and for its aridity, the region provided a plausible alternative to the Arizona desert for "spaghetti westerns" during the 1960s.

Long shunned for its bleakness, and protected for its unique and fragile desert ecosystem, this inhospitable area has finally fallen prey to property developers devouring the Spanish costas.

"This is the symbol of the destruction of our coasts. None of the authorities involved has responded to criticisms by Greenpeace and other groups that the project is illegal," said Maria Jose Caballero, the group's Oceans spokeswoman, on Algarrobico beach at Carboneras, the site of the hotel.

Campaigners want the Andalusian regional authorities to start measures to demolish the building. But the regional government doesn't accept that the site should not be built on. It says the building company obtained a licence to build before the area was declared a natural park. In addition, the environment ministry in Madrid has yet to delineate the park area in accordance with the Coasts Law of 1988 that declares beach areas to be "public domain".

"This is a clear example of the free-for-all that operates on the coast, where norms of environmental protection are torn up in favour of big speculative interests," Ms Caballero said. "We must stop this trend before there is no beach left."

The building company Azata said the hotel was on municipal land near, but not in, the national park. Halting work "would have very negative consequences for the socio-economic development of Carboneras", Antonio Baena, a spokesman, said. "Abandoning work for a year or two, which is how long the judicial procedure would last, would turn it into a hotbed of risk, marginalisation and delinquency." He promised the hotel would be "very pretty".