Rare storks sink Spain's 'golf city'

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A handful of rare and timid black storks have paralysed work on a massive "golf city" in protected woodlands near Avila, outside Madrid, marking an astonishing reverse for the march of concrete across Spain.

Developers given the green light by conservative regional authorities waded into the vast and beautiful pine forest outside Las Navas del Marques last week and hacked down thousands of trees, in defiance of a regional court ruling banning the project. The frenzy of destruction ceased only on Tuesday by order of the local mayor, pending an appeal, leaving a wide gash in the woods.

The woodlands are the habitat of five nesting pairs of black storks (ciconia nigra) and other endangered species including the imperial eagle, which regional authorities are pledged to protect.

The site was originally owned by the local council who reclassified it as "urban" and auctioned it to a property developer who wants to build 1,600 villas, four golf courses and two luxury hotels. The hillside beauty spot is just an hour's drive from Madrid, guaranteed to attract prosperous escapees from the sprawling capital.

Eight environmental pressure groups, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and SEO/Birdlife united to condemn the project and signed a legal petition at the weekend against the tree-felling. They faxed their complaint to the region's environmental legal officer who imposed a banning order. Days earlier, the Castilla-Leon regional high court ruled the project violated protected areas while providing no public benefit, would destroy the storks' habitat, and should be stopped on environmental grounds.

That ruling marks one of the most significant reversals so far to the encroachment of speculative building upon virgin countryside nationwide. A David-and-Goliath standoff has ensued between the environmental lobby armed with a court order and powerful developers backed by conservative local politicians.

The Castilla-Leon regional government was not insensitive to the storks' fate when they granted building permission. They "transferred" the site of the birds' habitat to another spot. "As if," scoffed the ecologist Carlos Bravo, "the storks could move their nests because of an official decree."