Spanish court blocks dam that threatens villagers

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The Independent Online

Ecological activists who scaled the London Eye more than two years ago are claiming partial victory for a prolonged campaign to halt a dam in North-east Spain, but insisted yesterday that their fight goes on.

Spain's Supreme Court has ruled the Itoiz dam, at the foothills of the Pyrenees, near Pamplona, should not be filled with water. Campaigners have long said the reservoir would flood more than 2,000 acres of protected land in the beautiful Irati valley and destroy village communities.

But the court's ruling, the third of its kind since 1997, has been dismissed as "transitory" by the regional government of Navarra, which is determined the project will proceed.

Patxi Gorraiz, a spokesman for the Itoiz Committee campaign group, said yesterday: "The main work on the dam is finished but, if it is filled, it will flood three nature reserves that contain 164 species of animals and 98 species of birds protected by the European Community. Animals at risk include rare vultures, mink and owls. The authorities want to ignore the Supreme Court ruling, but we consider their decision binding and superior to any other court.

"The Navarra government is awaiting a ruling from the national court, which they think will be in their favour.

"We believe the national court is under pressure from powerful interests outside the legal process."

Itoiz dam, mooted decades ago during the Franco years, is strongly supported by the region's ruling conservatives and the Environment and Public Works Ministry in Madrid.

Now almost finished, it has been entangled for years in a web of legal controversy as costs soared. Of a budgeted 16.5bn Ptas (£66m), 50bn Ptas (200m pounds) has been spent.

Campaigners say the authorities are concealing the true purpose of the dam, which they believe forms part of a national strategy of controlling tributaries of the River Ebro with dams and reservoirs to transfer water to Spain's parched Mediterranean south. "Itoiz is supposedly intended to guarantee irrigation for local farmers and drinking-water for the region's big towns. But it is not necessary to have such a grandiose scheme just for that: we think Itoiz has a wider strategic importance than authorities admit, and that is why they are so keen on it," Mr Gorraiz added.

The radical Itoiz Solidarity group has conducted spectacular protests against the project. They cut cables on building works, staged naked sit-ins and, most dramatically, scaled the London Eye in October 1999 as the wheel was being readied for the millenium celebrations.

Txiki, one of the activists of Itoiz Solidarity, said: "We believe the courts are pressured by politicians and construction interests to turn the tortilla and let the dam be filled.

"The local government changed the law defining the areas of special natural interest so they could build the dam in the first place, but that change was ruled illegal.

Huge sums of money are involved in construction contracts, and the authorities could raise a vast income from managing such a large quantity of water." Campaigners say the dam is also structurally unsafe.

"Technical reports suggest serious lateral weakness could provoke catastrophic landslips if the dam is filled," said Mr Gorraiz for the protesters' moderate co-ordinating committee.

Txiki said: "I don't have much confidence in court rulings. The building of roads, water channels and surrounding infrastructures are still going ahead, to create a fait accompli. We've been campaigning for 17 years, and we'll have to keep mobilising and demonstrating until the project is really stopped."