Rampant development has turned much of Spain's Mediterranean coast into concrete jungles. Now, the country's environment ministry is determined to fight back, taking on the unchecked and frequently illegal construction that has threatened to overwhelm Spain's shores – causing erosion rates of up to 1 meter per year. Yet because development and the tourism it attracts have brought tremendous prosperity to Spain, the government's new plan represents a gauntlet thrown down for a brewing battle between environment and economy.
"If we want [the coast] to last, we have to change our paradigm," says José Fernández Pérez, the environment ministry's Director of Coastal Areas.
His ministry's "Strategy for Coastal Sustainability" is designed to do just that, calling for the national government to buy up unoccupied coastal lands, recategorize as protected areas already approved for construction, and demolish buildings and recreational ports that occupy public beaches. The plan also demands the enforcement of an existing law that requires the first 100 meters of shore be kept free of all construction. All in all, the proposal is expected to cost €5 billion ($7.4 billion) and to affect more than 400 miles of coastline.
The reclamation is already underway in places. In 2007, the environment ministry had 665 constructions demolished, and the new plan names a substantial number of other buildings slated to meet the same fate. The strategy would relocate and compensate displaced businesses and homeowners, but Mikel Roca, director of a campground in L'Ametlla proposed for demolition, says he's not worried. "There are so many businesses on the coast, and it would cost the government so much money to move us, that I can't see it happening," he says.
Ultimately, local governments reluctant to stem economic growth will be the ones to implement the proposal.
"The environment ministry will have to reach an agreement with the regional governments who are the ones that apply these policies," says Maria Jose Caballero, director of Greenpeace Spain's coastal campaign. "And along the Mediterranean that will be difficult. Those governments want to keep building." Indeed, many small towns have banked their future on second homes: the coastal town of Cuevas de Almazora (pop. 11,000), for example, has plans to build 145,000 units.
But they may not have a choice. Recent studies suggest that rising water levels caused by climate change will consume roughly 50 feet of the Mediterranean coast by the year 2050.
"Illegal constructions on the coast ... don't have a judicial future, because we're going to enforce the law," says Mr. Fernández Pérez. "They don't have a physical future either, because climate change is going to put them all under water. We're offering a logical way out."