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Juan José Negro, posing with a lesser kestrel, a small falcon.

Juan José Negro, posing with a lesser kestrel, a small falcon.

Airam Rodriguez

Director of Spanish ecology institute fired amid mining controversy

The head of one of Spain's premier ecology institutes says he has been dismissed for publicly voicing his opposition to a controversial mining project. Juan José Negro, removed from his post as director of the Doñana Biological Station headquartered in Seville on 29 September, claims he had to go because he spoke out against the reopening of a zinc and silver mine near Aznalcóllar in the province of Seville. The mine was the site of an ecological disaster in 1998.

Although Negro is no longer the institute's director, he plans to stay on as a senior scientist. Almost 40 scientists from 11 countries have signed an open letter to the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the station's parent organization, to protest his “surprising and unexpected dismissal.” Ecologistas en Acción, a confederation of more than 300 Spanish ecological groups, issued a public statement condemning the move as "regrettable political interference" that is "curtailing the independence of public and committed science.” But CSIC denies that Negro was dismissed because of politics.

The Doñana Biological Station, which has won national recognition as a center of excellence, focuses on studying and protecting the biodiversity of Doñana National Park, one of Europe's largest natural parks. A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, the park flanks the estuary of the Guadalquivir River and is home to lagoons, marshlands, dunes, scrub woodland, and maquis.

The Aznalcóllar mine sits 40 kilometers north of the park, on its main river affluent. The mine was closed after the 1998 accident, during which a dam burst caused billions of liters of acidic mining tailings to spill, nearly causing serious ecological damage to the park. In February of this year, the regional government of Andalusia gave the México-Minorbis Group a license to reopen the mine, a decision now contested in court for alleged irregularities. Negro publicly spoke out against the reopening; at the request of the Spanish police, he also testified about the risks in court just 2 weeks before he was removed from his post, he says. “This may well be the main reason for my dismissal," Negro says.

A CSIC spokesperson says that Negro was dismissed because "trust has been lost," but declined to elaborate. In an editorial published in the national newspaper El País today, a former director of the station, Miguel Delibes de Castro, says CSIC President Emilio Lora-Tamayo is under constant pressure from the Spanish government, industry, and other groups.

 “This is not about me being director or not," Negro says. "This is about freedom of speech and political interference in favor of corporations in the largest scientific institution of Spain.” Other scientists agree that politics were in play. Negro “is an honest man who has worked very hard for this wonderful park, always doing his best for it and trying to protect it," says Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, who took the initiative for the open letter.

Negro, who took the helm of the Doñana Biological Station in 2012, has fought against other threats to the park as well. (The issues are summarized in the yearly State of Conservation reports published on UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention website.) Negro publicly opposed a plan to deepen the Guadalquivir River to give large vessels access to Seville's port, for instance, a project on hold after a ruling by the Supreme Court of Spain.

He also condemned the planned use of frackinglike techniques to store natural gas under the park's surface, both because it could contaminate aquifers and for ethical reasons. "A national park should not store gas destined to be burnt and contribute to global warming,” Negro wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. The project, greenlighted by the Spanish government, has been stopped by the regional government of Andalusia. "He has opposed a number of projects that have had the potential to affect the park significantly, and he has been right to do so,” Finlayson says.

Joaquín Cerdá Sureda, the head of the station's Department of Ethology and Biodiversity Conservation, has been named acting director. Negro says he plans to focus on research from now on.