FunNature & AnimalThe impact of the pilgrimage from El Rocío to...

The impact of the pilgrimage from El Rocío to Doñana

The brotherhoods have already set out on the road to the hermitage. Every year , on Pentecost, Doñana fills with people following a tradition whose origin, according to some, dates back to the year 1335. It is a phenomenon that only a pandemic has managed to prevent since the national park was founded more than 50 years ago.

What was originally a pilgrimage of a religious nature has gradually become a festivity in which, day and night, firecrackers and rockets are heard, music coming out of amplifiers, and huge amounts of rubbish being abandoned.

125 brotherhoods drag several tens of thousands of pilgrims, with thousands of horses -some do not survive-, tractors and other vehicles , authorized to cross areas of high ecological value along a road that was paved without having any environmental impact study and without comply with the Habitats Directive.

The absence of scientific analysis

Although it seems clear that all this has to generate an environmental impact on the natural area of Doñana , the published works in this regard are practically non-existent. However, there are few years in which environmental groups and scientific groups do not denounce the serious damage caused by the El Rocío pilgrimage.

In 2017, the Spanish Society of Ornithology demanded that the Andalusian Ministry of the Environment and Territory Planning carry out an environmental impact assessment of the El Rocío pilgrimage on the Doñana natural area. To date, it has not been done. But even if there is no direct scientific proof, some possible damage caused by the pilgrimage each year is easy to infer and predict, based on well-known scientific data.

The impacts that happen year after year are not new, but neither is it something that has been happening all our lives. In the past, the pilgrims were less numerous and went on foot or on horseback, and it is in recent decades that there has been a growth in the influx of people, until it has become the motorized and musical crowd of today.

Impacts on animals and their behavior

In the pilgrimage of El Rocío there are many. One of the most obvious factors causing potential impacts on the fauna of Doñana is noise pollution . Wildlife are not used to the noise caused by crowds, motors, and amplifiers, which can alter their behavior significantly.

Many animals flee the area in which they live and seek shelter miles away during the days of the pilgrimage, and most likely take a considerable time to return. This problem would not be serious if it were not for the fact that the dates of the pilgrimage coincide with a critical moment for many species of fauna , which are in the midst of their reproductive period, and cross breeding areas for endangered species, such as the imperial eagle ( Aquila adalberti ). , the Iberian lynx ( Lynx pardinus ) or the common bee -eater ( Merops apiaster ).

In some cases, the crowds and noise can cause the adults to leave the area, leaving their young behind, who will starve to death before returning. In the particular case of the bee-eater, it can suffer even greater impacts, since it nests on the ground. The passage of the pilgrimage can crush nests, eggs and chicks, or plug the entrance to the nests, either with the same earth, or with the garbage that remains, preventing the chicks from leaving, or the adults from entering to feed them.

During the 2016 pilgrimage, and as a result of a change in the route, it is estimated that up to 65% of bee-eater nests for that year .

Garbage and other environmental damage

One of the most obvious impacts after the passage of the El Rocío pilgrimage through Doñana is the enormous amount of garbage that accumulates on the Camino , to which must be added the pollution caused by the faeces of the thousands of horses, and the vehicles motorized —from 4 × 4 cars to tractors—.

Waste of all kinds has been found: paper, plastic, human feces, sanitary napkins, condoms, glass — with the risk of causing fires—… Much of this waste does not degrade, and ends up accumulating in areas that are very sensitive to disturbances , or ingested by birds and other animals, with lethal consequences.

There are studies that show high levels of contamination by nitrates of human origin in the Doñana basin , and although many of them come from nearby agricultural land, the enormous amount of garbage left in the area by the pilgrimage undoubtedly contributes to that contamination.

Another source of contamination is the wastewater treatment plant in the town of El Rocío , designed to treat a population of no more than 5,000 people, but which during the pilgrimage week houses tens or even hundreds of thousands of them.

The high concentrations of drugs that appear in the El Partido stream and in the marshes adjacent to El Rocío, coming from urban wastewater, sometimes exceed ten times the safety thresholds considered toxic for aquatic invertebrates. The presence of these drugs, which should be purified at the water treatment plant, poses a short- and long-term risk to the Doñana ecosystem.

The environmental impact analysis that does not arrive

As the Spanish Ornithological Society warns, ” no activity can be authorized if it has negative effects on habitats and species of community interest “, and this is stated in the Natura 2000 Network space management plan for Doñana.

Given that the El Rocío pilgrimage has the capacity to cause such negative effects, the repeated request by SEO/BirdLife for an impact assessment to be carried out prior to the pilgrimage and a subsequent action in accordance with the results of the evaluation — is of vital importance for the preservation of a natural area as emblematic as Doñana.


Camacho-Muñoz, D. et al. 2013. Distribution and Risk Assessment of Pharmaceutical Compounds in River Sediments from Doñana Park (Spain). Water, Air, & SoilPollution, 224(10), 1665. DOI: 10.1007/s11270-013-1665-3

Francis, C. D. et al. 2013. A framework for understanding noise impacts on wildlife: an urgent conservation priority. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11(6), 305-313. DOI: 10.1890/120183

The bee-eaters of Doñana, endangered by El Rocío. 2016, May 16. El Correo de Andalucía .

Paredes, I. 2020. Anthropic pressures and eutrophication in the Doñana marsh and its watersheds. [Sevilla University].

SEO/BirdLife. 2017, May 29. The impact of the El Rocío pilgrimage on the Doñana protected area remains unevaluated due to the inaction of the Junta de Andalucía. SEO/BirdLife .

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