HISTORY OF THE DELTA
History of man on the Delta del Ebro and the Natural Park.
The delta has only been populated relatively recently. Early
human settlements and nuclei of habitation have been found in the nearby
mountains in the Montsiá region dating back to Paleolithic times but due to the
inhospitable nature of the environment there is little evidence of early
settlement on the delta itself. The first documented permanent settlement on the
delta occurred during the Roman period. The Romans improved the fishing and
cattle ranching practices that pre-dated the settlement. This livestock
tradition (which still remains to a small extent today) is closely linked to the
Celtic tribes, dating from pre-Roman times when shepherds used to bring their
herds down from the high cold pastures in Aragon and Maestrat to benefit from
the vegetation and the warmer winters on the delta.
During the Moorish occupation of Spain much of Catalonia was
under the influence of the Moorish kingdoms and references have been made to
Aldea in Moorish history. Some of the place names, like La Rāpita and Buda, are
reminiscent of the time of Arab domination. Following the reconquest of these
lands by the Christians the delta was used as a hunting ground for the kings and
noblemen. From 1097 to 1154 they were used for game hunting and several kings
enjoyed the benefits of the plentiful deer and abundant waterfowl. During this
period however the area was still subject to various attacks and raids by the
Moors and it was not until the Valencia region was incorporated into the
province of Aragon that relative tranquility returned to the area.
In the thirteenth century King Jaume I rewarded the people of
the area for their part in the fight for Mallorca by granting public fishing
rights to the freshwater lagoons. The Cofradia de Sant Pere has administered
these lagoons since that time and fishing has come to form a major part of the
subsistence of the population. During the period of inclusion into the Aragon
kingdom the export of game, fish and extracted salt to many points around the
Mediterranean strengthened the livestock industry in the delta and concentrated
human activities in the drier areas of the delta.
The area remained unsettled however and was fought over
frequently. In the fifteenth century the town of Sant Caries de la Rapita was
destroyed along with various other settlements as the wars continued. The first
rice was planted in 1607 by monks but had limited success due to their inability
to provide enough water for the crop, lack of infrastructure and failure to
obtain permission from the Valencian authorities.
In 1719 the first royal concessions were given to farm the
land. This marks the first point in history when the land began to be considered
as private property. In 1749 authorisation was given to build a canal between
Sant Carles de la Rapita but this was never completed. In 1851 permission was
given to the 'Real Compaņia de Canalizacion del Ebro',
the Royal Canalization Company, to canalize the Ebro from Zaragoza to the mouth
of the Ebro and the construction of a second canal from Amposta to Alfacs to
irrigate the delta. There were several attempts to make the Ebro navigable but
these achieved limited success due to heavy siltation and throughout the years
many engineers were employed to try to overcome the problems that faced the
When Carlos III lifted the trade embargo with the Americas
that had been imposed on the Catalonians, a new settlement was created at the
head of the navigation canal at Sant Carles de la Rapita in 1780. During this
period however the colonisation of the delta was not easy as disease was rife
and the conditions were very inhospitable. A further attempt to provide a
subsidiary canal along the right-hand side of the Ebro resulted in the
construction of what became the Right-hand irrigation canal in 1860. Once the
canals has been built the rice fields spread rapidly but many problems, of which
the most obvious was endemic malaria (3,000 deaths up to 1918), hindered the
establishment of the human population.
The spread of rice after the completion of the irrigation
canal was rapid as the figures for rice acreage below show.
Table 2. Area under Rice Cultivation in late 19th and 20th
Year Area under rice
1860 1500 ha.
1870 4200 ha.
1960 16900 ha. (maximum)
1965 11850 ha.
It was during the nineteenth century. that the governments
began to take land from the church and auction vast estates. Many of these
auctions were held in Madrid resulting in the purchase of the latifundia (large
real estate plots) by absentee landlords and wealthy military families who had
previously enjoyed the hunting and fishing rights on the delta. Furthermore much
of the land was colonised by the residents of the area without permission either
from the church, government or the new landowners. This marks the origin of many
of the current disputes over land ownership since several areas of the delta
which are, by definition, part of the Zona Maritima Terrestre (ZMT or maritime
territory, ie. foreshore) had been cultivated and passed on through various
generations without ever having their ownership clearly defined. Many claimant
land owners have successfully pleaded their case and been given ownership rights
to the land but other areas remain in bitter dispute.
New settlements gradually sprang up around the old farms
("masos") at Balada, Enveja and Els Muntelis. El Poblenou del Delta
was founded more recently, in 1947, under the name of Villafranco del Delta. The
population grew from 5,278 inhabitants in 1857 to over 40,000 today. The towns
and villages of the delta are Amposta (which includes El Poblenou), Deltebre,
Sant Caries de Ia Rāpita, LAldea, Sant Jaume dEnveja (including Els
Muntells), Camanes and LAmpolla.
Agriculture today is one of the main bases of
the economy, rice being by far the predominant crop. Rice fields occupy 15,215
hectares (37,596 acres) of the 24,554 hectares (60,673 acres) under cultivation
arid account for 98% of the total Catalan output. The next most important
products are fruit and vegetables. Agricultural cooperatives play a leading
role, especially in the production of rice.
Fishing is another important livelihood. The
ports of Sant CarIes de Ia Rāpita and LAmpolla are located on the delta
itself, while Les Cases dAlcanar and LAmetlla are on the mainland nearby.
9,000 tonnes of fish are caught each year (15% of the total for Catalonia) and
provides jobs for almost 2,000 men. There is also some livestock: an estimated
2.000 head of cattle, 10,000 pigs, rather fewer sheep and 2 million poultry.
There is little industry on the delta and
nearly all is related to agriculture. Visitors have always been attracted to the
delta by the shooting and fishing facilities, though nowadays many are also
drawn by the scientific interest of the characteristic flora and fauna, by the
exceptionally beautiful scenery and the peace and quiet of the long, almost
deserted beaches with their dunes and their unusual vegetation.