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 manufacture of soda (with
a rudimentary soap industry) liquorice, and the trade in leeches was also
important during this period.
The area remained unsettled however and was fought over
frequently. In the fifteenth century the town of Sant Carles 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 navigation canals.
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
The spread of rice after the completion of the irrigation canal
was rapid as the figures for rice acreage below show.
Table 1. 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 la 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
Carles de la 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 unusual vegetation.