Shame-faced King apologizes publicly for hunting elephants in Botswana amidst worsening crisis in Spain.

No-one would have ever known about King Juan Carlos of Spain’s elephant hunt in the Okavango Delta if he hadn’t stumbled and fractured his hip early last Friday morning.

But when his private jet flew into Madrid a day later, and he was rushed into hospital for emergency hip replacement surgery, the story ran riot.

The ensuing indignation amongst recession-hit Spaniards prompted the king to swallow his pride yesterday and make his first public apology in 36 years of reign.

The king’s faux-pas, literally speaking, comes at a time when the royal family is already under scrutiny because of an ongoing investigation into the alleged embezzlement of public money by the king’s son-in-law, ex-handball player Iñaki Urdangarin. Earlier this year the king suspended Urdangarin’s royal duties in an attempt to isolate him from the rest of the royal family.

But more importantly, it comes at a time when nearly a quarter of Spain’s active population is unemployed, and only a week after the government made budget cuts of a further 27 billion euro. Add to that the six-month waiting lists for hip replacement operations in some regions of the country, and it’s not really surprising that people’s noses have been put out of joint here by the king’s extravagant private life-style.

In a press conference on Tuesday, the leader of the United Left party, Cayo Lara, accused the king of “lacking ethics” for going on safari in the midst of an economic crisis and of “demonstrating a lack of respect to many people in this country who are suffering greatly at the moment.”

Tour operators have estimated in the Spanish press that a basic 14-day elephant hunt in Botswana, excluding the necessary transfers to and fro in private jets, could cost about 40,000 euro. The area chosen by the Spanish monarch, according to Vanity Fair, is a wilderness with no nearby human settlements and next-to-no tourist facilities, where only the world’s rich can afford to hunt, and wine and dine in luxurious fly camps.

Earlier this week politicians had raised questions about how the trip could have been financed as the king can’t actually afford to pay for such entertainment out of his own pocket.

Last year, following the Urdangarin scandal, the Zarzuela Palace made public for the first time the amount of money that the royal family receives annually from the state budget, and how it is distributed amongst its members. It was revealed that the king paid himself a salary of 292,752 euro from the royal budget in 2011. After taxes, his income was reduced to 175,651 euro.

It is a lot by normal standards, but hardly enough to cover the expenses of elephant-hunting.

Then it emerged yesterday that it was Syrian-born Spanish businessman, Mohamed Eyad Kayali, who actually paid for the pleasure of the king’s company.

Defenders of the king didn’t take long to point out that his long-standing friendship with Eyad Kayali, who is administrator of the Saudi Defense Minister, played a key role in securing the “high-speed desert train” construction contract with Saudi Arabia earlier this year. The project will connect the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, and with a value of over 6.7 billion euro, it is the largest international contract ever signed by Spanish companies.

The king’s defenders may be somewhat missing the point though, according to detractors who argue that if members of the royal family are to accept gifts of this nature, all details should be of public domain.

Opposition politicians have also called for greater transparency of royal finances in general. But a month ago the Monarchy was excluded from a Transparency Bill to be applied to the Spanish Parliament, Senate, Judiciary, and Court of Audit.

Antonio Torres de Moral, professor of constitutional law at the Granada University claimed in an article in El Pais yesterday that “it is impossible to deny the public dimension of the monarchy, and it should therefore be as transparent as the other institutions.”

The King has also come under fire beyond Spain’s boundaries. WWF, a nature conservation NGO, has initiated a process to withdraw the king’s position as Honorary President of the Spain branch, after receiving thousand of complaints from members.  Even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina, added insult to injury when, after seizing control of Repsol’s shares in the oil company YPF on Monday this week, she scoffed at Repsol’s decline in production, remarking that it resembled “an elephant’s trunk”, in a clear dig at King Juan Carlos.

The King of Spain’s exposure as an elite elephant hunter in his spare time couldn’t have happened at a worse time. And he knows it. Only a few months earlier, during his televised Christmas Day speech, he had held his head high and addressed the need for credibility in the Spanish institutions with the following wise words: “…those of us with public responsibilities should behave in an appropriate and exemplary fashion”.

But yesterday, as he leaned on his crutches and apologized to the nation, he just looked like a defeated, humbled old man.


Farmers fraught by wolf attacks call for the right to hunt

Earlier this month a wolf was illegally hunted down in a rural area to the south of the River Duero in Castilla y Leon. It is the third wolf reportedly shot dead this year in an area where wolves have been protected by the European Union Habitat Directive since May 1992.

Local farmers complain that the wolf population is out of control and affecting farming activity. Over 1,800 wolf attacks were registered in the region in 2011, four times more than in 2007, accounting for the loss of 4,500 livestock according to the ASAJA farming union.

To the north of the river Duero the hunting of wolves is permitted, but to the south it is not. Angry farmers earlier this year organized a protest march, demanding the right to also hunt wolves south of the river.

The Agriculture Minister, Arias Cañete, has taken up their cause. On March 8 he asked the European Environment Commissioner, Janez Potocnik, to consider modifying the Habitat Directive, claiming that the wolf population is posing conflicts between the conservation of the species and the maintenance of the economic development of rural areas.

He also stated that the Spanish conservation model has been so successful “that we now have more than 2,000 wolves, and they are no longer in danger of extinction.”

But the European Union has refused to modify the directive for just one species, according to an article in the El Pais newspaper today. Instead it has opened an investigation into what methodology could be used if in the future it is decided to review existing nature protection directives.

This reply does not come as a surprise to animal rights’ groups such as ASCEL, which argues that hunting is not the solution to the problem. It points out that current uncontrolled farming methods make cattle vulnerable to attacks by predators, and suggests that the use of fencing, and sheep dogs would provide greater protection.

Driest winter in decades cripples Spanish farming and bodes ill for domestic water supply this summer

It has scarcely rained in Spain this winter. “If it doesn’t rain within the next fortnight half of this year’s crops will be lost” said Miguel Blanco, secretary general of the COAG farming union, in a radio interview last week.

Agriculture Minister, Arias Cañete, has asked for help from the European Union. At the Council of Ministers for Agriculture yesterday, he made the case for the advance payment of 5 billion euros of CAP subsidies and cattle farming premiums, to help Spanish farmers weather this year’s drought, described by experts as the worst in decades.

The situation has also prompted the government to invite the country’s main farming unions to participate in an emergency commission to assess the impact of historically low levels of rainfall and establish mechanisms to alleviate damages. COAG claims on its website that due to lack of water for irrigation, between 30 and 60% of land has been left idle this winter. The consequent loss of cereal production will cost Spain 1 billion euros in terms of revenue.

Fortunately in Spain many farming sectors are well-insured, unlike in neighboring Portugal, which is also lobbying Europe this week for emergency measures.

But insurance policies do not cover Spanish cattle farmers, who have seen pastures and grazing land dry up this year. The situation is particularly dire in the northwest region of Galicia, where reservoirs are at a record 49.6% of capacity.

Cattle farmers are buying emergency supplies of fodder and forage crops to feed livestock, increasing production costs by 2 million euros per day, according to the ASAJA farming union.

Ecologists claimed last week that the problem is not limited to farming. Paco Segura, coordinator at Ecologists in Action suggested that priorities be developed immediately to guarantee water supply for domestic use this summer, and called to “limit irrigation because there is not enough water for everyone”.

During the 2008 drought in Spain, container-loads of water were shipped in to Barcelona from Marseille. Restrictions were imposed on filling private and public swimming pools, on washing cars and even on watering gardens. Proposals for nationwide water transfers also generated a raging “water war” between regions.

The Director General of Water, Jaime Palop, claimed earlier this year at a water conference in Toledo that it is too soon to know if the drought will affect water supply for domestic consumption. He insisted that “no restrictions on supply are predicted”. But this week national weather agency AEMET forecast that spring rainfall will not be sufficient to relieve the drought.

According to the Heraldo de Aragon newspaper, the source has nearly run dry at one small village, Bentué de Rasal, in the province of Huesca, where some reservoirs are at 20% of their capacity. The mayor of Bentué de Rasal has made a plea to the regional government for additional water supplies.

Stakes of up to 10,000 euros at illegal cockfighting pit in Spain

Last weekend Spanish police raided an illegal cockpit in the town of Callosa de Segura in Alicante, arresting forty-six people, including organisers and spectators, according to a press note published by the Interior Ministry. Gamecocks, with amputated crests and drugged with amphetamines, caffeine and strychnine to encourage aggresivity, were pitted against each other, drawing weekend crowds from the nearby city of Valencia and surrounding towns. The entrance fee was 10 euros and wagers were high at between 300 and 600 euros per fight, although in the so-called “million-euro fights” bets could reach 10,000 euros.

The investigation codenamed Operation Crest was initiated a month ago when police started looking into a cultural association for the breeding and exportation of Spanish gamecocks.

Although breeding and exporting gamecocks in Spain is legal, cockfighting is one of the bloodsports that is banned in Spain, except in the Canary Islands where it is considered a tradition. It is also permitted in parts of Andalusia for the same reasons, but with restrictions.

Animal rights activists are concerned about the future of the surviving gamebirds at Callosa de Segura. After a similar police raid in Murcia last year the animal rights group, Igualdad Animal reported how 170  freed gamecocks were delivered by the police to a local zoo. However these birds were trained to fight to the death, and even with bound feet, they managed to attack each other with beaks and spurs. Twenty were dead within 24 hours. The rest were returned to their owner.

During the raid in Callosa de Segura last week, police uncovered 7,000 euros in cash, aggresivity-inducing drugs, tools for sharpening spurs, and spurs belonging to hundreds of dead birds.

Insolvent municipal governments in Spain meet Credit Line deadline.

Spanish town and city councils, struggling to pay their suppliers, yesterday met the government’s deadline and presented to the Treasury Department lists of outstanding invoices.

The initiative is part of a central government scheme to create a Credit Line of up to 35 billion euros for municipal governments to clear the backlog of bills to suppliers, many of whom have not been paid for months.

Cristobal Montoro, the Treasury Minister, claimed yesterday that “most of the municipal governments have adhered to the Credit Line”.

Although the minister did not specify just how much supplier debt is on the balance sheets of the town councils that have adhered to the scheme, the chairman of the Spanish Town Council Federation, Fernando Martínez Maíllo, suggested today in the El País newspaper that it may be as high as 17 billion euros.

Madrid city council topped the bill with 1.02 billion euros owed for street cleaning, rubbish collection, and other municipal services and supplies.

Barcelona city council was one of few to reject the Credit Line. The mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, claimed that the council is up-to-date with all but four suppliers.

It is still unclear how the financial mechanisms of the credit line will work. The El Confidencial newspaper explains that the mayors of the approximately 5,000 municipalities involved in the scheme will be offered 10-year credits with interest rates of 5%.

To guarantee the participation of banks, a new Fund for Payments to Suppliers, applicable for municipal and also regional governments, was approved on 10 March. It will allow banks to purchase outstanding invoices from suppliers at an 8-10% discount, thereby achieving greater returns on the 5% interest rate credits.

The government claims that within weeks all debt with suppliers will be cleared, without increasing the deficit.

Electricity charges to be hiked up in Spain, where rates are already among the highest in Europe

The gap between electricity charges in Spain and other European countries is increasing according to  a report published by the Spanish National Energy Committee (CNE).

Whereas in 2007 Spain occupied position no. 14 in a Eurostat ranking of electricity charges, it is now in position no. 3. Electricity charges are higher only in Malta and Cyprus.

The CNE warns that the government’s proposals to reduce the 24 billion euro tariff deficit would require an increase of up to 30% on consumers’ electricity bills, making Spanish electricity charges the most expensive in Europe.

The tariff deficit, which is the difference between the real cost of electricity and the price that users are paying for it, reached 24 billion euros in August 2011. This debt accounts in part for regulated costs of transport and distribution of electricity, but its exponential growth over the last four years has been mainly due to the increase of renewable energy premiums.

The CNE report indicates that countries with the most elevated electricity charges are those that have the greatest volume of renewable energy production, such as Spain, Germany, Italy.

However, unlike Germany, which passed the cost of renewables directly onto the consumer, Spain deferred them by obliging utilities to hold these costs on their balance sheets as a state-backed debt, promising that the consumer would repay through gradual increase in electricity bills by 2013.

Spanish boats grounded after EU vetos Moroccan fishing agreement

The Spanish town of Barbate has been hard hit by the EU decision in December 2011 to discontinue the 2007 EU-Morocco fishing agreement, because of  controversy over the territorial limits between Morocco and Western Sahara.

The agreement, which was due for renewal in February 2012, provided for the EU to pay 144 million euros to Morocco in exchange for 119 licenses to European vessels to fish in Moroccan waters.

A total of  70 Spanish boats have been grounded and the loss of livelihood of 700 families provoked protests earlier this year in Spanish fishing villages in Andalusia.

In the town of Barbate (Cadiz), 400 families have been affected by the decision, according to the local fishing association

Regional elections will be held in Andalusia on 25 March. All candidates have promised that if they are elected they will push to secure the renewal of the agreement.