Without water, there is no life
In the dusty streets of Los Molinos de Rio Aguas – an off-grid eco-community located in the semi-arid region of Almeria, southern Spain – the reality that without water, there is no life is really hitting home. Thanks to the surrounding monoculture plantations, host to around six million water-guzzling olive trees, the local aquifer which provides a vital water source for around 8,000 people and a multitude of wild species in the region, is being sucked dry at a rate four-times faster than it can replenish.
While olives are to Spain what salt is to the sea, the method of agriculture historically adopted by family-run farms in Almeria was very different to what is being practised today. ‘Olivos de Secano’ – literally translated as ‘dry olive’ farming – grew trees on a scale that fed local markets and used water in extreme cases only. Which makes sense in an area defined as Europe’s only desert. Today, however, Almeria’s olive farmers are attempting to meet the needs of big international buyers by producing larger fruits all year round, resulting in the demand for immense and unsustainable amounts of water (roughly 10 litres per olive tree, per day).
Dry olives, dry land
The beginning of this mass-scale industry started in the 1990s when vast tracts of land were handed over to wealthy foreign companies. Over time, the area increasingly became a magnet for agricultural entrepreneurs in search of cheap soil and water. While previously the right to cultivate land in this region was granted to small farmers and for contained areas of orchards for cereal plantation, the arrival of los intensivos (intensive farmers) has resulted in the swallowing of around 5,000 hectares of soil.
To plant the olive trees, the land is first stripped naked by bulldozers and the soil forced flat. Each plant is then inserted with laser technology and treated with herbicide – polluting the water which feeds back into the aquifer. To supply the trees, water is dug from boreholes, which typically went no deeper than 50 metres but today reach as far down as 700, sometimes hitting radioactive water. In fact, there are rumours of wells often being dug illegally and undeclared.
The non-sustainable nature of this agro-industrial system is most evident in the short life-span of the trees. Andrez Perez-Perez, local agronomist and founder of newspaper El Afa explains, ‘an olive tree can live hundreds of years, but in this intensive growing environment they die after 10 years, with maximum efficiency reached after just 5.’ Sadly, it is not just the water supply which is suffering, but local towns too. ‘The olive business is providing wealth to just a small minority. The plantations have created no jobs here: everything is done with machines,’ Assistant Mayor of Sorbas Jose Martinez Munuera explains.
The ever-worsening desertification and water shortage in the region of Almeria has become a serious concern for environmentalists, scientists and residents alike. And it isn’t just the olive trees that they have to worry about. Since Spain opened itself to European markets three decades ago, it has developed its very own standardized and industrialized vegetable garden. The 30,000 hectares of greenhouses which adorn the landscape of Almeria like a shiny, plastic sea – so large that they can be seen from space – are feeding neighbouring countries’ insatiable appetite for out-of-season strawberries, tomatoes and peppers. Also a site of exploitative labour practices, these greenhouses are a clear testament to an agricultural system operating without care for people or the planet.
‘It’s not just the farming method that is incredibly destructive,’ says Dave Dean, a Los Molinos resident and long-time environmental activist. ‘We’re facing nepotism in these industries: jobs are given to friends and families; agricultural companies are closely tied to politicians. It’s an unstoppable mayhem which is going to completely destroy the land and the livelihoods of the local people.’
The large-scale olive and vegetable farms stand in stark contrast to the community-run and grassroots projects located in the oasis of Los Molinos village – from Sunseed Desert Technology, a British charity which offers non-formal education in low-impact living and organic gardening, to Pita Escuela, a music and arts centre running workshops with locally-grown and sustainably-sourced agave wood. Sadly, the exploitation of water by the surrounding olive plantations is directly affecting the spring which channels water to each house in Los Molinos via a ramp pump, quite literally the heartbeat of the village. Without this vital water source, Los Molinos and all that it represents, will cease to exist. Indeed, neighbouring village Pueblo Gochar housed 100 residents in 2001, by 2016 there were just four remaining.
Jackie, who has farmed organically in Almeria for the past 20 years and feeds around 30 to 40 people each week, is just one of the local farmers who is already seeing the impact of the water shortage. ‘All the little farms are giving up and the land is being turned into desert. If you go downstream the river isn’t there anymore. I have had to minimize my water by using black plastic to retain moisture in the soil and I’ve stopped growing ornamental plants to focus solely on food crops. There are very few animal herders left on this land either. When my neighbour retires, there’ll be no one left.’
Rio Aguas, the last living river in the area has become an emblem of the ensuing ecocide and a source of campaigning for local activists. Ecologists in Action Almeria and Mediterranean Ecologist Group have made numerous requests to the Andalucían Council for details on the number and depth of the aquifer wells, demanding immediate action be taken to prevent further deterioration of the water supply. In 2017, the case of El Rio Aguas was taken to the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature in Bonn and Ecologists in Action filed a complaint with the European Union against the Andalucían Council for non-compliance with Community Environmental Law. Sadly, the local council is not living up to its responsibilities to protect households, small farms and the cultural, ecological and hydro-ecological wealth of the area. In fact, newly irrigated crops are being implemented each year and there are plans to build a golf course in Almeria in the coming years.
One of the few remaining wild places in Spain, the landscape which surrounds Los Molinos is dotted with ancient gypsum caves, rare animal species and aloe vera plants. Areas such as the Sorbas Gypsum Karst Natural Park, Cabo de Gata and Sierra de Cabrera sit under the protection of the EU and the Network of Protected Areas of the Junta de Andalucía. However, as the monoculture mayhem develops, the fauna, flora and people in this region are visibly unprotected and increasingly at risk of finding themselves in an environment in which they won’t be able to survive.
Eventually, once the water becomes too expensive or difficult to dig out, the olive plantations and greenhouses in Almeria will be abandoned, and what will be left is the dried corpse of this over-exploited land.
Vitalie Duporge is a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol. She has previously worked and lived in Sunseed Desert Technology, as well as other ecovillages across the globe. She writes about issues of social and environmental justice.
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