Almería is the driest region in all of Europe, but there’s nothing new there – that has been the case for thousands of years. The real cause for concern is how whole new areas are now succumbing to desertification in Almería.
Vicente Andreu, director of the Desertification Research Center (CIDE) in Valencia, believes that people are not really aware of what such land degradation means.
“They think about dunes and camels, but it goes deeper than that,” he says. “It means loss of biological production due to human action, which prevents the sustainability of the ecosystem.”
Such desertification is underway in five places in Spain, covering one percent of the territory. But around 30 percent of land has already been degraded.
Desertification progresses in places where excessive watering takes place, such as the new olive groves in eastern Andalusia, the farming fields of La Mancha where the Júcar and several other rivers are drying up, and in the Ebro Valley.
It is also occurring on the great grazing fields that stretch from Salamanca to Huelva, where EU subsidies for cattle breeders have led to a surge in the size of herds.
But the area in most serious danger is by far the 30,000 hectares of land in and around El Ejido, in Almería – a sea of plastic greenhouses devoted entirely to growing fruit and vegetable crops for export to Europe.
The intensive agricultural activity here is depleting the aquifers and raising salt levels in the soil, bringing El Ejido ever closer to becoming the Spanish version of the Niger Delta in west Africa.
That was a textbook case. A long period of rains in the 1960s created a fertile cropland that attracted many immigrants to the delta. Aggressive agricultural techniques were introduced, and farmers racked up debts. Then came a terrible drought. Business floundered, but people couldn’t leave. It was the end of paradise.
Francisco Domingo Poveda, director of the Almería-based Arid Zone Experimental Station (Eeza), warns that “El Ejido could end up like that as well.” When, exactly, is unclear, but the risk is very real.
Growers in the area are aware of the threat. “How can we not be, if every year we see the climate changing and less and less rain coming down,” admits Lola Gómez, a 49-year-old farmer with a family business.
The people of El Ejido are sick and tired of being depicted as heartless businesspeople who are ruining the land and exploiting immigrants just to produce bland, flavorless tomatoes.
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