Uncorking some prime real estate

Government wants to sell Cádiz oak forest; opposition seeks sustainable alternative

A view of la Almoraima in Castellar, Cádiz province.
A view of la Almoraima in Castellar, Cádiz province.FITO MENDI

The Environment Ministry says it wants to sell a huge estate in Cádiz expropriated three decades ago, 90 percent of which lies within the Alcornocales Natural Park. La Almoraima, made up of more than 14,000 hectares of Mediterranean woodland, much of it covered with cork oaks, was taken over by the Spanish government after it seized the assets of the Rumasa holding company, controlled by disgraced businessman José María Ruiz-Mateos, in 1983. Popular Party (PP) Environment Minister Miguel Arias Cañete has drawn up plans for the area's development that would include an aerodrome, two golf courses and a five-star hotel. No price tag has been put on the estate, but Isabel Ugalde, who runs La Almoraima, says that it will not be easy to find a buyer, at least in Spain.

La Almoraima was slated for sale in 2012, but the government changed its mind. Two weeks ago, Cañete visited the estate, saying afterwards that he intended to balance its books. The ministry has since released a statement saying: "The assets will be sold as soon as the government receives a reasonable offer, one that would produce an advantageous sale; the government would never sell La Almoraima at a loss."

"There are five potential buyers in Spain, but none of them are interested at the moment," Ugalde said last Friday. Just 70 kilometers from Marbella and populated with wild deer, La Almoraima would make an ideal hunting estate for a Gulf potentate or a Russian oligarch. The government says it is also considering selling it off in smaller lots.

Near Marbella and populated with wild deer, it would make an ideal hunting estate for a Gulf potentate

Ugalde added that before selling one of the finest pieces of publically owned real estate in Spain, the government has sought to "add value" by coming up with a plan that would allow for the construction of a five-star hotel, a private aerodrome, two golf courses and a factory to produce cork products. Although 90 percent of the estate is located within the Alcornocales Natural Park, and thus subject to restrictions, part of the land is close to the Valderrama and Sotogrande golf courses, and could be developed accordingly.

Selling the estate presupposes no legal problems. La Almoraima is registered as a limited company, and its shares are owned by the state-run National Parks. Selling those shares would be a simple operation, and not comparable, for example to the legal issues raised by the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha's interest in getting rid of publically owned woodland which by law is "inalienable."

La Almoraima, one of the last large expanses of Mediterranean cork forest in Europe, lost 1.2 million euros last year, after making a profit of just 66,000 euros in 2011. Ugalde says that this year the company will be back in the black again. The estate includes a 23-room hotel in a former 17th-century convent, as well as a restaurant. Aside from cork production, the estate has orchards and produces its own crops.

The park, a protected area since 1989, conserves the largest cork oak woodlands in the Iberian peninsula and offers a leafy vantage point for ornithologists to observe migration flows across the strait of Gibraltar.

We need agriculture and we need to work the forest, not just rely on tourism"

The Environment Ministry has not put a price tag on La Almoraima, and assessing its worth is not easy. At 6,000 euros per hectare, selling the entire estate off would garner some 84 million euros. Ugalde says that once the land is sold, it could never be recovered by the state. "I would be very sad to have to sell it, and if it were my decision, I wouldn't let it go. But we have to ask ourselves whether the state is really able to manage something on this scale. We are raising lamb and beef, planting wheat, sunflowers, corn and maintaining grazing land. But if we were able to find a buyer, it would be a big help to the local community."

The Socialist Party-controlled regional government of Andalusia has called on the Environment Ministry to allow it to manage La Almoraima on several occasions, and will not allow it to be sold off without a fight. Jesús Casa, the former director of the nearby Doñana wetlands, a National Park, remembers that former Prime Minister Felipe González, an Andalusian, visited La Almoraima on several occasions in the early 1990s. "He told me once that we needed to keep the park in state hands, but without it costing the taxpayer anything." José María Ruiz-Mateos bought the estate in 1973 from the Duchy of Medinaceli. In 1981, before taking office, González persuaded the businessman to give up 527 hectares of the estate to the local community.

Residents of the nearby village of Castellar, are concerned, says Mayor Juan Casanova of the United Left, who is opposed to the sale. "They say that if an investor were to materialize, this would be fantastic and solve all the community's problems. But we believe in diversification, and not just depending on tourism: we need agriculture, and we need to work the forest. We are against privatization; what's more, the government is going to find many likely buyers."

La Almoraima employs 54 people full time, with around 40 others on part-time contracts. The Socialist Party has raised the issue in Congress, reminding the PP government that over the last decade more than 10 million euros of public money have been invested in the estate.

The Socialists' environment spokesman, Hugo Morán, says that the search for a buyer reflects the Popular Party's policy of "amortizing" state assets. "But any sale will have to take into account legislation regarding public ownership of land and of course coastlines. The property market is dead on its feet, but we should remember that this property is of considerable environmental value, which makes it highly attractive."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS