The desert creeps forward stealthily. There are few witnesses to the gradual swallowing of fertile land and forests by soil erosion. In regions suffering the worst degradation, the rural population is forced to abandon the land and seek work and opportunities in the city.
In the Spanish interior, in one of the driest parts of Europe, an eco-business movement called Alvelal is attempting to reverse this degradation of biodiversity, or at least to prevent its relentless progression, on a huge tract of land that spans more than one million hectares and is shared by Almería, Granada and Murcia.
This gargantuan task was embarked upon five years ago and still has another 15 years ahead of it at least. It was started by growers and entrepreneurs who are developing regenerative agricultural schemes funded by foreign investors and philanthropists that will nurture the soil and the microbiology that is slowly but surely being annihilated. The returns are not quick, and it will take until 2035 before the €1.3 million annual investment begins to pay off. The renaissance of the soil is, after all, a lengthy process.
“We needed Alvelal [the entrepreneurs’ association]; they really were an answer to our prayers,” says environmentalist Belén Sánchez from the foot of La Muela, the iconic mountain in Vélez Blanco, Almería, that has just had as many as 50,000 holm oaks, Phoenician junipers and Aleppo pines planted on its slopes.
“This project in Spain will have a massive impact and could even change the local climate, with more water on the soil and more evapotranspiration [from the trees],” enthuses Tim Christophersen, head of the Fresh Water, Land and Climate Branch at UN Environment, based in Kenya.
In late 2014, Commonland, a Dutch NGO, was looking for an area of Spain where it could apply the environmental model it had had so much success with in South Africa and also in Australia. They invited applications from interested parties and finally opted for the plateau of Almería.
The conservationist Astrid Vargas, known for her Iberian lynx breeding program, helped the NGO to sift through the 21 applications along with Andalusian ecologist Paco Casero. The deciding factors were the degree of erosion and depopulation, which has hit the region badly.
“We focused on Spain because the Mediterranean is badly affected and there were already UN reports of progressing deforestation in 2009,” says Commonland CEO Willem Ferwerda. “We were looking for a high plateau that people wanted transformed, and now we have the biggest land-restoration program in Europe.”
“The aim is to empower rural people so they can take charge of their own destinies in a region that is socially and economically challenged,” says Vargas.
These visionaries are attempting to replicate The Great Green Wall of Africa in the Sahel region, where a huge forest stretching across the width of the continent combined with rural development projects could halt the spread of the Sahara and bring swathes of Africa’s degraded landscapes back to life.
Just a few kilometers from the desert of Los Colorados, and adjoining the Quaternary Geopark in Granada, the siblings Francisco and Álvaro Martínez are working in extreme conditions to cultivate vegetables, almonds and olives interspersed with aromatic plants. “This is a steppe desert and it has a bad temper,” says Francisco, an agricultural engineer. “There’s frost every night and in the ground, we’ve measured every temperature between 80ºC and -30ºC. Not only that, but just 20 centimeters under the surface, there’s limestone. Those are our working conditions.”
In order to bring nitrogen back to the soil, they have planted several species of grass and leguminous plants for vegetation cover, perfected over the last seven years in order to dispense with the plastic used in greenhouses elsewhere in the region. In 1998, the brothers embraced sustainable agriculture and 10 years ago, they went a step further and became involved with regenerative agriculture, which is concerned with the health of the soil and uses minimal plowing. “My grandfather and my father both used DDT [a toxic pesticide that is now banned] to help them compete with nature,” says Francisco. “But this is about going back to pre-industrial revolution times. We are not even being that clever; a hundred years ago everyone was doing what we are doing.”
“You might be forgiven for thinking that we have discovered Mars with regenerative agriculture,” says the enologist Juana Reche. “But in days gone by, farmers were aware and wise and they learned from each other. And that is what we are doing; recovering old techniques and spreading the word.”
Andalusia and Catalonia have more soil erosion annually than any other region in Spain, and a fifth of this land loses more than 25 tons of soil per hectare per year, according to the 2017 National Soil Erosion Inventory. “The soil we are currently losing is not renewable,” says Emilio González, an expert from Córdoba University.
The most common crop on the Almería and Granada plateau is almonds as they fetch good prices, but the soil is increasingly poor and furrowed by torrential rains. The organic content of the soil on the plateau’s cultivated area ranges between 0.38% and 1.5%, so much of it falls short of the 1.5% level of organic matter common to dry lands, according to data from Almería University. “This land loses an average of 1.8 mm from its top soil every year – the part that is most fertile – which means 20 tons of soil per hectare,” says Miguel Ángel Gómez, a researcher at Almería University. On top of this, rain has been in short supply over the last few years, ranging between 200 and 400 mm annually.
Belén Sánchez, environmentalist
Besides planting 50,000 trees on the slopes of La Muela, there is a holistic vision to the restoration scheme that encompasses soil erosion, regenerative agriculture, sustainable livestock farming, water conservation and depopulation. To address these issues, investment focuses on business; money is plowed into local companies that show that sustainable development is the only way forward. There has to be profit potential to keep the countryside populated. Planting trees is not enough. Vélez-Blanco had 7,000 residents in 1950 and now it has 2,000. The Vélez district has four inhabitants per square kilometer, a population density below that of Lapland.
Alvelal is focused on a piece of land the size of Madrid planted with more ecological almond trees than anywhere else in the world: 50,000 hectares. The association brings together 250 entrepreneurs and researchers as well as ecologically minded individuals, and receives funds from Commonland and other entities such as the TUI and the Leopold Bachmann foundations to develop alternative and sustainable businesses. Regenerative agriculture covers 8,000 hectares containing 40 farms with tree-based crops out of the total of one million hectares, an area that Alvelal hopes to double in two years. “You are not going to convince a farmer to change his crops to something that is not profitable,” says Elvira Marín, the Alvelal coordinator while Vincent De Leijster, researcher at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands, adds, “Regenerative agriculture with almonds increases the ecological value of the ecosystem services by between 17% and 28% after just one year.”
The first business is already taking off: a company called Almendrehesa is selling its Pepita de Oro brand to markets in the UK and Germany. If traditional almonds fetch around €4.5 a kilo, organic almonds fetch €6.5. Almendrehesa even gives its producers €7.5 a kilo for the very prettiest almonds. There are also companies that are about to start selling olive oil from centuries-old olive groves, essential oils from aromatic plants, wine, honey, beer and organic lamb. “Alvelal wants to give companies with solid proposals and environmental criteria a boost,” says the association’s president Cristóbal Aránega, whose company sells organic fertilizer and employs a staff of 45. The farmer Álvaro Martínez adds: “With Alvelal, you know that there are more people [doing what you are doing] and you feel they’ve got your back.”
Alfonso Chico de Guzmán has come back to the family farm in Murcia after studying business administration, and he now wants to experiment with cereals, almonds, pistachios and aromatic plants. “Regenerative agriculture is like having a 60-year-old shoe factory and changing the factory and changing the shoes and how they are made. But it’s either that or closing the factory,” he says. “Now there are 15 of us and we are already covering costs with a view to expanding.”
Chico de Guzmán has a land restoration camp on his 1,000 hectare farm, La Junquera, which attracts volunteers from all over the world. He also hosts a Regenerative Academy that takes students – so far all foreign – who are writing their research thesis on agriculture. “The land is pretty degraded but the people have got a lot of energy,” he says. “If you give them a nudge, it goes a long way, like a tree in the desert in need of compost.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) produced a recent report warning of the loss of biodiversity around the world and the implications for food safety with data from 91 countries. This is exactly the angle tackled by Alvelal. “The more we plowed the the land, the more pests we had,” says Miguel Ángel Martínez from his farm in Venta Quemada, Granada. “When we stopped fumigating, the pests ended.”
Greenpeace believes that the restoration of the Spanish southeast interior region, which covers 76 municipalities, is a good example to follow. “It touches on everything in a cross-disciplinary fashion in order to confront challenges such as climate change, the obliteration of insects and the use of water and soil,” says Luis Ferreirín, who is responsible for agriculture at Greenpeace Spain.
The European Commission is currently debating the New Common Agricultural Policy (PAC) for 2021-2027, which, according to Greenpeace, should assume the challenge of sustainable food production. So far, the current PAC lacks a holistic vision and only goes as far as to support better agricultural practices that are beneficial to the environment.
Alvelal approached the Ministry of Agriculture in Spain to see whether, as a leader in organic agriculture, the country could also lead in the certification of products from regenerative agriculture in Europe. However, sources from the ministry responded by saying that as things stand now, such certification is not being considered.
So is the plateau project successful enough to take root and make a difference? “There is currently a structure because there is money,” says Paco Casero. “If there is no commitment, that structure will collapse when the money goes. Alvelal should get involved locally, otherwise the social base that daily commitment relies on is not there. And something like this cannot fail, which is why things have to be very transparent.” As spring approaches, there will be a reshuffle in the association to avoid any lack of transparency.
Working in the opposite direction are farmers exacerbating the exploitation of underground water for the mass production of lettuce, a vegetable that needs intensive watering in an area of scant rainfall. Meanwhile, intensive pig-farming outfits are attempting to expand their business model despite the fact that several councils have signed municipal orders banning them on account of the contamination. “The sustainable development model does not include farms with thousands of pigs because it is not compatible with either tourism or with rational water consumption,” says Francisco Torregrosa, mayor of Benamaurel in Granada. “We don’t want to be the dunghill of Spain.”
And while regional governments and local councils often help Alvelal with their projects, they stop short of providing funding.
“Who are we?” asks Aránega. “We are not a union, or an environmental movement nor are we the tractor protest guys, or the water defenders, or the pig farm fighters. Our tools are business models… It wasn’t easy to define ourselves.”
English version by Heather Galloway.