Why is our beautiful Andalucian town not as ‘green’ as it ought to be?

These days, with global media focused on the environment, I though it was fitting to make a few reflections on the medioambiente from the point of view of a foreigner living in rural Andalucía.

Just beside Ronda’s first organic community garden in our Barrio de San Francisco neighbourhood there is a paddock with two beautiful horses. I do not know if they are Arabic or Andalucian, but what I can tell you is that they are not a couple of old mules. The animals live behind one of the local gas stations, so that all the debris from the business above comes flying with the wind to their enclosure below. One would think that the owner of these fine animals would look around the property one day and decide to pick up the trash, but this has not happened yet and likely never will. Since the owner did not put the trash there, you can be quite sure that he or she will not clean it up either, even if it could cause their animals serious harm. And you cannot blame the horses. How can they know that garbage is not eatable, growing up in a sea of plastic?

British Columbia – Beautiful by Nature was the slogan of the Canadian province where we used to live. One could say the same thing about Andalucía. Nature here is nothing but stunning. However, one would be forced to add an addendum to such a slogan in the Spanish south, as though naturally beautiful, not everybody is doing all in their power to keep it that way. The environment, or medioambiente as it is called in Spanish, is not as high on the public or private agenda as it ought to, or need to be, certainly not here in our rural mountain town in the province of Málaga.

My husband and I moved to Ronda from Vancouver, BC, where environmental care is not only seen as a civic duty, but also part of people’s civic pride. Just like in my native Norway, the majority of Vancouverites are consciously trying to reduce their ecological footprint by biking, utilizing public transport, eating organic produce, composting and recycling, or a combination of all the above. They will try to avoid using environmental toxins and replace them with less harmful alternatives, be it for their lawns, their skin or the paper for their office printers. This is not considered a major hassle, but rather something people do gladly, as their small share in counteracting the vast problem at hand. Put against the giant corporate polluters, this individual effort might seem minute or even futile, but the general attitude is that if we want to see a cleaner planet, we have to begin by assessing our own backyard.

With our (positively-a-bit-too-politically-correct) West Coast cosmopolitan past, arriving in small town Andalucía was like taking a step back in time. This was of course also part of the charm of moving here. The narrow streets with the white houses looked as quaint and rustic as they had done for centuries. But the cars parked out front did not, nor did the fiber-optic cables they were starting to install or the slightly dated satellite dishes sitting on the perfectly patina-ed terra cotta roofs. We had moved to a place with more than two thousand years of history, which somehow had to find ways to merge its past with a modern day society. Though we soon realised that while the town was conservative, conservatism and conservationism do not always go hand in hand.

As new residents of Ronda, we were rather surprised to see how haphazardly many locals would deposit their refuse, leaving their garbage bags outside the containers, tossing cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers on the ground without a second thought and letting their dogs do their business in public parks or even right on the sidewalk. On local nature trails somebody would always have conveniently left their garbage or carelessly dumped a truckload of construction debris, even if there were containers nearby and the town had a very clean, hardly used, trash-sorting centre, appropriately called Punto Limpio. (The Clean Spot.) Some locals argue that because they pay their garbage taxes, it is their right to leave their trash outside the bins. What else will the street sweepers do, they will argue?

We were equally alarmed when we discovered that many of the local gardening companies sprayed pesticides in public parks and community gardens, where children and pets would play merely hours later. Worse still, nobody seemed to question or be bothered by this fact. Were perfect golf greens more important than their children’s health? Weren’t they a bit concerned about the environment, we wondered? Did they not know that there was a grave danger to our planet? Or did they not care? Was this attitude due to lack of education, arrogance, ignorance, laziness or some other factor that we had not yet discovered? Could it be that the abundant nature surrounding the town and the near pollution free air made people erroneously believe that their actions were not affecting the environment? Did they believe that somehow their green bubble could withstand the effects of contamination, from without and from within?

Why were ‘we’ rural Andalucians so far behind the eight ball on green policy and environmental consciousness, we wondered?

I belong to the early Gen X-ers, born when the Cold War rather than the environment was on top of the political agenda. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels and carbon monoxide was not the general concern. We worried about Russian nuclear-powered submarines. This is not to say that pollution wasn’t rampant in my youth, just that our communal responsibility in the matter was not as clearly defined as today. We had a vague excuse of lack of public knowledge, which not even the most ignorant of people can use to deny Global Warming today, especially not if they sit in an oval office. It was during my youth that Greenpeace and other environmental organizations started getting international support and were no longer seen as a communist ploy or a leftist hippy-dippy fabrication. Being communally minded, we were all part of this to a larger or smaller degree. It therefore surprised me to discover that the worst culprits when it came to eco-destructive behaviour here in our Andalucian town seemed to be the people of my generation, who also happened to be the ones that cared for the young and who would teach them to mind the planet – or not.

To our relief, at least the older Andalucians seemed to recognize the alarming signs of Global Warming. The near-centurians of our neighbourhood would tell us that they had never experienced such heat or lack of precipitation. Having suffered through the Civil War of the 1930’s, the Second World War and the many lean years thereafter, these people tended to be like old people elsewhere in Europe, fixing a broom twice before making it into a plant stand once its sweeping days were over. My Norwegian grandmother was the epitome of re-use. When she gave us a present, we were immediately told to return the wrapping. Her lovely Japanese paper was never to be creased and she used ribbon instead of tape, which she would iron after we reluctantly returned it, so she could use it again, and again.

Looking at the environment from an Andalucian outsider-inside point of view, the issue with the Spanish south seems to me to be the territory’s rapid growth from a relatively poor, low education agrarian society to the instant relative wealth created by the mad building boom in the 1980s. The people of Ronda, like on Costa del Sol experienced a colossal increase in expendable income. No longer needing to live with the hardship and frugality of their parents and grandparents, the nouveau riche embraced consumerism like never before. Even when the building boom slowed down and in time reversed, people’s habits had permanently changed. While past generations would have grown their food and made their own clothes and furniture, the new consumers would go to the supermarket and purchase stuff in bulk, usually wrapped in plastic, more often than not made in China.

With money comes stuff and with stuff generally comes more trash. While the Spanish economy still hasn’t recovered from the global financial crashes, Spain is one of the countries in Europe, and the world, that throws out the most edibles, with food waste comprising 46% of all rubbish. The average person in Spain generates almost half a ton of garbage per year, most of it ending in the general trash containers, which they misleadingly call Orgánicos, since anything from dirty diapers, household trash and a lot of recyclables end up in these containers. Spain is lagging far behind its European neighbours in terms of recycling. While for instance Germany recycles 62% of their municipal waste, Spain only recycles 33%, and I would guess that Andalucía is in the lower percentages of the national average.

Whereas past generations would walk (or as the stereotype goes, ride a donkey), these days Rondeños will invariably opt for their car. If at all possible, a parent will drive their child to school, even if it is just couple of blocks away. Walking could mean that somebody might believe that you do not own a car, our neighbours explained to us. Worse still, you might be accused of not loving your offspring enough to drive them. Therefore, most of our neighbours drive their kids the three blocks to school. The youngsters would inarguably have benefitted more from the walk and the fresh air, rather than being stuck in the daily pre- and post-school village bumper to bumper congestion. This behaviour is also solar opposite to the customs of the school children I have known in Canada. My son tried to persuade me to let him walk alone to school in a city of millions, even if he was only 8 at the time (he was not allowed, so we walked together). However, this urge to be independent doesn’t seem to be engraved the same way in the Spanish youth. In the meantime, while the rural Andalucians used to be relatively wiry from physical work, the younger generations of Spaniards seem intent on overtaking North Americans in junk food consumption and childhood obesity.

On the morning of the 2017 Earth Day, a Málaga radio personality spoke about how trash containers without garbage spread all around them are a sign of an educated and civil society. Sadly, he added, in Andalucía this is a rare sight. But environmental care is not only a question of education, but also of community, family and social habits. Younger generations presently attending Ronda’s primary and secondary school are taught about environmental care and most, if not all, educational institutions have recycling programs. However, this matters little if the children’s families do not practice the same green habits at home. If nobody teaches you the importance of caring of the environment, it is hard to foster new customs and change the behaviour of entire populations.

Of course, neither all the responsibility, nor the blame lies with the individual. Many impediments to a greener society are created at municipal, provincial or federal government level. Actually, some of the Spanish regulations seem anti-environmental, doing the exact opposite than combating climate change. Why in a country as sun-abundant as Spain are consumers penalized for caring for the environment by having to pay tax on solar systems? The ‘sun tax’ has increased the price of self-generated solar power to the point that there is little to gain from the investment. People are therefore discouraged from changing to cleaner energy, which has disastrous effect on Spain’s green economy. Another example of anti-environmental trends is something as obviously beneficial as bottle deposits. Why has the government not (re) introduced container deposits all over Spain, like in so many other industrial nations? The deposit discourage people from throwing out millions of plastic, metal, Tetrapac and glass receptacles (and hence cash), and even provides a livelihood for many dumpster divers. I actually knew of an art director in Vancouver who put his kids through college by collecting the recycled containers off the film sets he was working on. Valencia has introduced the deposit to counteract the five-million single-use beverage containers that daily ended up in their landfills or littering the territory’s nature. Container deposits make sense from a financial and an environmental point of view, but it seems that down here in the south, we are the last ones to change.

To give credit where credit is due, there are of course Rondeños who care for the environment, who recycle and do not spray pesticides on their olive trees. The municipal authorities of Ronda do provide garbage bins and recycling containers in every neighbourhood (in addition to an army of street sweepers). In fact, there are over half a million blue and yellow recycling bins available for public use in Spain. The country allegedly has about 165.000 green bins (for glass), which equals one container per every 284 residents. This makes Spain one of the countries with the highest glass-recycling bin–to-resident ratio. With recycling containers available on almost every second corner, there is virtually NO excuse not to recycle in Spain. So, why are the majority of people in our town not doing it? Some claim that that recycling ends up on the landfills so there is no point of recycling, which seem like an convenient excuse if you ask me.

What our town seem to be missing in my not very objective opinion, is a long-term policy on environmental care at a local level. This lack of long-term planning may partly be due to the local electoral process, since all positions in the town hall from the janitor and up seem to change every time there is an election. Furthermore, the positions appear to be filled more based on (party) connection than merit or actual knowledge of the specific area that the delegate is in charge. The head of department may therefore neither have the appropriate educational background, work experience, nor the passion for the cause they are representing. They were simply the party’s next in line.

After living in Ronda about a year, the at-the-time active and passionate environmental delegate came with me to propose a volunteer environmental organization to the mayor. All heads of local governments and local police attended the town hall meeting and agreed to support us. We spent two years doing environmental clean-ups, hosting recycled art competitions, giving workshops, presenting green establishment awards and producing informational videos to create public awareness. Finally, after yet another election, we were told by the new environmental delegate, who was more for photo-ops than getting his hands dirty, that he was simply ‘too busy’ to accept help from our 40-plus mostly local, keen and hard working environmental volunteers. So, sadly our group fell apart, not due to lack of public will, but due to the apathy of certain members of the municipal government.

A few months after we established our group and began environmental clean-ups here in Ronda, a woman started a similar environmental group in my birthplace in Norway. As an example of the difference when it comes to support and acknowledgement, the Norwegian volunteer group received ample municipal support, was presented with a national award and had the Norwegian queen and queen in waiting come and help doing a shore clean-up, plastic gloves and all! This was just about the time when the former Spanish king went hunting in Africa and was photographed with his lover, having shot an endangered elephant. Not that we whale-killing Norwegians have a right to point fingers, but there is still a vast difference when it comes to public involvement and the attitude towards public duty when one compares northern/central and southern Europe.

I do not believe our municipal government has ever taken a map of our town and looked at it from a post-consumer perspective, colour coding the areas with the highest population density, further segmenting were there are local businesses and restaurants, marking areas where environmental toxins are being used, particularly when coinciding with residential areas, schools and kindergartens, noting where illegal garbage deposits are being made, where littering is a widespread problem and where more containers are sorely needed. It seems evident that restaurants and other businesses producing more garbage than individual consumers should not be allowed to deposit their waste into the same containers as private households, but until there are policies and systems in place and somebody implementing these, there will be no change.

In Northern Europe like in North America, leaving your garbage behind is a major faux pas. We see it as our communal duty to keep our surroundings clean. Even when we know that nobody is watching us and we could in principle leave our trash, we generally will not do so. Our auto-policing will become activated, our public conscience will take over, and if that will not do it, our fear of public shaming will. This sense of communal duty or shame I find often sadly lacking in our town. Ronda displays the dichotomy of a rural village, where life must go on, yet wants to remain the same. There will always be things lagging behind in such development, and for Ronda, the most noticeable area I see is the environment.

If people had to pay 1000 € for not depositing a chewing gum in a proper manner like they do in Singapore, they would probably think twice about spitting it out on the street. Equally, if industries and businesses knew that their pollution issues could not be dealt with a quick phone call to a friend at the town hall, we might see a change. We do have laws against littering in Ronda, though to date I have never heard of anyone being fined. Maybe the town is too small, so the police constable who would be handing out the fine always ends up being a third cousin or a neighbour of the sinners, so the tickets might magically disappear into thin air? I am not saying it is what happens, it is just a theory. There is a 300 € penalty for leaving your dogs droppings, but this does not seem to concern most local dog owners. Actually, we have more dog-shit on the streets of Ronda than any other place I have lived, including Paris, and that is sayings something. I have heard many locals laughing it off, claiming that they are good luck to step in. However, there is nothing fortunate about breathing in faecal matters, particularly when one is talking about one of Spain’s most visited towns that is basically living of tourism, and still mostly unexplored, eco tourism.

Ronda is not the only place that is lagging behind on environmental matters. In fact, some of Andalucía’s famous white villages are even less green. At least Ronda has a sewer and wastewater treatment plant. Most towns around here still dump their sewer directly into nature, yes, in 2017! The town of Benoaján /Estación de Benoaján famous for their slaughtering and meat-processing plants send all their waste directly into the local river, which at times smell just foul. In Canada, local residents would probably have chained themselves to the factory doors, demanding the businesses to clean up their act. Understandably, people here are mostly concerned with keeping their jobs, and unfortunately secondly, possibly with having their chorizo on the table?

It seems that when it comes to pollution of their immediate surroundings, most Andalucians would rather not know about it. Though in our present climate, we can no longer afford to look the other way. To borrow a saying from Macron, there is no Planeta B…