As world leaders meet at the United Nation Climate Change Conference in Madrid these days and a brave young Swede has sailed across the Atlantic to get there, I thought it time to take a look at Spain’s own ecological backyard – more specifically the rural Andalusian environment.
It often feels like the urban cites in northern Spain and our small southern town of Ronda are in completely different countries. Occasionally we even seem to live in separate millennia… When looking up at the nearly eternally blue skies, drawing in the fresh mountain air and beholding the spectacular Serranía de Ronda all around, one can almost be tempted to think that we are not affected by the global climate crisis.
Indeed, some naysayers insist that there is no problem at all. No pasa nada. But you only need to open your eyes to see the stark reality. Andalucía’s alleged White Villages or Pueblos Blancos are not only affected by the climate crisis. We are also contributing to it.
Teen role model or laughing stock?
Yesterday, I asked a couple of my students what they and their classmates thought about Greta Thunberg. They smirked and said that she had some kind of problem. I know that teenage boys will snicker at almost anything, but I had thought that they would admire someone of their own age who dares to speak up about their future for all the world to hear. Instead, their reaction echoed the ignorant, ill-informed and completely insensitive Donald Trump, who mocked Greta because of her Asperger syndrome. Some people might perceive her as ‘mentally unstable’, but with the desperate state of the current environment, we should all feel mentally unstable. Actually, we should be terrified into action!
Greta’s ailment hasn’t stopped her more than acne or asthma has limited my students. I hope that they represent a minority of Andalusian youth, and that most young Spaniards are encouraged to protest alongside Greta. For those who make fun of her, she is far braver, more articulate and driven than 99% of the world’s teens and adults, politicians included!
Climate Conference vs. rural Spain
While the UN Secretary General opened the Climate Conference by saying that we are ‘close to a point of no return’, and the conference aims at promoting civic action and social participation, back to our small town people are still debating whether recycling makes a difference. We do have recycling containers, but many claim that everything ends up in the skip anyhow (possibly true some years back…) or simply don’t give a damn and put all their refuge into to the garbage.
Of course there are many eco-conscious citizens, but judging from our neighbourhood, I’d say that most rondeños do not recycle. The biggest political issue here is not a cleaner environment, but getting a freeway from the coast so bigger hordes of tourists can invade our town. So, the first rural environmental challenge is to convince people here that the environment matters and civil duties refer to all of us.
Unlike most developed countries, there is unfortunately no money-back system for empty plastic bottles and metal cans in Spain. People therefore see such envases as worthless and discard them as rubbish. Collecting ‘empties’ is a livelihood for many people in other countries, so why can’t it be done here? Way back in 2012, there was a study done to examine the cost of introducing a bottle deposit refund system in Spain. Nothing has come out of it yet, but can Spain really afford NOT to implement this system?
Drive or walk?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most carbon monoxide pollution comes from motor vehicles. While emissions per mile driven is significantly less than in the 1970s due to alternative fuels and ‘cleaner’ vehicles, the sheer number of drivers and cars on the road counteract these improvements. Everybody knows that we should limit our car use, but the rural south is, as always, lagging behind the times.
In our relatively small town (approx. 34.000 inhabitants), everything is more or less within walking distance. Neither dangerous traffic nor threats of kidnappings prevent children from walking to school, yet most local students are driven door to door. When I asked a neighbour why she drove her teenage daughter the 3.5 blocks to school, she told me that this is what is done, or else other parents might think you don’t have a car.
In a time of increasing childhood obesity, diabetes and ADD, a few minutes daily walk is not only advisable, it should be compulsory. Yet driving your offspring is considered good parenting. Kids won’t protest, of course, or they might have to get up 10 minutes earlier to arrive to school on time. But if a 16-year-old girl can sail across the Atlantic, they can surely stroll the few hundred meters to their colegio?
It is not only local children who are over-chauffeured in rural Andalucía. Even if it means circling around for 15 minutes to find parking near their destination, some locals will still drive a few blocks to get to work, go shopping or meet buddies at the bar. The second set of rural environmental challenges are therefore to advocate for frequent, subsidized, round-the-clock public transportation, traffic-safety lessons for school children, city cycles, car-free zones and reserved bike lanes, and a massive walk-to-work campaign starting with the mayor and every civil servant in town.
Renewable energy in sunny Spain
Spain has the most hours of sunshine in Europe, yet only 5.2% of its renewable energy comes from solar power. Actually, Germany, Italy, France and even rainy UK produce more solar power than Spain! Between the financial crisis and the debilitating “sun tax” of 2015 (only eased last year), the solar power revolution ground to a halt, leaving endless work to be done. On the other hand, wind power accounts for over 20% of the national power production and might soon overtake the biggest Spanish power source, nuclear energy. On a positive note, only 4.5% of Spanish power production comes from fossil fuels.
A rural eco-challenge many towns in Andalucía have to deal with is how to protect historical areas while still allowing the use of solar panels and other renewable power-sources. The technologies are there. Surely there are alternatives that will neither endanger nor blemish Andalucía’s historic town centres.
Water wasting fiesta in the 21 Century
Water is a resource that soon will become extremely scarce, particularly in southern Europe. Every year the temperature rises and draughts last longer. Yet, Ronda is the only place we have ever lived which does not have a compulsory public water-rationing program every summer, which is my next rural eco challenge.
In 2004, around the time of the Kyoto accord, a new fiesta was introduced in our neighbourhood – la fiesta del agua. While the Sahara desert is threatening to move north and masses of people worldwide are living without drinking water, our town brings in the local fire trucks to hose down the people in our neighbourhood square every August.
Of course, it is a very popular party. Kids love playing with water and teenagers get a chance to participate in an impromptu wet T-shirt contest. But this is not the time to be wasteful with resources, so how about saving that water for the next time a forest fire rages through the sierra?
Sewer waste vs. geothermal solutions
One of our gravest rural environmental challenges is the lack of water processing plants in Andalucía’s White Villages. Several of these towns are situated within Natural Parks and some are declared European Places of Cultural Interest. Yet many have no sewer processing facilities, so human waste goes directly into the local river systems.
This includes favoured eco-tourist destinations such as Montejaque, Jimera de Libar, Cortes de la Frontera, Atajate, Benarrabá, Algatocín, Benadalid, Alpandeire, Júzcar, Farajan, Pujerra, Cartajima, Parauta and Benaoján. The latter village is a hob for the meat processing industry and all their dirty slaughterhouse water also gets flushed into the Guadiaro river!
The general excuse from the Spanish government, be it local, provincial or national, is always that there is no money. But in a country that receives more than 60 million tourists per year, surely there must be enough money to clean up our ‘shit’, so to speak?
Ronda only got its water processing plant in the early 2000s. Better late than never one could say, though when a sewer pipe broke in October of last year, it took the town nearly a year to fix the crack. Meanwhile, the leak polluted the tributary creek Arroyo de las Culebras that feeds into the Guadalevín River, the very same river that goes through Ronda’s much-photographed Tajo gorge. And, we are still waiting for the local government to clean up the spillage…
On several occasions, Ronda town hall has had to send out warnings about swimming in the local rivers due to ‘accidental’ leaks. Meanwhile, the local government recently proposed to make a public beach on the banks where these two rivers meet. If it happens, perhaps we will have to share the space with sewer rats?
At a time when forest fires destroy millions of trees every year and the natural environment should be protected at all costs, Ronda is cutting down trees. The multinational electrical company ENDESA was given virtually free range to chop down the trees along the before-mentioned creek so their branches would not interfere with their electrical lines. These same trees were planted and cared for by Ronda’s school children almost 30 years ago. Protestors managed to stop the company’s first attempts at buzz-cutting the trees, but it is only a question of time before they come back with the chainsaws.
The irony is that a few years ago, Ronda’s town hall had money allocated to put these unsightly electrical cables under-ground. Furthermore, there are pipes in the ground alongside the creek installed just last year to lead electrical cables to the town’s new hospital. So the pipes are there, the money should be there (though they were likely misspent…), and the electrical company on their ever so green web page speaks about their grand mission of sustainability. But ‘no pasa nada’…
Spain has the natural resources and the know-how to become a leading nation for the environment. But are people willing to sacrifice some of their present comfort and convenience to make the future of their children and their children’s children more liveable?
I hope that the Madrid Climate Conference and the acts of a brave young Swede will have a positive impact not only on the world at large, but even bring positive change to Spain’s rural communities. Despite the existing challenges of tackling climate change, the risk of doing nothing is much greater. Ronda, our beloved city of dreams will not be la ciudad soñada for long if we do not do something fast.