Originally Published on March 7th 2020 in the Olive Press
Imagine the scenario:
You are walking on one of Andalucía’s public trails, when suddenly a brand new gate blocks your way. You are used to passing through gates in the sierra, which hikers as an unwritten rule close behind them to prevent livestock from escaping.
But this is different, since this gate is chained with a padlock. On a fence extending as far as you can see, a sign now says: Propiedad Privada. Entrada Prohibida (Private property. No entry). You have walked here many times before without problems, yet here you find yourself with two options: turning back or breaking into private property.
The question is – are public trails that pass through private estates really private? Can landowners simply block communal pathways used by locals and their animals for centuries? The answer is no, yet this is what is happening in Andalucía and other parts of Spain.
According to José María Guerrero, President of the Asociación por los Caminos Públicos de la Serranía de Ronda, caminos públicos are publicly owned trails for communal use. They have been established by society as free passageways due to their long-term standing and historic importance. By Spanish law, public trails cannot be proscribed, seized or transferred. They are inalienable. Or they should be… “Public trails have collective and connective purposes as bridges between private ownership and public lands,” says José María.
Ronda in Malaga province has more than 200 public trails included in their 2004 trail inventory. Towns are obliged to keep a registry, but few do. It is also the responsibility of local governments to maintain these trails. According to municipal code, they should ‘regulate the formation, delimitation, protection and administration of public trails, determining compatible use and informing about the rights and obligations of their users’. An independent study in 2016 discovered that 48 of Ronda’s public trails were illegally blocked, deliberately obstructed or so poorly maintained they were impassable or dangerous. Unfortunately, the trend is increasing.
From herding trails to highways
Other public trails are the provincial GR trails (like the Gran Senda de Malaga), and the territorial Vías Pecuarias. From the grand 75-meter-wide Cañadas Reales to the rustic 4-meter Veredas, these vias for herding livestock were of great historical importance. During the Peninsular War in 1813, Napoleon’s forces mapped out the vías to plan their attack on Ronda.
The traditional use is mainly lost, because cattle are rarely moved by foot anymore. Some vías have become green corridors, while others have taken on dual use as roads as well as trails.
The caminos públicos were the road network when everything had to be transported on foot or by mule. An older resident calls them “just another street in town”. Nowadays, trails must coexist with vehicles and highways. Usually the trails are given lowest priority, with road fencing impeding and endangering pedestrians from crossing via the public trails.
“There were no laws to protect the public trails in the past, because people knew they belonged to everybody,” says José María. In the Genal Valley, where trails still connect rural villages, locals see them as communal property. In bigger towns however, people do not have this personal link to the trails anymore.
Only the Basque Country has servidumbre universal, meaning the public has right of passage anywhere. In rural Andalucía it is increasingly the opposite. Property owners insist that as they own the land, they also own the public trails crossing it. However, “when a public road crosses your property, you cannot block it,” says José María. “The same goes for public trails.”
Wild bulls not an idle threat
Walkers, runners, bikers and horse riders are increasingly affected by trail closures, a problem that only began a couple of decades ago. On a public trail leaving Ronda, a foreign landowner blocked the path with barbed wire, showing up with a rifle when locals came to protest. Only when the authorities intervened did he allow extremely narrow fenced-in access.
Sadly an aqueduct near the original trail is now out of bounds. Roman waterways, medieval bridges, Bronze Age gravesites and ancient drinking fountains are historical landmarks that form part of Andalucía’s patrimony and should be accessible to all, but without legal action it will never happen.
Some landowners will change the trail route for their convenience, regardless of public comfort and safety, at times forcing walkers to make steep and cumbersome detours.
Fines are not enough to stop the landowners. Farmers with adjacent land have been known to plough over public trails, so they can no longer be seen. Pathways near rivers are at times so narrow that walkers have to hang onto illegally placed fences to be able to pass. Trails should be wide enough that a loaded mule can pass, though these days walkers are lucky to have half a meter clearing.
If locks and detours won’t deter you, other landowners scare away trail-users by adding signs such as Coto de Caza (hunting ground), Toros Bravos (wild bulls) or Abejas Salvajes (wild bees). Hunting shouldn’t happen on public trails and bulls should be kept apart, but most of us do not want to risk being mistaken for a deer. Speaking from personal experience, cows with horns can look equally menacing as bulls and when confronted by them, you do not hang around to check for dangly bits to verify which one you are dealing with.
Nobility vs citizens – El Duende
One of the most disputed properties in la Serranía de Ronda is El Duende. This 200-hectare Ronda estate is said to have been in the same family since the redistribution of lands to Spanish nobles after the Catholic re-conquest. We are talking centuries. However, the public pathways crossing these lands are even older, having been used by the populace without controversy since time immemorial. According to historian Carlos Gonzalbes Gravioto, this bridge, which is much older than Ronda’s famous Puente Nuevo, was the historical connection between two Roman trails, with proven use from Medieval times until modern days.
Only in 2016 did El Duende block trail access, claiming they were private. The owners won in court, and the trails were removed from the municipal inventory. For four years, trail defenders have fought to reopen the trails, presenting oral testimonies, historical maps and documents and aerial photographs from 1945 onwards. On January 27th 2020, Ronda’s town hall voted unanimously to reinstall the disputed public trails in the town inventory. While the owners might proceed with further legal action, the law is on the public’s side. Trails can always be reinstated, IF there is political will to do so. Meanwhile, other public trails are being blocked and obstructed.
“First comes the fence, next the gate, then the chain and lock. It is much more difficult to reverse this process,” says José María. But new technology is changing things. Mountain engineer and trail technician David García Hernández from Gaucin is developing a mobile App, using the free crisis response platform Ushahidi. In its trial stage, the App will allow walkers to immediately report public trails that have been illegally closed or pose threats to users.
Saving Public trails
In 2003, a platform was created to defend the public trails. Renamed Asociación por los Caminos Públicos de la Serranía de Ronda in 2019, the group represents a cross section of society, from hiking and cycling clubs to environmentalists and human rights groups. Their mandate is to promote the conservation, recuperation, environmental protection, sustainable economic development and safe access for a variety of users of public trails. For 17 years they have organized volunteer trail cleanups, catalogued public trails and proposed practical, cost-effective trail maintenance solutions for the local government – all without costing the town a single cent.
For areas depending upon rural tourism, it is imperative to keep public trails open and well maintained. In fact, Ronda could risks lawsuits if accidents happen on the steep and perilous public trails beneath the town.
“Safe public trails are essential to be able to walk in the mountains,” says Fernando Ruiz Fernandez, President of Andalucía’s hiking association Pasos Largos. “Thousands upon thousands of people enjoy this natural resource. Using the trails is getting to know our history.”
Of course, access to public trails also come with certain public responsibilities. The onus is on the users to follow rules – keeping dogs on leashes, refraining from littering, staying on assigned paths and not bringing illegal off-road motorbikes onto the trails. A dog off a leash can scare a herd of sheep and motor vehicles can ruin sensitive flora. If we do not respect the land on which we walk, we give ammunition and reason to the property owners to ban the public.
Municipalities like El Burgo and Jimena de la Frontera are collaborating with the community to keep their trails open and safe. It is a win/win situation. The public keeps its trails and the municipal government saves money and gains support. The public trail association hopes to collaborate with all municipalities in la Serranía to protect and safeguard the trails. “We must continue to denounce illegal blocking of public trails so future generations can enjoy our communal heritage. It is the best legacy we can give our children.”
Ronda’s mayor, María de la Paz Fernández, did not respond when asked to comment on this alarming trend.
Public trail users shouldn’t have to contend with locked gated, deterring signs, illegal detours, barbed wire, potentially dangerous animals or gun-brandishing owners, but unless laws are upheld and trails are policed, we might have to put up warning signs saying ‘Enter at your own risk…’