Boom in hothouse farming yields more desert in Spain

International Herald Tribune
Thursday, April 4, 2002

Barry James

ALMERIA, Spain Gazing across the plain toward the distant blue Mediterranean from the heights of a craggy sierra here, it is hard to believe this land was green and wooded a century ago.

In the bleak terrain below, row upon row of hothouses cover virtually every square inch of ground. The pole structures, covered in plastic sheeting, are used to grow fruits and vegetables destined for markets in northern Europe. They invade villages, illegally cover dry river beds, teeter on mountaintops, abut beaches and even occupy most of a state nature reserve just outside the town of Adra.

The explosive growth of such greenhouse agriculture has made Almeria province one of Europe's most remarkable economic success stories. But the use of vast amounts of water for hydroponic cultivation in the hothouses has severely depleted the region's underground water supply, thus degrading the soil by increasing its salinity.

This has turned Almeria into a vivid illustration of desertification, a worldwide environmental hazard aggravated by global warming that threatens to turn parts of southern Europe into landscapes resembling the Sahara.

One-fifth of the land in Spain already is so damaged that it is turning into desert, according to figures presented at a UN conference in 2000.

"The progress here is absolutely unsustainable from an environmental point of view," says Oleg Parra, a businessman and environment campaigner in the nearby tourist resort of Garrucha. "What will remain for our children? Nothing. It will be like Babylon or Sumer," two early civilizations that succumbed to the desert.

The Spanish government believes it can solve the problem by building an ambitious network of canals, pipelines and dams to divert huge quantities of water from the Ebro River in northern Spain to the south. (Page 10)

The pipeline, which Madrid estimates will cost more than E4 billion ($3.5 billion) to construct, has stirred strong opposition in the north and among environmentalists. They argue that the south would just use the extra water - estimated to be more than 1,000 cubic hectometers a year - for more hothouses while it should instead be seeking slower, more sustainable economic growth.

Despite the popular image of sand dunes engulfing fertile land, desertification typically is not the natural expansion of existing deserts.

As in Almeria and surrounding areas, it is more often a patchy, gradual process, caused by human activities such as deforestation, overgrazing and improper irrigation.

Many scientists fear desertification will worsen worldwide in coming decades as increased concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to trap the earth's warmth, causing a gradual rise in global temperatures and, eventually, climate change.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-sponsored body that assesses climate data, said that the disruption of climate patterns would bring increased precipitation in some regions, but was just as likely to bring drought to others. It added that desertification reduced the land's resilience to such climate changes.

Desertification has emerged as a significant danger not only for Spain, but also for the other three southernmost countries of the European Union - Portugal, Italy and Greece. The European Environment Agency, in a report called "Down to Earth," warned two years ago that extensive areas of the Mediterranean region had become so severely degraded that they were "no longer capable of supporting any profitable cultivation, resulting in land abandonment and depopulation."

Desertification threatens all the other continents, as well. China and its capital, Beijing, are battling the worst dust storms in memory, and thick yellow clouds of fine sand swept into Japan and South Korea in March.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says that 40 percent of the United States is vulnerable and that much of the former pasture land of Texas is too parched for grazing.

MILLIONS AFFECTED More than a quarter of a billion people already are directly affected by desertification, according to the United Nations Secretariat of the Convention to Combat Desertification in Bonn.

Another billion in more than 100 countries are at risk, including citizens of sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia who are among the poorest people in the world.

As it is practiced in Almeria, hydroponic agriculture - the growth of plants in a nutrient solution, with or without soil - uses more water than the environment can provide, steadily draining the aquifer. It also creates large amounts of waste and pollution, especially chemical residues from fertilizers and pesticides, which further degrade the land.

Teresa Mendizabal Aracama , a professor at the Superior Council of Scientific Investigation, said that the growing salinity of natural water supplies - as seawater is pulled into the aquifers in the absence of fresh groundwater - showed that the place in Spain where the most damage was being done to the soil was Andalusia, the region that includes Almeria province.

"The salt comes in when you take more water than you should," she said.

"People think the soil is just there. They do not realize that once it has degraded, it does not come back. The recuperation of lost soil in a semi-arid area takes hundreds of years."

The area around the Andalusian cities of Cordoba and Jaen are at severe risk because of the extensive cultivation of olive trees, as are several other European areas with serious water shortages, including Crete and southern Italy, she said.

Instead of being planted on terraces that retain water, the trees are often seeded directly onto steep slopes because the goal is not so much to produce olives as to collect a share of the E2.25 billion in annual production subsidies that the European Union provides for the olive sector.

Andalusia alone loses an estimated 80 million tons of topsoil every year because the olive plantations have replaced natural habitats and forests. "Then, when the torrential rain falls the trees are washed away and the soil with it," Mendizabal Aracama said.

It rains rarely in Almeria. But when the rain comes, it falls torrentially on the gaunt, beautiful hills - thinly dusted with soil and struggling shrubs and scarred with deep gullies - and carries hundreds of tons of the bone-dry earth with it on its way to the sea. About one-fifth of Spain is prone to such severe erosion, a figure that rises to 40 percent in Andalusia.

It has been calculated that the country loses the equivalent of the rock of Gibraltar into the sea every year.

The removal of tree cover is one of the single greatest causes of desertification because it leaves the land vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain.

The forests are swiftly disappearing all around the Mediterranean to make way for agricultural land, housing and tourist developments.

Forest fires, often set to clear the land illegally, have reached disastrous levels in several countries. In Spain, fires have destroyed about one quarter of the nation's forests in only 40 years.

In Almeria, the battle against desertification has been undercut because environmental concerns usually get pushed to one side by enthusiasm over the economic boom that the hothouse agriculture has produced in recent years.

Business is thriving because greenhouse technology makes it possible to produce at least two vegetable or fruit crops a year. In a generation, the production of tomatoes has shot up from 30 tons a hectare to more than 100 tons. Hundreds of trucks every day take produce directly from Almeria to supermarkets in Germany, Scandinavia and Britain.

The prosperity represents a historic turnaround for the province, which saw some 400,000 people emigrate in the 20th century for lack of opportunity here. So there is much pride that Almeria now is one of Spain's leading exporters, with its agricultural sector annually producing some E1.8 billion in income, according to a study by the regional newspaper La Voz de Almeria.

The province also has become a tourism center, as sun-seekers from colder climes flock to its hotels and coastal resorts. With Dutch horticulturists, Irish pubs and East European prostitutes, it has a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The visible signs of wealth are everywhere, from the swank restaurants to the luxurious limousines on the highways.

Some people feel they have lost something of the old graceful ways of Almeria in the rush to riches.

Luisa Morales, a concert pianist, remembers delicious melons that one could buy in July and keep until Christmas as far better than the perfectly formed but rather tasteless produce that comes out of the hothouses.

Francisco Toledano, an ecologist who works for the Adra port authority, remembers when it was still possible to enjoy the traditional Spanish paseo, a stroll on a summer evening. "But am I going to walk up into the hills just to see another greenhouse, when I already have one underneath my bedroom window? You can't escape them," he said.

COMPETITORS LINE UP There also is a fear that the boom will fizzle out. Morocco already is producing competing products with even fewer environmental restraints than in Andalusia, and the soil degradation here is being replicated in the oases over there.

"This kind of economy cannot last long," said Francisco Benitez, publisher, editor and only reporter of the weekly newspaper Noticias de Adra. "Firstly, there is no more land here. And secondly, there are other countries that can produce the same."

Juan Puigdefabregas, of the Dry Zones Experimental Station in Almeria, said the Spanish government's plan to pipe water from the north is a sign of Madrid's unwillingness to put the environment before economic progress.

"The politicians should be saying, 'Seņores, you cannot have any more water. Things cannot go on like this. Let us reconvert the industry.' We've had to do it for our fishing fleet, and for industries - but never for agriculture," he said.

"We have to place limits on growth," Puigdefabregas added. "This is a system that is incapable of regulating itself. So if the government brings in more water, the only thing that will happen is that there will be more people and more greenhouses."

Puigdefabregas noted that Spain does not price its water to encourage conservation. For example, he said, the cost of water supplies generally accounts for less than 5 percent of the total operating expenses of greenhouse agriculture in the region.

Already, he said, "approximately 80 percent of the aquifers have some seawater intrusion. But people keep drawing out the water. There will come a moment when there is a sudden inrush" from the sea. "It will be like an earthquake," he added, "but we cannot say when."

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