The herculean challenge of braking the desert | Society

The advance of the desert is silent. With hardly any witness, soil erosion in Spain is eating more crops and forests every year. In the most punished areas, the population flees from the countryside to the city in search of future and opportunities. However, in one of the most arid extremes of Europe - the inland southeast that Almeria, Granada and Murcia share - a movement has emerged to reverse this growing devastation of biodiversity. The territory is huge and covers a million hectares [como Asturias] distributed in five regions.

This titanic task of farmers and entrepreneurs of the altiplano was born five years ago and has at least another 15 years ahead. It is about preventing being swallowed by the desert, falling victim to depopulation and turning its landscape into green. Its best weapon: business development thanks to funds from foreign investors and philanthropists to mainly promote regenerative agriculture, which pampers the soil and multiplies its microbiology and wealth. And a bullet in the bedroom: that investment, today of 1.3 million per year, will last at least until 2035, because the floor and repainting a postcard take time.

"We needed Alvelal [la asociación que aglutina a los emprendedores], this is water from May, "says the ambienologist Belen Sanchez at the foot of La Muela, the emblematic mountain of Vélez Blanco (Almería), in whose skirt they have just repopulated 50,000 holm oaks, juniper juniper and Aleppo pine. From Nairobi (Kenya), Tim Christophersen, head of the UN Environment, Freshwater, Earth and Climate subdivision, exalts with perspective: "This project in Spain will have a massive impact that could even alter the local climate with more water in the soil and more evapotranspiration [desde los árboles]"

At the end of 2014 the Dutch NGO Commonland was looking for an area in Spain where they could reproduce their successful model that had already been implemented in South Africa and then moved to Australia. After receiving 21 projects of ecological transformation and four finalists (Valencia, Soria, Doñana and Almeria), the latter took the cat to the water. The conservationist Astrid Vargas, known for establishing the breeding program for the conservation of the Iberian lynx, did the screening for the NGO along with the historic Andalusian environmentalist Paco Casero until opting for the Almería plateau. The social movement, which had already caught on earlier in that Andalusian province given the seriousness of erosion and depopulation, tipped the balance. "There was gas and Commonland lit the flame", illustrates the ambientologist Dolores Masegosa.

"We look at Spain because the Mediterranean is very degraded and already in 2009 the United Nations reports warned of the progress of deforestation. We are looking for an area such as the Altiplano, which people would like to transform and now we have the greatest restoration of Europe's landscape, "praises Willem Ferwerda, head of Commonland. Christophersen ratifies that it is the largest project in the old continent, a restored surface that China and Ethiopia multiply by far. Vargas illustrates the first steps: "It was about empowering rural people to take charge of their own destiny in a degraded and socio-economically disadvantaged area".

These visionaries of the Andalusian and Murcian highlands seek to replicate -in the north and on a small scale- The Great African Green Wall that along 5,400 kilometers and for a decade it has been trying to stop desertification from the Sahara with a large forest of 15 kilometers wide and rural development projects in the Sahel.

A few kilometers from the desert of Los Colorados and next to the Quaternary Geopark of Granada, the brothers Francisco and Álvaro Martínez challenge the extreme conditions with their planting of vegetables, almonds and olives, among which there are aromatic planted. "This is a steppe desert, with bad milk. Here it frosts every night and on the ground we have measured 80 degrees and 30 below zero, that is our workplace. As if that were not enough, after 20 centimeters we already have limestone, "says Francisco, an agronomist.

To provide nitrogen to the soil they have planted grasses and legumes as a vegetal cover, perfected during the last seven years to be able to do without the plastic. In 1998 the brothers embraced organic farming and a decade ago they took another step towards regenerative agriculture, which cares about soil health and minimizes plowing. "It's about getting back to before the industrial revolution in the countryside. My grandfather and my father had DDT [pesticida tóxico hoy prohibido] to compete with nature. We are not that smart, a hundred years ago everyone did it, "he says.

Andalusia and Catalonia lead the list of regions with the highest annual erosion, and a fifth of its soil suffers high erosion processes, with a loss of more than 25 tons of land per hectare per year, according to the National Soil Erosion Inventory of 2017. "That soil that we lose today is not renewable", warns Emilio González, expert from the University of Córdoba. The most common picture in the Altiplano of Almeria and Granada is pregnant with thousands of almonds, whose fruit lives an economic boom, but the soil is getting poorer and suffering more deep wrinkles, caused by runoff from torrential rains.

The content of organic matter in the agricultural soils of the Altiplano ranges between 0.38% and 1.5%, which is why many of them do not reach the usual organic matter rate for the dry land, of 1.5%, according to data from the University of Almería. "These soils lose an average of 1.8 millimeters of thickness per year from the most superficial layer, the most fertile, which means 20 tons of land per hectare," reveals Miguel Ángel Gómez, a researcher at the university. In recent years rainfall has been scarce, between 200 and 400 mm per year.

Apart from repopulations such as the 50,000 trees of La Muela, the particularity of this landscape change is its holistic vision, which interweaves the factors at play: soil erosion, regenerative agriculture, ecological livestock, the use of water and water. depopulation in the absence of economic incentives. Therefore, to stop the landscape from being undressed, the investment is focused on business cases. That is, the money is invested in local firms that show that sustainable development is the only possible way. And economic profitability is one of the glue to try to retain the population to the territory. Because new trees arrive but people leave. Vélez-Blanco had 7,000 inhabitants in 1950, today it does not exceed 2,000 residents. The Vélez region has four inhabitants per square kilometers, a population density lower than that of Lapland.

Today, on land with the largest ecological almond tree surface in the world -50,000 hectares [como la ciudad de Madrid]-, 250 entrepreneurs, researchers and restless spirits form the Alvelal association, which receives funds from Commonland and other entities such as the TUI and Leopold Bachmann foundations to develop alternative and sustainable businesses, but with scarcely red numbers. Regenerative agriculture covers 8,000 hectares and 40 farms with woody crops of a million hectares total, a surface that Alvelal expects to double in two years. "You will not convince a farmer to change their crops if they are not profitable," says Elvira Marín, coordinator of Alvelal. "Regenerative agriculture in almond trees increases its ecological value for ecosystem services between 17 and 28% only after one year", praises Vincent De Leijster, a researcher at the University of Utrecht (Netherlands).

The first business has already flourished: the firm Almendrehesa sells its Pepita de Oro brand to the UK and German markets. If the conventional almond is paid at 4.5 euros per kilo, the organic one goes up to 6.5 euros and Almendrehesa pays its producers 7.5 euros per kilo in exchange for the more pintones nuts. On the verge of springing, there are also companies that will market an olive oil of centenary olive trees, essential oils of aromatic plants, and wine, honey, beer and organic lamb. "Alvelal wants to build companies with solid arguments and environmental criteria," summarizes its president, Cristóbal Aránega, an ecological fertilizer entrepreneur with 45 employees. The farmer Álvaro Martínez adds: "With Alvelal you know that there are more people, you are clothed."

Alfonso Chico de Guzmán returned to his family farm after studying Business Administration to "experiment" with cereals, almonds, pistachios and aromatics. "Regenerative agriculture has been like having a 60-year-old shoe factory and changing factories and shoes. But it was that or close the factory. And today we are 15 people, we cover expenses and with prospects for growth ", recounts Chico de Guzmán. The farmer welcomes on his farm La Junquera - from no less than 1,000 hectares - a landscape restoration camp attended by volunteers from around the world and a so-called Regenerative Academy that welcomes students - all foreigners so far - to carry out their research thesis linked to agriculture. "The landscape is quite destroyed but people have a lot of energy. If you give them a push they will reach far, like a tree in the desert in need of fertilizer, "he summarizes.

The main economic engine, based in Amsterdam

The main economic driver behind this restoration of the landscape is based in Amsterdam. After 17 years at the head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in the Netherlands, Willem Ferwerda founded Commonland, an organization that annually captures 5.2 million to invest in environmental projects in 11 countries. Ferwerda is a diviner who traces the world in search of philanthropists, investors, governments and companies to invest in environmentally conscious projects. "It takes time and you have to have patience, but philanthropists, investors and old entrepreneurs end up more convinced (...) Because there's Wall Street and then there's the slow capital"He says.

Why is landscape restoration set at 20 years? "As an ecologist I prefer 30 or 50 years, but an investor or an investment fund can not think beyond 20 years. It's the same as with investments in highways, the cap is 20 years, "he says. "Sometimes entrepreneurs come to me to invest in isolated projects, but that's not how the landscape works," he says.

The restoration of landscapes, Commonland's main objective, is an ambition shared by governments around the world. The United Nations in 2014 set the ambitious goal of recovering 350 million hectares of degraded land (the size of India) by 2030, an investment that has amounted to 730,000 million euros. The bad fact is that 2,000 million hectares are degraded today, [dos veces el tamaño de China] according to the World Resources Institute. To alleviate this, the UN General Assembly approved last week the "Decade for the Restoration of Ecosystems" to mobilize "political and financial support" that will boost the welfare of 3.2 billion people between 2021 and 2030.

"Freeing private funds is essential, since the money from governments will not be enough for the global restoration of ecosystems. We encourage Commonland to share its experience with other organizations to replicate the successful system hundreds of times in other countries, "says Tim Christophersen, head of the UN Environment, Freshwater, Earth and Climate subdivision.

The FAO (Organization of the UN for Food and Agriculture) warned in a report last week about the loss of biodiversity around the world, with data from 91 countries, and how this decline threatens food security. Just the angle that Alvelal attacks. "The more the earth plowed, the more plague there was. When we stop fumigating, the plagues are over, "explains Miguel Ángel Martínez at his farm in Venta Quemada (Granada).

For Greenpeace, the restoration of the interior southeast, covering 76 municipalities, is an example to follow. "They touch everything in a transversal way to face challenges such as climate change, the massive annihilation of insects, and the use of water and soil," says Luis Ferreirín, head of agriculture for the organization in Spain. The European Commission discusses now the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2021-2027, which should respond to the challenge of producing food in a sustainable way, recalls this NGO. However, at the moment the new PAC lacks a holistic vision and is limited to supporting "best agrarian practices for the climate, including agroecological practices," say community sources. Alvelal asked the Ministry of Agriculture that Spain was a step beyond organic farming, which already leads and captained in Europe the certification of products from regenerative agriculture. Ministry sources respond that today they "do not contemplate" this certification.

"You can think that we discovered Mars with regenerative agriculture, but before the farmers were aware, they were wise and learned from each other. And that's what we do, recover old techniques that we make known, "says the enologist Juana Reche.

Threats to the altiplano project? The overexploitation of the aquifers has taken hold in the area with intensive plantations of lettuce, vegetables that need abundant irrigation in the area where it rains least in the country. Y the macrogranjas of pigs try to expand their model of fattening in different towns, although some City Councils have already signed municipal vetoes that prohibit them due to the pollution they cause. "The sustainable development model excludes farms with thousands of pigs because it is incompatible with tourism and rational water consumption. We do not want to be the dunghill of Spain to spread the purines [muy contaminantes, controlados por ley] for the territory, "says Francisco Torregrosa, mayor of Benamaurel (Granada). The collaboration of the municipalities and regional governments (Andalusian and Murcian) often facilitates Alvelal's projects, but without providing funds.

Another danger grips the future of the association, this much more subtle. "Today there is a structure because there is money. If the commitment does not reign, it will decline when there is no money, "warns Paco Casero. "Alvelal must be involved in the territory, because otherwise the social base that needs the commitment of day to day is not created. And an experience like this can not be a failure, that's why things have to be very clear. " This spring, part of the board of directors of the association, including its president, will resign to promote the leadership in the dome.

"About us? We are not a union, nor an environmental movement, nor those of the tractorada, nor those of the defense of water, nor those of the antiporcin. Our tool is business cases (...) It was difficult to define ourselves ", concludes ironically Aránega.

Other green angles

"I saw my daughter ask the trees for permission every time I picked them fruit. And at the same time I was tired of seeing that the ecological conscience did not hit people. " The ambientologist Dolores Masigosa lit the light bulb when she concluded that the key was to inculcate love for the territory since childhood and today she is piloting a project so that the children feel the land as theirs.

"It is proven that from three to 16 years old, according to the experiences, you will relate to the environment. Because of a child's capacity for amazement and wonder, a bond with nature can be generated. And that feeling of union with nature is what generates the emotional bond and that in an innate way comes out in you the respect for the environment, "says Masigosa. The project will take the students out of the classrooms to "touch and feel" nature, an idea that expects to reach 33,000 students and 3,000 teachers in the next five years thanks to Alvelal and the Savia and Leopold Bachmann foundations.

To close the holistic circle of crop diversity, extensive grazing is necessary. Ecological livestock Santiaga Sanchez has a thousand sheep and sells organic lamb segureño, 25% more expensive than conventional. "Apart from the environmental advantages, to the clients that visit me I explain to them that they eat meat free of hormones, of transgenics and of antibiotics. I speak to you clearly, "he says.

Sánchez admits the difficulty of transmitting the advantages of organic meat to the consumer and distribution problems encountered by farmers. However, when it captures a customer, it loyalty through mail messaging, which allows you to serve Galicia in refrigerated packages and in less than 24 hours across the country.

Alvelal wants to take advantage of the million tourists who visit the coast between Benidorm and Marbella every year, to offer them a visit to the interior of the country through gastronomy. Up to now, visitors have only made brief excursions to visit caves such as Los Letreros, with cave paintings such as the índalo, declared World Heritage by Unesco. But now they have signed an agreement with the TUI Foundation [primer operador de turismo] to multiply visits to the interior. "It is a project that enters more through the head, heart and stomach. It's about attracting the segment of tourists who want to know the real Spain and interact with the local population, not the one in the hammock back and forth like a sardine, "German Dietmar Roth sarcastically says.

Among these possible visits is the project of an aromatic plantation (thyme, rosemary, lavender, honey and cat's claw) that has been planted at the foot of the mountain La Muela and will be ready next year. In the stream of land art that uses nature as a material, the aromatics will form a gigantic figure of the índalo that will be visible from other mountains with green, white and purple tones that will change throughout the year. "A landscape impact project that will be managed by people with disabilities," explains environmentalist Belén Sánchez.

Roth emphasizes an aspect that appeals without halftones to the roots of the neighbors to the territory: "We seek to make people see that their territory is not a wasteland that is not worth anything. We talk about self-esteem, "he says. Beside him, Ángel Hernández adds: "Self-esteem was taken away from our own families". At the beginning of April Alvelal organizes a conference on courage and rural pride.

In this regard, businessman Manuel Martínez exemplifies: "In a tasting my wine never wins and nobody wants it. However, if it's blind, it always wins. " He adds: "We have a terrible force as consumers. You have to talk with friends and communicate the magic of the product. In my town before there was not a store with organic products, now. Do you know how many of the 80 viticultural partners ask for wine from the land in restaurants? Just me".


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