Almeria’s Greenhouses: The Dark Side of Agri-Capitalism

Part One: Mar de Plastico

In Almeria province in Southern Spain there is to be found the largest greenhouse complex in the world, an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight. Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer scale of it all – or the brutal ugliness. Driving through it can be a disorientating experience. As far as the eye can see, covering the coastal plain and lapping the mountain range behind, is a shimmering sea of plastic.

The first greenhouses were erected in the early 1960s. Prior to that Almeria province was considered the poorest region in Spain, a barren desolate place, Europe’s only desert and the backdrop of many Spaghetti Westerns and films like Lawrence of Arabia. However, it wasn’t always like that.

Historical Background

At one time, according to Robert Wolosin, the area had extensive pine and oak forests as well as abundant fauna (including bear, lynx and roe deer), despite its meagre rainfall (2006, El Milagro de Almeria, Espana: A Political Ecology of landscape change and Greenhouse Agriculture). Successive waves of human occupation incrementally transformed this landscape to what it has become today. Key to this was the overexploitation and export of local resources linked to the extraction of economic surpluses.

Anthropogenic influences on the environment can be traced back to Roman times and even earlier. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the habitat largely reverted to its earlier state, only to undergo a further transformation under the Nasrid Moorish dynasty (711-1492). The Moors introduced elaborate irrigation technology and new crops like citrus and almonds. Under them, the city of Almeria itself grew to briefly become the second richest city in Europe after Constantinople, linking the hinterland to the wider world of Mediterranean trade.

The Christian ‘Reconquista’ (re-conquest) of Spain completed in 1492, signalled a new chapter in the region’s environmental history. Feudal lords leased out land for sheep farming to provide wool for the Italian textile industry. The decline of that market in the 1600s and the availability of abundant land, subsequently encouraged a shift towards low-yield, extensive ‘dry’ farming (mainly cereals) necessitating the removal of yet more vegetation cover. Pastures and woodland were recklessly put under the plough, rendering the soil vulnerable to erosion, in a manner reminiscent of Dustbowl years of the 1930s when ecologically inappropriate, commercially-driven, farming techniques were introduced on the vast prairies of North America.

The final, and most devastating, blow to Almeria’s once forested, if fragile, environment was delivered in the early 19th century when, as Wolosin notes, tens of thousands of acres of vegetation cover was lost and half a million evergreen oaks were felled to, among other things, serve the needs of the local mining industry, then experiencing a boom. The growth of the mining sector – Almeria province at that time accounted for 80 percent of Spain’s lead production – also encouraged inward migration and the resultant increase in population exerted additional pressure on the local environment. However, by the late 19th century the mining industry went into a sharp decline because of falling prices but also, ironically, because of a self-inflicted shortage of wood needed to fuel the foundries. With mining in decline and farming adversely affected by centuries of environmental abuse, the province succumbed to significant depopulation.

Such was the parlous state that Almeria found itself in the early 20th century before the advent of the greenhouses:

‘An area once known for forests, streams, and a wide array of plant and animal life is now parched, cracked, and shadeless’ (ibid).

The ‘Ecological transition’

Putting this in a wider context Wolosin, citing the environmentalist Heinrich Walter, remarks that the Mediterranean region, and Almeria in particular, are ‘the best and most tragic example of how mankind has removed the foundations for his existence through the overexploitation of natural resources’. How this came about can be usefully understood in terms of the concept of the ‘ecological transition’ pioneered by John Bennett in his book The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and Human Adaptation (1976).

According to Bennett, there is a spectrum of human adaptations – from a local community completely reliant upon, and adapted to, its own immediate resource base right through to the kind of globalised system of production that characterises modern capitalism. In this latter case, the local community no longer depends entirely on its own resources to meet all its needs but, increasingly, on the ability of other communities to supply some, or even most, of those needs. In other words, environmental adaptation to the immediate constraints of nature gives way to the cultural adaptation of communities to each other.

The classical economist, David Ricardo, advanced his theory of ‘comparative advantage’ in support of this development. It benefits a nation, he argued, to specialise in what it is best at producing while relying on other nations to supply it with goods it is not particularly adept at producing. This reduces the opportunity costs of producing goods across all nations, leaving everyone better off from the resultant increase in global trade.

Ricardo’s theory is based on a number of unrealistic assumptions but, here, we are concerned only with the particular counter argument bound up with the aforementioned concept of the ‘ecological transition’ – namely, that by reducing the local community’s reliance on its own natural resources, this tends to ‘desensitise’ it to the need to prudently operate within the limits of these resources. This does not mean those limits are necessarily fixed and unchangeable – human intervention can, for instance, sometimes significantly enhance the fertility and hence, ‘carrying capacity’, of the soil. Nor does it mean a community will inevitably set about despoiling its own environment if it can rely on others to supply what it needs – there are other factors involved besides this – but this does nevertheless create the conditions which can greatly amplify the environmental impact of those other factors.

The collapse of the Roman Empire is a classic example. In part, the expansion of that empire was driven by the need to secure an adequate food supply to meet the needs of Rome itself – at its height, a city of one million people – and its vast armies. Grain tributes were exacted from conquered territories all around the Mediterranean basin which profoundly altered the region’s ecology. Widespread deforestation occurred to permit intensive cereal farming leading to soil exhaustion and desertification. The resultant decline in output, in turn, prompted the empire to further expand its territory, eventually reaching the point at which its supply lines were so over-stretched that it became increasingly vulnerable to external threats.

In modern capitalism, it is not so much tribute as the quest for profit that drives economic activity. But with capitalism, we see also the same preoccupation with short term interests over long term sustainability. According to Friedrich Engels:

‘As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account…What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down the forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, most tangible result, and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite opposite in character’ (1876, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man).

These words have a particularly modern ring to them in the light of the multiple and escalating environmental crises facing humanity today. The underlying mechanism driving this development is plain to see. Business enterprises strive to ‘externalise’ their production costs as far as possible in order to maximise their commercial gains under a system of market competition – or face commercial ruin. However, just because those costs are made to disappear from the accountant’s ledger book, this does not mean they cease to exist. The burden of those costs is born not just by the wider community but the very physical environment itself upon which we ultimately depend.

In response, capitalism has tended to promote technological ‘solutions’ to these very problems it has itself engendered. But can such an approach ever truly succeed in ensuring we keep our heads above the water or will the rising tide of ‘externalities’ eventually engulf us all?

A Spanish ‘El Dorado’

This is a question we might well ask in turning to consider that particularly remarkable example of capitalist enterprise and innovation: the greenhouses of Almeria.

In the 1950s, under Franco, a model irrigation project was launched in that sparsely populated zone, now under plastic, with the aim of resettling landless peasants there. It was the peasants themselves who initially developed the basic technology of greenhouse production – including the use of polythene rather than glass, attached to a simple framework of wood or metal – capitalising on the region’s natural advantages such as its abundant sunshine and the virtual absence of frost, to give them a competitive edge in the market for early vegetables. At first, it was the local, then the wider national market they supplied but, with Spain joining the EU in 1986, production became truly transnational. Europe, as a whole, now relies for most of the year on Spain to provide almost a third of its demand for fresh fruit and salad crops – a figure rising to half during the cold winter months – much of this coming from Almeria’s greenhouses which generate an annual revenue of about €2 billion.

As the industry expanded so did the role of intermediaries in financing, marketing and basic R&D. Indeed, the institutional architecture that has been built up around the greenhouse industry itself is, today, extraordinarily complex and closely coordinated. Downward and Taylor quote Almeria’s Director of Agriculture as saying: ‘This is the most social level of agriculture in the world, not even the best communist system would have achieved what has been achieved in Almeria… and by people who maybe 50 years ago would have only had a herd of goats’ (Journal of Environmental Management, January 2007).

Remarkably, given the highly ‘socialised’ nature of the industry, the ownership of the greenhouses themselves remains firmly family-based with about 13,500 small scale producers operating in the greenhouse belt typically on plots of somewhat over 2 hectares. This helps to explain the popularity of the greenhouses among the locals who widely regard this development as an ‘economic miracle’ and have prospered as a result. However, it is a miracle bought at a considerable cost which calls into question the sustainability of this model of development – not least, as we shall see, in an era of growing concern about climate change.

(Part 2 follows next month)