Almeria’s greenhouses: the dark side of agro-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)


Part Two: Environmental Impacts

While Almeria has an annual rainfall of just over 200 mm, greenhouse production requires something equivalent to 800-1,000 mm of water. The shortfall in water supply has traditionally been overcome by sinking wells and tapping the water trapped in the local aquifer. Hundreds have been sunk – many illegally – causing the water table to drop. Not only has this adversely impacted on the wider region but ‘aquifer drawdown’ also tends to create a vacuum underground which is then filled by another water source nearby – the Mediterranean.

Sea water is, of course, saline (and the level of salinity in the Mediterranean itself is comparatively high) so the ingress of seawater underground, and then into the irrigation system itself, results in salinisation and, hence, the destruction of crops. This has led to some greenhouses falling into disuse with new ones being erected elsewhere, along with the sinking of new wells, to get round this problem, thus increasing the area under plastic in a way that mimics the pathology of a spreading cancer.

Technical fixes have been advanced to tackle this problem, including the establishment of several water de-salinisation plants but the water provided is 1.5–4 times more costly in energy terms than pumped water. Relying on the Mediterranean is just exchanging one finite resource for another (Melissa Cate Christ, The Scapegoat Journal, 2013).

Other technical fixes include water re-use (though this is not very suitable for young plants) and the development of soilless or hydroponic systems of growing crops, using a substrate like perlite, and computerised drip technology which also delivers chemical fertilisers to the plants. ‘Fertigation’, however, presents a problem with what to do with all the vegetable waste – over 700,000 tonnes per year (ibid) – much of which is just dumped, rather than recycled or composted, contributing to contamination of the environment. While such technologies have certainly improved the efficiency of water usage they have not really overcome the growing problem of falling water tables or, indeed, the leaching of chemicals into the environment.

Moreover, the close proximity of thousands of greenhouses creates ideal conditions for the spread of pests and diseases. The traditional response has been to blitz crops with chemical pesticides – although, interestingly, Almeria itself has become a world leader in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) involving more environmentally-friendly methods of pest control. This came about as a result of a 2006 Greenpeace report revealing high levels of pesticide residues in produce from the region. The bad publicity caused a drastic drop in sales and the chemical in question was blacklisted. Nevertheless, pesticides continue to be used with adverse health consequences for those working within the relatively closed environment of the greenhouses.

Another environmental problem is the industry’s ubiquitous use of plastic itself. Not only does the manufacture of plastic sheeting add to the industry’s environmental footprint in terms of the consumption of fossil fuels this requires (the same would be true of the high transportation costs of shifting agricultural products by truck to Northern Europe); there is also the problem of how to dispose of all that plastic once it has been used.

Plastic tarps have a relatively short lifespan under the blazing sun of Southern Spain. Though in recent years the authorities have set up collection points for used plastic, a lot of it – not just tarps but containers of all sorts – ends up being dumped along roadsides or in gullies or even burnt – presumably because it is more convenient or less costly than transporting it to the collection points where it has to be sorted. In 2018, the group, Ecologistas en Accion, released dramatic video footage of a local river, normally a dry barranco, absolutely choked with plastic detritus after a storm. Such rubbish makes its way to the sea where it can harm or kill marine life, including even sperm whales, or else breaks down over time into micro-plastic particles that enter the food chain.

Migrant Labour

The so-called ‘economic miracle’ that is Almeria’s greenhouses would not be possible but for the harsh exploitation of cheap labour. This is yet another externality, along with the environmental costs of production that tends to be left off the capitalist equation: the social costs of production. For Marx, these things were vitally interconnected:

‘All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility’ (Capital, Vol 1).

When Almeria’s greenhouse sector began to develop back in the 1960s it relied mostly on family labour supplemented by locally-based seasonal labour. In the 1970s immigrant workers, chiefly from Morocco, began to arrive. Entire families would come to do the harvesting and then return to Morocco. Being paid less than the local workforce they soon replaced the latter as a source of seasonal labour.

In the 1980s, Moroccan labour was supplemented by workers from Sub-Saharan Africa which also signalled a shift from the organised annual too-ing and fro-ing between countries that had characterised the earlier migrations. Increasingly migrants tended to remain in the area, post-harvest, because of the greater logistical problems of migration in their case. Still later, from the 1990s onwards, this pool of migrant labour was joined by others – from Latin America and Eastern Europe (following the enlargement of the EU). Some of this labour, as in the case of Eastern Europe, was officially recruited in the country of origin but increasing use was made of illegal undocumented migrant labour, particularly from Africa. Recent developments in that continent (and elsewhere) have ensured a steady growth in this supply.

While Europe’s so-called refugee crises, peaking in 2015, initially focussed on refugees from the Middle East and their impact on point-of-entry countries like Italy and Greece, more recently attention has shifted to Spain which, according to a Reuters report, is emerging as a ‘new weak link’ in Fortress Europe’s efforts to stem the inflow of migrants (July 7, 2018). The numbers of asylum applicants arriving in Spain is currently rising sharply. This graphically illustrates how interconnected the world has become and subject to the dynamics of global capitalism. The economic forces that precipitate civil wars over mineral wealth in some distant African state are the self-same forces that condemn those who flee to a miserable existence in Almeria’s plastic hell.

Many of these are undocumented illegals; their very illegal status enabling employers to depress their wages to a bare minimum. Even those with legal contracts are little better off. Ironically, the ability of employers to hire large numbers of illegal workers, often with the collusion of the authorities, means that workers applying for a legal contract, supposedly granting them certain basic rights, have to pay a steep price for it. According to one source this can amount to several thousand euros (Network for the Promotion of Sustainable Consumption in European regions). Even then, there are ways and means for employers to get round legal requirements – for instance, registering workers for social insurance – simply by hiring them for less than the statutory minimum of 180 days per year. All the odds are stacked in favour of the employers and against the workers.

The wages these workers receive fall significantly below even the legal minimum. The norm is between 33 and 36 euros per day, though there have been cases reported of daily earnings falling well below even this derisory level – of 20 euros per day according to one report in the Guardian (7 February, 2011).

There are an estimated 100,000 migrants working and living in the greenhouses. Work conditions are atrocious. Temperatures in the greenhouses can rise to above 45 degrees Celsius, the toil is back-breaking and Health and Safety standards are poor. There is little protection against the chemicals the workers come into contact with or breathe in.

Given their abysmally low income, they cannot afford even a minimally acceptable level of accommodation. Some live in barrack-like squalor in semi-derelict cortijos with hazardous electrical connections and poor sanitary facilities for what is often, under the circumstances, an extortionate rent; others create constructions for themselves called chabolas made out of old pallets, plastic and cardboard erected amongst the greenhouses themselves. There tends to be a rigid segregation between migrants and locals (who live in agro-towns completely surrounded by the greenhouses) which creates a breeding ground for racism. Simmering tensions have in the past broken out into race riots as happened in the town of El Ejido in 2000.

Contradictions of greenhouse production

Ironically, those who harbour such racist sentiments are sometimes the very people who have prospered on the backs of the migrants. The direct employers, as stated, are largely small-scale family-based operators — an estimated 13,500 of them – who, over the course of several decades, have come to forge close dependent ties with an array of large-scale intermediaries such as banks, agribusinesses (providing seeds, irrigation technology, plastic sheeting etc.) and the supermarket chains. All of these want their slice of the pie and all have an interest in enlarging the size of that pie.

The result is that there is strong pressure on farmers to embrace technological innovations that enhance productivity. Output per hectare has indeed risen but at the cost of rising indebtedness to the banks to finance this technology. And therein lies the rub. For while innovation enables the operator to increase output it also leads to falling prices through increased productivity which then undermines the ability of these small operators to pay off their loans.

According to the aforementioned NPSCER report, operating costs can be between 30 and 40k euros per hectare, leaving many struggling to break even in stark contrast to the big supermarkets that bulk buy their produce. Such is the contradictory nature of the system we live under that plenty should come to be considered an economic curse.

The squeeze on profit margins, exacerbated by the small-scale nature of the greenhouse operators themselves has a further consequence – namely, that is likely to increase pressure on them to seek ways to reduce or externalise their costs of production. Certainly, as far as labour costs are concerned, the growing oversupply in relation to demand fuelled by the migrant crisis and augmented by the haemorrhage of jobs in construction following the 2008 property market crash, means the prospects of any real improvement in the circumstances of the greenhouse workers themselves seem bleak.

The same might be said of the environmental costs of greenhouse production. Despite efforts by the industry to clean up its act, notably with the adoption of IPM technology, to an extent this is just another example of ‘greenwashing’ to allay the concerns of increasingly health conscious customers in Northern Europe. It distracts from the more fundamental issues affecting the region – above all, that of falling water tables and future water supplies in the context of global climate change. Rainfall in the region has decreased by 18 percent since the 1960s and water shortages are projected to grow.

A final irony is that the very success that the Almeria greenhouse complex had achieved as an exemplar of high-tech commercialised agriculture has encouraged others to copy it. Though its energy costs are markedly less than in Northern Europe where greenhouses have to be heated, this advantage falls away in other parts of the Mediterranean basin such as Turkey or Morocco. Here the same model of greenhouse production is being aggressively pushed and labour costs are, if anything, even lower. With international competition heating up, this will likely add to the already relentless pressure to reduce or further externalise costs.

In so many ways, this little corner of the world represents a microcosm of global capitalism, a mirror on the environmentally and socially destructive forces the system unleashes in its pursuit of profit at any price.



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